When you think of Christmas, what images flash through your mind? A Norman Rockwell Santa? A giant evergreen tree? A mob of hungry citizens electing a “Lord of Misrule”?
It turns out that Christmas didn’t always look the way it did today. The holiday took several forms before becoming what it is today and, like many of the things we love in America, ended up being a mix of everything.
The seeds of Christmas were planted by ancient civilizations in the form of various winter solstice celebrations, often celebrating the harvest. One of the most well-known of these celebrations, Saturnalia, consisted of colorful clothing, feasts, and gifts. The festivity was meant to honor Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. At the height of its celebration in the Roman Empire, the celebration had become a full week of merriment.
The Romans, great borrowers of various traditions themselves, most likely stole a fair amount of the Saturnalia traditions from the Greeks, who had their own solstice celebration. Rather than celebrating the god of agriculture, the Greek holiday focused on their god of the sea, Poseidon. Some of the most notable aspects this event contributed to Saturnalia include human sacrifice, feasting, and debauchery.
Something that the Romans came up with on their own, however, was the “Lord of Misrule,” or “Leader of Saturnalia,” who enjoyed all of the privileges of Saturn during the holiday. It was his job to insult guests, wear ridiculous outfits, and chase women.
Despite being one of the rowdiest components of Saturnalia, the Lord of Misrule became a key character in several Christian variants of Christmas solstice celebrations. In medieval Europe, the chosen Lord of Misrule would often be a beggar. In some celebrations, the Lord of Misrule would lead other beggars from one nobleman’s house to another, demanding food and wine.
Saturnalia was far from being the only pagan contributor to “Christian” Christmas traditions. Celebrators of the solstice in northern Europe decorated their houses with evergreen boughs, mistletoe, and holly.
Despite their pagan roots and tendency to invoke rowdiness, church leaders used many of these traditions to their advantage in helping to ease the public’s conversion to Christianity. During the time of Constantine, a great deal of the church’s audience had been raised in pagan traditions, Roman and otherwise. The pagan converts clung to these winter traditions, so the Church decided to incorporate them in a brand new tradition, Christmas.
Over 1,000 years later, during the reformation, the public’s attitude toward these traditions shifted. The Protestant Church rejected these practices as sinful distractions from Christian piety. Most Protestants actually stopped celebrating Christmas. In many places under protestant control—such as the Puritan colony of Massachusetts—the celebration of Christmas was banned.
Christmas might not have survived if it weren’t for the Victorians and Charles Dickens, who used “A Christmas Carol” to paint Christmas as a tame and family-centered holiday. Dickens kept some of the themes and traditions of Christmas, like giving food to beggars, but changed them in a way that made them more acceptable. At the end of Dickens’ story, Scrooge visits Tiny Tim and his family, hauling a giant Turkey. The scene is a stark contrast to the drunken lord of misrule and his mob, who obtained their food by visiting (and sometimes threatening) the rich.
To put an even greater emphasis on family and to disconnect the holiday from drunkenness, the Victorians placed the holiday’s focus onto children and gift-giving. The new treatment of the holiday opened a golden opportunity for Saint Nicholas, the ultimate gift-giving saint, whose celebration day falls on December 6. Cue modern Christmas.
As the image of Saint Nicholas and a sleigh laden with toys became commonplace, so did Santa-based advertisements and the commercialization of Christmas. Christmas became a selling point for department stores, which began to decorate heavily for the holiday. In 1924, Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day parade and used the coming of Santa at the end of the parade to mark the beginning of that year’s commercial Christmas season.
Examples of similar post-Thanksgiving holiday kickoffs are everywhere. Sheridan even has its own, localized version. For close to 23 years, the Sheridan Chamber of Commerce has hosted a “Christmas Stroll” to kickoff Christmas shopping in Sheridan’s downtown. The event features hot food, wagon rides, and– you guessed it— Santa Claus.
Sheridan’s Annual Christmas Stroll takes place in the heart of our Historic Downtown each year, starting the Friday after Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas Eve. The stroll is one of Sheridan’s most popular winter events, and boasts more than 3,000 visitors during opening night festivities. Entertainment and a fireworks display conclude the first evening’s events, while Santa Clause himself has been known to make an occasional appearance. Other special activities include a performance of A Christmas Carol at the WYO Theater, and the opening of the annual holiday art show at The Brinton Museum.
By 1939, Thanksgiving’s role as the gateway to the winter commercial season had become so strong that FDR moved the date of Thanksgiving that year to better accommodate corporate interests and economic recovery. A holiday which was rarely practiced at the time this nation was founded had developed enough of a role in American culture by the 1930s to necessitate the rescheduling of other holidays. The beggar among festivities had managed to reverse the roles and come out on top. The Lord of Misrule, indeed.
But, regardless of whether it was at a high point or a low point— a drunken daze or a family holiday—the winter season has always carried with it a spirit of generosity to the poor and unfortunate. Whether we wait for Tiny Tim to bang on our door or bring a roasted turkey to his, perhaps we can do something to bring happiness to other people this Christmas, regardless of how they celebrate it.
By: T.J. Parks for 82801
Christmas Stroll Photos by Shawn Parker, courtesy of Sheridan Travel & Tourism.