What's the reason this is the season?
The season of Christmas, when the darkest days end and the sun starts to climbs higher, has been a natural time of celebration since long before the birth of Christ. (See also: "The World of Christmas.")
The Roman holidays that took place in mid-winter, including the raucous festival Saturnalia and, after 274 A.D., the December 25 birthday feast of the sun god Sol Invictus, are often considered direct precursors to today's Christmas holiday.
Some Saturnalia traditions, like decorating with greenery, feasting, and the giving of gifts, are certainly part of Christmas. Others, like masters serving servants, were once popular at Christmastime but have largely fallen out of favor. (Social inversion lives on in some institutions, including the British Army, where officers serve dinner to the troops on Christmas.)
The most popular train of thought suggests that Christmas-Saturnalia similarities exist because Christians simply appropriated the Roman holidays and converted them into a festival of faith by placing the birth of Christ squarely amid the season as a cultural counterweight to pagan celebrations.
"But it's also the number one debate among Christmas academics. The problem is that it goes against the great Christian ethos of the time, which was that they were having nothing whatsoever to do with paganism."
That sticky wicket has led some Christian historians to favor a second theory of how December 25 became Christmas, one based on chronological calculations that were likely done by early Christians.
The theory is based on a peculiar belief in the ancient world that great men lived in whole years and tended to die on the same day they had been conceived, Bowler explained. Early Christians may have figured that because Christ was crucified on March 25, that was also when he was conceived—and therefore, his birthday would have been December 25.
If early Christians did use these methods to set the date of Christmas, its coincidence with existing pagan festivities would have been seen as rather annoying among those trying to convince Saturnalia revelers to follow the new, true way.
Later on, Bowler added, some of the faithful saw this timing not as a coincidence but as a divine plan, perhaps tied to the solstice and certainly proving that Jesus trumped the pagan gods. (Related: "Who Is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil.")
Get the Christ Out of Christmas?
Many Christians lament that the "Christ" in Christmas has been lost in all the glitz, noise, and materialism of today's holiday. This is certainly the case in Japan, where a localized version of Christmas is popular in an almost entirely non-Christian nation.
The Japanese became familiar with Christmas during and after World War I, Bowler said, when they started mass-producing the toys and other paraphernalia that nations of the Allied powers had formerly imported from Germany.
"Then, when Japan was occupied by U.S. troops after 1945, they really adopted Christmas customs but in ways that are not Christian but instead fit in with their own customs," he said.
The result, Bowler said, is a kind of hybridized Christmas that might strike some Westerners as much like Valentine's Day: Decorations appear in spots like Tokyo Station Square, and some people exchange gifts, but the day isn't a holiday and businesses are open as usual. "It's a 'buy a nice gift for your girlfriend and take her to a fancy restaurant' kind of evening," Bowler said.
A non-scientific survey by the Japanese market research group Macromill found that more than half of the greater Tokyo area respondents had plans to go out "for something Christmas-related" over the 2012 holiday, and 45 percent planned to view illuminations.
The Japanese also favor Christmas cakes, which are popular gifts in the season leading up to December 25, but worthless by the 26th. Sixty percent of the Macromill Internet survey respondents planned to buy or bake a Christmas cake.
O Christmas Tree
Evergreen plants and trees were used for ceremonial purposes by people around the world, including Europeans, long before the spread of Christianity. So where can the roots of the Christmas tree be found?
"I don't think we're ever going to find the smoking gun, but we have all kinds of candidates," said Bowler. "Romans, for example, used greens to decorate their homes during New Year's celebrations. Medieval plays about Adam and Eve used paradise trees, laden with forbidden fruit, which—while not often used at Christmas—may have inspired ornamentation.
"By the 1400s you have examples of outdoor Christmas trees or poles festooned with greenery, in London and in the German merchant settlements on the Baltic coast of modern Latvia and Estonia," Bowler said. "So we know that people were decorating outdoors around Christmastime."
Indoor conifers appeared in the 1500s, when the unadorned tops of fir trees were lopped off and hung upside down so frequently that some cities enacted forestry laws to regulate the practice. "The first inkling of an indoor, decorated tree comes early in the 1600s," he added. "From then on they become ever more decorated and candlelit, and this all really originated in German-speaking lands."
Moravians and German soldiers who fought for Britain during the American Revolution brought the Christmas tree tradition to the New World, said Bowler. But the practice really took off in English-speaking lands when England's Queen Victoria and her German husband popularized the tradition during her reign (1837-1901). "That's when we see the first commercial tree lots appear," Bowler said. (Related: "Real Christmas Trees Save Water.")
The World's Oldest Christmas Card
Christmas cards have been with us for 170 years, and the very first mass-produced card still exists. In 1843 English businessman Henry Cole commissioned 1,000 printed and hand-colored cards that spared him the labor of handwriting holiday greetings, as was the English custom of the day.
The card centers on a scene of family celebration and freely flowing wine, flanked by depictions of Christmas charity, including feeding and clothing the poor. (Only 20 cards survive, but you can see one online in the special collections of Southern Methodist University.)
Cole's idea quickly gained steam, Bowler said. "It really caught on because of the popularity of the Valentine's Day card," he explained. "There was a Valentine's card craze in Britain and the U.S. during the 1820s and 1830s that may have helped to inspire this Englishman."
The Year(s) Without a Christmas
The Grinch has nothing on Christmas-loathing Puritans in both Europe and America.
"If you think there is a war on Christmas now, you ain't seen nothing yet," said Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "The Puritans really did cancel Christmas."
Religious opposition to the celebration tended to be Calvinist—based on strict interpretation of what the Bible did or did not say, he explained, and nowhere does the Bible mention commemorating the birth of Jesus.
"Puritans in England and America said that if God had intended us to celebrate the Nativity, he certainly would have provided an indication of what day it took place," Nissenbaum said. "Luke 2:11 just says, 'For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.' But it doesn't say which day."
Furthermore, Puritan scholars believed that the only available evidence for the timing of Christ's birth, shepherds sleeping afield with their flocks, suggested it did not occur during the cold nights of late December.
Some Puritans may have been willing to let less literal-minded Christians celebrate the holiday even in communities where they had political control, Nissenbaum continued, but they were appalled that the manner of that celebration was anything but one of pious devotion.
Cotton Mather lamented the state of Christmas in 1712, observing that the "Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty ... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling ..."
So when they had the political means, some Puritans simply stamped out Christmas. In Oliver Cromwell's England, Parliament stopped the celebration in 1647. (King Charles II brought it back in 1660.) Across the Atlantic, the state of Massachusetts similarly banned Christmas from 1659 to 1683, though offenders weren't exactly destined for the gallows. "It wasn't like a capital offense," Nissenbaum explained. "Think of it like a speeding ticket."
Have a Merry Christmas—Or Else
By around 1600 Christmastime saw groups of Britons taking to the streets with wassail bowls loaded with strong drink to fuel both merriment and mischief. "These people would disguise themselves, put on masks or cross-dress, and go from door to door demanding of the wealthy to be let in [and be] given food, drink, and, in some cases, money," said Nissenbaum.
The revelers also filled the air with songs that did more than wish their listeners a Merry Christmas.
"If you search through the old wassail songs, you can see clearly that this ritual was essentially a form of trick or treat, but between the classes rather than between young and old," Nissenbaum explained. "The songs often wished a Merry Christmas and good health, demanded entry to homes, demanded beer and food, and featured a final verse to be sung only if needed—'If you don't get us what we want, there's going to be trouble.'" As one set of lyrics ran:
We have come to claim our right...
And if you don't open up your door,
We'll lay you flat upon the floor.
Similar rowdiness took place in American cities in later years, Nissenbaum said, and while most encounters probably ended well, the threat of violence began to be realized too often.
"I'd say roughly at the beginning of the 1800s, with rapid urbanization and early industrialization, this began to change into a very nasty class conflict," Nissenbaum said. Notable Christmas-related incidents and riots occurred in U.S. cities, including one particularly violent 1828 brouhaha that may be at least partially responsible for the subsequent founding of New York City's professional police force.
America's ruling classes put an end to such shenanigans by using both a carrot and a stick, Nissenbaum said. The stick was legislation, policing, and generally cracking down on misbehavior. The carrot was devising an alternate set of Christmas rituals—and that's where Santa Claus comes in. (See related: "St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus.")
Prominent writers like Washington Irving and artists like the cartoonist Thomas Nast helped create the tradition of our modern Santa and in the process transformed Christmas from a day of bawdy revelry and mischief into a domestic, family-friendly celebration.
Nissenbaum said this transition can even seen in the most famous of all Christmas stories, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," popularly known as the "The Night Before Christmas," written by Clement Clarke Moore.
"The first part is about the narrator being startled by a house invader, being frightened," he said. "But then he realizes that he has nothing to dread, because this invader has come to give rather than to take."
Christmas Excess? The More Things Change ...
It's a common complaint that Christmas has become too commercial. You're not likely to hear that sentiment echoed in the halls of the National Retail Federation, however, or among the merchants they represent. The group predicts that this year's U.S. holiday sales total will top $600 billion, a 3.9 percent rise from last year.
In the 2012 holiday season, November and December sales represented a staggering 19.3 percent of the retail industry's total annual total. Some retailers make as much as 40 percent of their annual sales during the holiday season. The U.S. imported $1 billion worth of ornaments and $93 billion worth of artificial trees from China between January and September 2013, according to U.S. Census data.
But in at least one way, Nissenbaum suggests, this spending spree is less a corruption of some old Christmas traditions than a continuation of them.
"Christmas remains a season of excess; it has absolutely stayed that way," he said. "It's just that the nature of that excess has changed. Instead of drinking heavily and gambling and having sex [while] wearing disguises, it's an excess of shopping and buying things."