The Evolution of Christmas
How a straightforward religious holiday became a worldwide celebration of peace, joy, love and hope.
by Christopher Kent
The world is full of religions—more than 4,000! Consequently, the yearly calendar is full of religious holidays. But one religious holiday has drawn more attention and generated more music, books, film and economic consequence than all of the others: Christmas. It’s now one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world.
Clearly, Christmas has a universal appeal that sets it apart from most other religious holidays. I’ve seen the evidence with my own eyes: I don’t know of any other religious holiday that’s celebrated by people who are not members of that religion (unless you count people married to someone of a different religion). On the other hand, I know quite a few people who aren’t Christians, but celebrate Christmas anyway. Although I can’t speak for all of them, it seems clear that some of them enjoy the more secularized, artistic side of the holiday—for example, decorating a tree inside the house—or they enjoy exchanging presents (or receiving them, in the case of young children!). Then, there’s the appeal of being part of a world-wide, long-running celebration. (No one enjoys being left out when there’s a big party!) And of course, the holiday is all about good cheer, generosity, whimsical fantasy (Santa, anyone?), the possibility of even mean people turning over a new leaf (Ebenezer Scrooge, anyone?) and hope for someday achieving peace on earth.
As holidays go, it’s hard to beat the appeal of Christmas. But that doesn’t answer the question: How did a straightforward celebration of the birth of a pivotal religious figure turn into this unprecedented celebration?
About 15 years ago, as a performing musician and songwriter, I began looking for obscure popular-style Christmas music. I wanted to enlarge my Christmas repertoire with material that was well-written and inspiring, but still not well-known. Over a period of 10 years I did, in fact, uncover a treasure-trove of seldom-heard Christmas songs. But unexpectedly, I found myself reading about the history of the holiday and discovering how aspects of the holiday that we now take for granted became a part of it. I discovered the surprising ways in which many decisions made by individuals, along with creative choices made by artists and politicians, ended up having huge, unintended consequences for the nature of the Christmas celebration.
In particular, 10 changes—some abrupt, some unfolding over decades or centuries—caused the holiday to evolve. As a result, what started out as a simple Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus has become a worldwide weeks- or months-long celebration of peace, joy, love and hope for mankind. Here, I’d like to share what I discovered with you.
Setting the Stage
So: How did this extraordinary transformation happen?
To answer that question, it helps to look the characteristics common to most religions and how their different holidays celebrate (or don’t celebrate) those characteristics. I’ve observed five things that most religions have in common:
- They have a historical story about how their religion began, which members of the religion are expected to accept as fact.
- They provide a set of instructions about how to interpret the things that happen to you, and the things you see happening in the world around you. We can think of those instructions as the religion’s doctrine. For example: If you suffer a terrible hardship or setback, your religion might tell you that god is punishing you for your sins; or, that the devil is testing you; or that you’re getting back karma for something you did in a previous life; and so on.
- Most religions provide instructions for behavior, including things you have to do (pray, attend services, perform rituals, go on pilgrimages), or should never do (curse, create certain types of art, engage in specific sexual behaviors, etc.).
- Most religions have a hierarchical, political power structure designating who has what authority within the church.
- Most religions have a set of ideals about how the world should be (and theoretically would be, if only everyone followed the religion’s dictates).
Most religious holidays are designed to celebrate some historical event fundamental to the religion. They often come with traditional (or required) behaviors associated with celebrating that event. However, a key factor in the popularity of any religious holiday is whether or not it celebrates the ideals associated with that religion. This is one way in which Christmas has separated itself from most other holidays. The event that Christmas celebrates—the birth of Jesus—is obviously seen by Christians as a happy event. But even more important, in the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus champions a very clear set of ideals: things like kindness, forgiveness and treating your neighbor as you’d like to be treated. So it’s not a big leap to imagine that a celebration of the birth of Jesus could include a celebration of these ideals.
But how did Christmas evolve into one of the most popular holidays in the world? The answer lies in what happened over the 2000 years since the original event took place. I believe there were 10 keys changes that caused Christmas to evolve into the holiday it is today. Those events caused the focus of the holiday to expand from celebrating a simple, historical, religious event to celebrating the positive ideals that Jesus taught later in his life. In the process of those changes occurring, the secular side of the holiday slowly but surely expanded, allowing more and more people to feel comfortable celebrating it. (Note that this is not about the expansion of Christianity itself, like what took place during the Age of Exploration, even though that certainly played a part in the spread of Christian holidays. This is about a shift in ideas and perspective; an expansion of what this particular holiday has meant to anyone impacted by it.)
Of course, as any Christian will remind you, Christmas is still a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But that doesn’t explain its cross-cultural appeal. The reality is, while few people have any interest in celebrating historical events that are important to someone else’s religion, nearly everyone is happy to celebrate peace, joy, kindness, love and hope for the future. Those ideals are universal. The 10 evolutionary changes we’ll be talking about have pushed Christmas slowly but surely in the direction of becoming a joyous celebration of the best the human race could potentially be.
Of course, this wasn’t the case when the holiday was first celebrated. It all started about 2,000 years ago….
Evolutionary Change #1: The Nativity story
The presumed day the person at the center of your religion was born is an obvious choice for a religious holiday. However, simply celebrating a birthday isn’t very exciting. To make the event you’re celebrating really inspiring, you need a good story about the person’s birth that people can get emotionally involved in. Any good story—whether it’s fictional or real—should involve high stakes, challenges for the heroes, villains, danger and an inspiring ending in which the heroes prevail.
That’s exactly what’s found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Bible’s New Testament. Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which were estimated to have been written 70 to 90 years after Jesus’s life. Only two of them mention Jesus’s birth, and they provide conflicting details. Matthew talks about an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, the three Wise Men and Herod ordering young male children put to death. Luke describes Mary and Joseph having to go to Bethlehem for a census, an angel appearing to shepherds and Jesus lying in a manger.
Of course, neither Matthew nor Luke was present at the time Jesus was born. That means these details, at best, were obtained second-hand. (It’s interesting to note that the birth stories of several religious [and non-religious] figures predating Jesus by hundreds of years included some of the same story elements.) So there’s no way to confirm any of the specific things stated about Jesus’s birth in the gospels. But the fact remains that, put together, the gospels put Jesus’s birth in the context of an exciting story. That story not only acts as a statement about Jesus’s importance and holiness, it also makes people want to hear the story many times, and helps motivate them to celebrate Jesus’s birthday and recommit to the ideals he stood for.
I think it’s safe to say that, without the exciting, thought-provoking Nativity story, Jesus’s birth probably wouldn’t have drawn as much attention. So the acceptance of these stories became the first step in the process of Christmas’s evolution into a major holiday.
Evolutionary Change #2: Celebrating Christmas on December 25th
The Gospels don’t provide any date for Jesus’s birth (which isn’t totally surprising, given that it was written about many years later), so there was no official date to focus on the event. As a result, for the first couple of hundred years after Jesus lived, his birth was either not celebrated at all, or it was celebrated at Easter. This was fine with the church elders of the time; it was common to celebrate martyrs on the anniversary of their deaths, not their births. So for many folks, Easter made sense as the time to celebrate all things Jesus. Some people are known to have celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6th (the holiday of Epiphany). Even many devout Christians probably didn’t celebrate it at all.
At some point around 273 A.D. the church realized it would be good for Christianity to have an official birthday celebration for Jesus, so they started debating about when his birth should be celebrated. They decided it should be some time around the winter solstice, for two main reasons: First, several European holidays already took place around the solstice, making it a time when people were accustomed to celebrations. (It was a convenient time for a feast, because cattle were being slaughtered so they wouldn’t need to be fed over the winter, providing fresh meat that wasn’t available most of the year; and beer and wine made during the year were fermented enough to drink at that point in the year.) Because it was the darkest time of year in the northern hemisphere, the Pagans celebrated the solstice as the beginning of a new year. Meanwhile, the Romans still celebrated three different holidays around this time of year: Saturnalia, which began before the solstice and continued for a month; Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children; and Mithra (if you were upper-class)—a celebration of the “god of the unconquerable sun,” the official sun god of the Roman Empire, on December 25. These were all happy holidays during which people partied and feasted.
Another reason for picking this time of year was that the Spring equinox was thought of as a celebration of new life, so it seemed like a good time for Jesus to have been conceived, and late December was nine months later.
I’m sure the church elders thought that putting the celebration in the midst of “party season” would cause people to be more interested in it than if it was celebrated at some other time of year. They probably hoped it would overshadow the other, less historically based celebrations. Of course, they got their wish; eventually Christmas became the focus of nearly all of the celebrating. The problem was, because of this choice, Christmas became a party holiday.
Once the decision was made to place Christmas around this time, Pope Julius I picked December 25th as the date. Even so, enthusiasm for the holiday didn’t really take off until the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the “favored religion” of the Roman Empire. After that, the Christmas celebration slowly spread throughout Europe.
Giving Christmas its own date did have the effect of adding another significant holiday to the calendar, increasing the visibility and power of Christianity. But, as noted, the unintended consequence was to make Christmas a much less pious and more raucous, secular holiday. People didn’t just go to church on Christmas; they went to church and then went to a big party with alcohol and food afterward. (This partying tradition upset some more pious politicians in the centuries that followed; Christmas was temporarily banned in England at one time, and much later was banned in Boston for a few years.)
So the choice of December 25th as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was the second evolutionary step in the history of the Christmas holiday. It made it a holiday for celebrating and feasting—not just a time to go to church.
Evolutionary Change #3. Christmas Music (Part 1)
Never underestimate the power of music! When music is associated with a holiday, it does three things:
First, it gives people an extra reason to get together to celebrate, either to simply hear music they enjoy, or better yet, to sing it, as people still do in church. For centuries, singing together was a profoundly important part of family and community get-togethers. Today, people may be less inclined to go somewhere and sing at Christmas, but events like public performances of Handel’s Messiah, where everyone can sing along, are always well-attended. I’ve experienced the popularity of singing carols first-hand; my wife and I used to throw an annual Christmas party at our house [pre-COVID] that always included a singalong of popular Christmas carols. Many friends told us that it was the best part of the party.
The second reason it’s important to have music tied to a holiday is that it provides a vehicle for sharing the holiday story. Because Christmas was initially a purely religious holiday (albeit with some partying attached), the first songs that came to be associated with Christmas focused on the story of Jesus’s birth. (There were few non-religious songs, such as The Twelve Days of Christmas and We Wish You a Merry Christmas, but they were the exception.) The origins of the earliest songs, like The First Noel, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, are somewhat mysterious. But as the Renaissance took place in Europe, songs written for Christmas began to proliferate, producing classics like Silent Night and O Holy Night. They amplified the story while providing pleasure and entertainment.
The third reason holiday music is important is that music is all about emotion. Think about movie soundtracks. Movie scenes with no music have limited emotional impact. But when music is added in the background, it can easily evoke whatever strong feelings the director wants you to feel. Music triggers emotion, and emotion triggers pleasure, making us pay attention and implanting the experience in our memory. Having beautiful, powerful music tied to any holiday lifts it above simply honoring a historical event; it turns it into a pleasurable and memorable celebration.
The power of Christmas songs is well-illustrated by the Christmas truce of 1914 during the First World War. The troops were sitting in their trenches on Christmas Eve, miserable that they couldn’t be with their families, when one brave soldier began singing Silent Night. Pretty soon, the soldiers on both sides were singing carols. After a while they began coming out of the trenches. They actually played a nighttime soccer game with the enemy, with the ground lit by flares! A few hours later, when the sun came up, they resumed killing each other—reluctantly, I imagine—but the power of Christmas songs had been demonstrated in an unforgettable way.
Of course, the canon of Christmas songs would later grow exponentially in the 20th Century, but a few other events had to unfold before that could happen. In the meantime, this first batch of Christmas songs acted as the third great evolutionary step toward Christmas becoming an incredibly popular holiday.
Evolutionary Change #4: The Santa Claus Story
In the 1820s, one of the most remarkable Christmas changes happened: Christmas became a true rarity—a holiday with two classic stories tied to it. The second story, of course, was the story of the Christmas Eve visit of St. Nick. The story first appeared in the form of an anonymous poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas that was published in the Troy Sentinel newspaper in New York in 1823. (Clement C. Moore eventually claimed credit for writing it, although there’s some evidence that a poet named Henry Livingston, Jr. may have been the actual author.)
One of the interesting aspects of the Santa Claus story is its origin. Almost every “biography” of Santa Claus claims that the character is adapted from the legend of St. Nicholas, a Catholic bishop who lived in what is now Turkey in the third and fourth century A.D. That St. Nicholas was known for his generosity, and the legend that he visited houses at Christmastime bringing presents was prevalent in several European countries. But the idea that he inspired Santa Claus by himself is pretty far-fetched. The bishop was tall, skinny and very religious. Other than the name and reputation for generosity, he and the modern Santa Claus have little in common.
However, other more secular Christmas legends were also prevalent in the early 1800s. Many were variations on the idea that a man came to your house in December and brought fruit or nuts for good children, and sticks, coal, or nothing at all for children who were bad. Many German immigrants lived in the New York area, and they’d brought their version of this tradition with them when they came to America. Their Christmas visitor was known as Belsnickel, or Furry Nicholas, who wore furs that were dusted with ashes and soot, and was a completely non-religious character. In fact, the threat of punishment from this visitor caused many children to fear him.
I believe the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas borrowed the name from the bishop, the furs covered with ash and soot from Furry Nicholas, and then created a new composite character who was much more fantastical than either of the source characters. (He may also have borrowed the idea of the Christmas visitor coming down the chimney from Washington Irving’s 1808 story “Knickerbockers’s History of New York.” It certainly fits with Furry Nicholas’s outfit being covered with ashes and soot!) The Night Before Christmas story emphasized good will, generosity and fantasy. This was a story everyone—especially children—could enjoy, so it wasn’t surprising that it caught on.
The addition of the Santa Claus story changed the impact of Christmas in three major ways:
First, it added a fantasy side to the holiday, making it more interesting and playful. Together with the Nativity story, it gave people two completely different reasons to celebrate Christmas, and yet it didn’t feel like it contradicted the original reason for the holiday—the birth of Jesus—partly because it was seen as a fantasy just for children, and partly because it emphasized several of the characteristics Jesus preached about, like generosity and kindness.
Second, it made the holiday appealing to children. Before this, any non-religious traditions associated with the holiday were a mixed bag, very down-to-earth and not entirely child-friendly. Suddenly, Christmas was a holiday that children (who didn’t care that much about religion) could look forward to. This also fit in with the trend toward adults being more gentle and kind to children, who at the time were still widely seen as a source of cheap labor(!).
Third, the Santa story gave Christmas something the Nativity story couldn’t: a platform for future story expansion. If you want to keep people interested in a holiday story, it helps to be able to add “side stories” over time. That’s a problem with the story of the Nativity; it’s a historically based story, so there’s a limit to what can be added to it. A few side stories have been added—the story of the little drummer boy, or the children’s story The Littlest Angel, for example. The musical Amahl and the Night Visitors added a side story, too, but none of these enhanced the appeal of Christmas that much.
In contrast, a fantasy story like The Night Before Christmas leaves almost unlimited room for expansion—and that’s exactly what happened after the story became popular. A few highlights:
1) The “jolly old elf” Santa character almost immediately became thought of as human-sized. (People didn’t take the description in the poem literally: a miniature sleigh, eight tiny reindeer, etc.)
2) Santa’s wife began appearing in Christmas stories starting in 1849.
3) The political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew illustrations of Santa from the 1860s through the 1880s, creating the famous red outfit and general demeanor we all associate with the character today. He also placed Santa at the North Pole (back then an exotic, unreachable location that made sense as a home base if you owned reindeer), created the idea that Santa Claus separated children into “naughty” and “nice” categories, and invented the workshop full of elves.
4) The story Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was written by Robert Lewis May in 1939.
Countless other side stories involving Santa, the elves and/or the reindeer have appeared through the years since. Each one of them expanded the Christmas story and added to the holiday.
Adding the Santa story to the Christmas traditions completely changed the nature of the holiday celebration, making it much more upbeat and expansive. Christmas became of interest to more people, and as interest in the holiday grew, so did the creative contributions to the annual celebration, both in terms of additional smaller stories (e.g. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), and music. And the more people enlarged the canon of associated stories and music, the more people were interested in the holiday. It became a self-feeding trend toward a bigger and more popular celebration.
It’s hard to overstate how much the Santa Claus story changed Christmas. Now Christmas had an entirely new side to it, expanding its popularity and universal appeal.
Evolutionary Change #5: Ebenezer Scrooge
In 1843, 20 years after the publication of A Visit From St. Nicholas, Christmas achieved another milestone: It became the first holiday to have three major stories associated with it, when Charles Dickens wrote and published A Christmas Carol. (Interestingly, Charles Dickens was a great admirer of Washington Irving’s writings about Christmas.)
As almost everyone knows, A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean-spirited, wealthy man uninterested in sharing, celebrating Christmas or treating others with the least bit of respect. His fateful encounter with four ghosts (don’t forget about the ghost of his deceased partner Jacob Marley!) causes him to change his ways, ending up a far better person. A Christmas Carol is a brilliantly unique, emotionally touching, slightly scary and very hopeful story that became an instant bestseller in England, with the rest of the world soon following.
What made the story so powerful—aside from simply being a great story—is that it sent the message that even the meanest people can be redeemed. However, that’s not what made it have such an impact on the Christmas holiday. What made it have such an extraordinary effect on Christmas is that it suggests that people can be redeemed without religion! Christianity barely appears in the story at all, and Scrooge’s change of heart had nothing whatsoever to do with going to church or “finding Jesus.”
Instead, his change into a benevolent person comes as the result of a new understanding of the world and his own life. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him his earlier life, making it clear why he ended up as a bitter, lonely old man. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him that the poor people around him are not only nice people (some of them are even willing to forgive Scrooge for being so mean) but they’re having much more fun than he is! Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him how almost no one likes him or cares about him because of the way he treats everyone around him. Seeing all this is what makes him realize he has to change his ways.
Despite the lack of religion, Dicken’s Christmas Carol is very much tied to Christmas for two reasons: First, the story takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Second, Scrooge goes from being a very un-Christian person, to being someone who embodies the Christian ideals—especially kindness and generosity. So it’s a very Christian story, in the best sense, despite not involving religion. That’s why it immediately fit into the holiday, and why it wasn’t rejected by the church. (It also helps that this lack of religion isn’t pointed out in the story! In my experience, most people haven’t even noticed the absence of religion in A Christmas Carol.) At least one 20th-Century retelling of the story in a movie tried to incorporate religion by having Scrooge visit hell, courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Future. But all that particular interpretation did was demonstrate that the creative people behind it completely missed the point of Dickens’ story.
Dickens’ story changed the holiday irrevocably, because it gave people another positive way to see Christmas. The story was all about the principles that Jesus taught—not about the religion built around him, and it came with no religious strings attached. The message of A Christmas Carol was twofold: First, we treat each other badly because of ignorance more than malice. Second, even the meanest people can change for the better! Thus, A Christmas Carol helped to turn Christmas into an occasion to celebrate the best in people. This helped make Christmas a time to celebrate hope for the future (in terms of people with bad character not dooming the human race, for example) and to celebrate redemption. The impact that A Christmas Carol had suggests that this was a fresh perspective that really struck a nerve.
One other interesting point about A Christmas Carol: While a big factor in the impact of the Santa Claus story was that it opened the gates to countless other fantasy stories, that wasn’t the case here. A Christmas Carol is a fully-fleshed-out story that doesn’t bear much alteration or embellishment. (I don’t expect to ever see stories about the further adventures of the three Christmas ghosts!) However, it offered something almost as good: the opportunity to recreate the story over and over in different mediums, such as books, plays, musicals and eventually films. And that’s what happened: Countless retellings of the story have appeared, and continue to do so every year.
Evolutionary Change #6: Christmas Music (Part 2)
This upbeat, less-doctrine-based version of Christmas spread—and rapidly gained in popularity—over the remainder of the 1800s. Meanwhile, a burst of American technological innovation began late in the century, leading to the arrival of radio in the early days of the 20th Century. This gave Christmas its next opportunity to evolve.
The first radio broadcast happened on Christmas Eve 1906, when Canadian Reginald Fessenden used radio-wave technology to broadcast a brief Christmas concert. At that point, of course, there were no radio receivers to pick up his transmission. However, it could be picked up by telegraph receivers on land and ships at sea (as documented in my original Christmas song, Songs of the Season). Mr. Fessenden’s short broadcast included him reading the Nativity story from the Bible and playing O Holy Night on the violin. Thus, the first-ever radio broadcast was a celebration of Christmas.
As radio technology spread and became affordable, radio receivers became a common item found in most middle-class homes during the 1920s and 30s. Prior to radio, people could only hear music in church or when gathered around a piano (if your family or a friend had one). Now, thanks to radio, almost everybody could hear the popular music of the day. Not surprisingly, radio stations played the gradually increasing supply of new Christmas recordings every year in December. However, the need for more content was obvious. This was great for songwriters, because for the first time radio allowed a significant number of people to hear your music. And there was money to be made.
As noted earlier, most Christmas songs up to the 1800s were religious. By the 20th Century, Christmas had expanded to include Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, so new topics for holiday songs were available. Santa Claus’s fictional universe was particularly ripe for new songs. Also, with Christmas becoming a more family-tradition-oriented holiday, those family traditions could be written about, along with the weather many people associated with Christmas—cold and snow. (This trend had already gotten a big boost when One-horse Open Sleigh, aka Jingle Bells, became tied to the holiday in the 1800s. It doesn’t actually mention Christmas!)
When I was researching the history of Christmas songs, I thought it would be interesting to survey the years in which the most popular ones were written. I expected to find a fairly even spread of “classic” Christmas songs turning up over the years, but that wasn’t what I found at all. The vast majority of what we think of as the “Christmas classics” were written in the 1940s and 50s. This radio-driven enlargement of the Christmas-song canon began in 1934, with the appearance of Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Winter Wonderland.
However, it took the emotions evoked by the Great Depression and World War II to really trigger a burst of Christmas songs. Those events made people appreciate Christmas in a way that it hadn’t always been appreciated. People were upset, worried and depressed, so holiday songs that celebrated hope and peace—as well as family Christmas traditions— were really appreciated and captured a big audience. Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas had a lot to do with setting this new burst of Christmas songs in motion. White Christmasbecame a huge hit in 1941, and eventually one of the best-selling recordings of all time. A long list of classics by Berlin and others followed, including I’ll be Home for Christmas, Let It Snow, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Sleigh Ride, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and many others.
Another reason for the proliferation of Christmas songs around this time was the growing reach of public media (including radio). Suddenly, new stories and ideas about the holiday were reaching many more people. The popular children’s book Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, first published in 1939, inspired the well-known song with the same title. Radio made it possible for that song to reach millions of people and become one of the biggest hits of all time, and other songs like Frosty the Snowman followed. This proliferation of new additions to the Christmas legend, in turn, generated even more topics to write songs about.
This flurry of new classic Christmas songs continued into the 50s, as popular music shifted toward rock and roll. Suddenly, instead of songs like White Christmas and Silver Bells, the industry was promoting songs like Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Holly Jolly Christmas—much less sophisticated songs. In any case, the creation of new Christmas songs capable of catching the public’s imagination petered out by the 1960s. After that, only one or two “classics” were written each decade.
There are several reasons the supply of new Christmas songs eventually dropped off. With a new generation of post-war kids growing up in a safe and victorious country after the 1940s, the reverence for Christmas diminished. There was far less of an audience for intricate, emotional Christmas music, and the more dance-oriented hits in the 50s didn’t do a lot to inspire keeping the tradition alive. Also, writers were running out of new ideas for songs, even with the broad expanse of things now falling under the umbrella of Christmas.
Nevertheless, the explosion of Christmas songs in the 30s, 40s and 50s increased the popularity of Christmas dramatically. The songs increased the emotional power of the holiday enormously. As noted earlier, music is all about emotion, so as the number of songs evoking emotion tied to the holiday grew, the emotional impact of the holiday grew as well. Now Christmas songs not only captured the religious emotions tied to the birth of Jesus, they captured the joy of getting together with family and friends; going shopping; enjoying the lights and music appearing around Christmas; playing in the snow; and on and on. In addition, thanks to radio—and the secular nature of much of the music—the emotional power of the holiday was now reaching people around the world.
The other important side effect of this huge expansion of the Christmas songbook was that it became possible to listen to Christmas music for days on end with little repetition. This encouraged extending the celebration and the accompanying good feelings over a longer period of time.
Evolutionary Change #7: Story spreaders: Movies and Television
While the expansion of Christmas songs was underway, the new technologies of movies and television made it possible to present the stories now associated with Christmas onscreen and vividly (and with music), spreading them far and wide. People all over the world now had access to the stories and the upbeat ideals they (usually) epitomized.
The fact that many of the popular Christmas stories—in particular, the Santa Claus story—could be expanded upon made a big difference here. A limited number of films and TV specials have been based on the Nativity story, partly because the story can’t be altered too much, but mainly because it emphasizes the religious side of the holiday—the part that’s less appealing to non-Christians.
In contrast, the Santa Claus story has allowed seemingly endless options for story expansion. Santa Claus has been featured—or incorporated into—hundreds (possibly thousands) of movies and TV specials. The creativity evident in this swath of films and specials is remarkable. Consider the varied storylines of a few of the most popular films: Miracle on 34th Street; The Polar Express; The Santa Clause; The Nightmare Before Christmas; and Elf. Totally different stories, but all highly entertaining—and all offshoots of the Santa Claus story.
The Ebeneezer Scrooge story, while less amenable to offshoot stories, has nevertheless been retold in more than 135 films(!) And the premise that drives it—that the ideals of Christmas are powerfully transformative—has made other Christmas stories popular as well, although not on the same scale. An excellent example is How the Grinch Stole Christmas (message: Christmas isn’t really about decorations and presents; and even the meanest person can be transformed by the holiday. Shades of Ebeneezer Scrooge!) Another example is It’s a Wonderful Life (message: The kindness you show to others changes everything for the better; and if you’ve been kind to others, that kindness will be repaid when you need it most). These stories all showcase the power of Christmas ideals, even when religion isn’t involved.
The colorful live-action and/or animated retelling of the stories that have become associated with Christmas, with their focus on benevolence, good cheer and people becoming their best selves, has played a huge part in generating worldwide interest in the Christmas holiday. The nearly endless supply of films and shows has also made it possible to stretch out the holiday celebration longer and longer. Now the entire family can enjoy the positive ideals and emotions tied to Christmas night after night—through music, films and TV specials—without becoming bored by too much repetition.
Evolutionary Change #8: Consumer Adventures
Another factor that’s helped to make Christmas a huge holiday has been the gift-giving tradition. The idea of giving gifts on special occasions has been around for millenia, but it wasn’t a big part of Christmas until the 1800s, for a number of reasons.
Prior to that time, most people were very poor; they simply had no resources to buy gifts. Most Christmas traditions for the average Christian involved no-cost options like decorating the hearth with some pine boughs and perhaps burning a Yule log for days or weeks. Another holiday tradition that reflected the poverty of most individuals was the phenomenon of poor people coming to the homes of the rich and demanding food. (This is memorialized in the song We Wish You a Merry Christmas: “Bring us some figgy pudding out here,” etc.) This was seen as tolerable if it kept the hungry masses from instigating revolution the rest of the year.
In the 1800s, several things changed. First, people were moving into cities in larger numbers than ever before. Having thousands of poor people converging on your home in a city at Christmas was a lot more frightening than having a dozen doing it in the countryside. This was apparently the inspiration for a group of wealthy individuals in New York City to form the Knickerbocker Society, which went about looking for ways to shift the Christmas celebration toward being a more domestic celebration. They presented a series of new Christmas customs in books and pamphlets, which they claimed were bing revived from Christmas traditions in the early American colonies; actually, they were made up! (Clement C. Moore was a member of this group!) Ultimately, The Night Before Christmas poem did the trick; it caught everyone’s imagination and did a great deal to shift the holiday toward being a domestic gift-giving celebration.
That strategy might not have worked except for one thing: At the same time, developments in technology were leading to the creation of a middle class in America. This new group of people, no longer poverty-stricken, kept their children at home longer and had a little money to spend. It’s no coincidence that an American toy industry appeared around the 1820s, and books and magazines for children began to be published. After the Civil War, Thomas Nast’s benevolent images of Santa Claus made the legend even more child-friendly, and toys became ever more available and affordable.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, selling toys at Christmas had become a big business. By the middle of the 20th century, many companies were making the vast majority of their profits in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Being able to advertise via the new mediums of radio and television upped the stakes.) Not surprisingly, this gave retailers a powerful motive to remind people about the holiday and do everything they could to increase interest in the holiday. It became a self-feeding circle: The more presents given to children at Christmas, the more children looked forward to the holiday and demanded presents. Meanwhile, adults began joining in and getting gifts for each other. As a result, Christmas became a huge economic engine that, in turn, boosted the profile of the holiday.
Of course, those who are focused on the religious side of the holiday often bemoan the “commercialization” of Christmas. (The issue is even featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas, where Snoopy is obsessed with decorating his doghouse.) But whatever the downside of this trend, it made the Christmas holiday even more popular than before—and significantly contributed to the growing economy of the United States!
Evolutionary Change #9: The Creation of “the Holiday Season”
Several of the aforementioned changes in Christmas had the unintended side effect of stretching out the number of days or weeks devoted to the holiday. When Christmas was a straightforward religious holiday, one day was sufficient, just as it is for Easter. Even as a social/party holiday, one or two days would work. But shopping for presents requires more than a day or two for most people, and the more children became excited about the holiday, the earlier in the year it became a topic of discussion. Meanwhile, Christmas books, music, films and TV specials continued to proliferate, making it possible to think about and celebrate the holiday for weeks on end. These changes (combined with other Nativity-story-related details that took time to occur, such as the Wise Men not arriving until 12 days after the birth of Jesus) contributed to the celebration starting earlier and lasting longer.
Here’s another way to think about it: The emotional payoff of most religious holidays is limited. Most celebratory traditions wouldn’t be considered “fun”—with the possible exception of getting together with family and enjoying a big, traditional meal. That limited payoff wouldn’t really inspire people to stretch out the celebration for days or weeks.
Compare that to the 20th Century version of Christmas: Shopping for weeks is fun. Listening to upbeat music you know and love is fun. Watching silly movies about Santa Claus is fun. Watching movies about mean people redeeming themselves on Christmas is fun (and hopeful). Putting up lights and decorations is fun (most of the time), and it can take days or weeks to accomplish. Enjoying other people’s decorations is fun. (Competitions for the most extreme Christmas decorations—think displays costing thousands of dollars—regularly appear on TV.) For many people, Christmas pageants and Nativity recreations are fun. Watching kids be excited for weeks on end is fun. In short, this holiday gave people plenty of reason to want to stretch it out.
It’s been said that timing is everything. As it turned out, deciding to place the Christmas celebration on December 25th placed it near another holiday: New Year’s Day (in the Gregorian calendar). With Christmas becoming an ever-more-popular and expansive holiday, the two holidays became sort of one extended holiday. Schools saw no reason to bring students back for the few days between the holidays, so in America, at least, it became commonplace to take off the week that started with Christmas and ended with New Years.
Meanwhile, the “buying season” kept expanding backwards from Christmas, and people were enjoying the music and decorations that were appearing earlier and earlier. Eventually it made sense to give the holiday an “official” start at the American holiday of Thanksgiving, which falls near the end of November. So when Macy’s department store began having a big Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City in 1924, they decided to end it with Santa Claus bringing up the rear. (It’s not surprising that a famous retail store would come up with this ploy!) That made it official: Start thinking about Christmas and buying presents once Thanksgiving is over. (This was eventually followed by the phenomenon of stores having huge sales the day after Thanksgiving. The term “black Friday” first appeared in the 1960s in reference to a financial crash, but by the 1980s it was used to describe the mad crush of bargain-hunting consumers that descended on stores in droves the morning after Thanksgiving.)
Since then, the retail power of Christmas has increased even further, helped along by all of the same factors in a relentless feedback loop. In recent years this has led to the existence of year-round Christmas stores selling decorations and holiday-themed items. No one is shocked to find Christmas decorations on sale in major retail outlets by Halloween. People living in the Philippines love the holiday so much that the Christmas season begins in September and runs through late January. (Decorations are often sold starting in August.) For them, the holiday now lasts for six months!
No wonder people who don’t celebrate Christmas scratch their heads in amazement.
Evolution 10: “The Age of Aquarius”
The most recent evolutionary change in Christmas wasn’t a change in the holiday; it was a change in the perspective of the people who celebrate the holiday. The evolution of Christmas had a lot to do with moving from a celebration of the pivotal Christian historical event (the birth of Jesus) to a celebration of the ideals he taught (love, kindness, peace, justice and hope). But for that change to happen, people’s perspective had to evolve from a pessimistic, narrow view of life to a much broader, more hopeful one.
Ironically, for much of the 2,000 years between the birth of Jesus and present day, living the ideals preached by Jesus undoubtedly seemed like something only a saint could manage. During the dark ages, most people lived in poverty. They spent their lives working at the same thing their parents and grandparents did. The world was harsh and painful for most people, and I’m sure they noted the absence of Christian behavioral ideals among most of the people around them.
Although I’m sure early Christians accepted the idea that people could devote their lives to the church and be “saved,” the idea that people could change their behavior and become saint-like must have seemed like a stretch. For people in their situation, the church’s rules and doctrine provided a framework that helped them understand their lives, and it gave them hope for a better existence after death; but in their lives, the ideals preached by Jesus would only have seemed achievable by a few. The idea that everyone could change their behavior and act like Jesus would have seemed laughable to the average person.
However, the world was evolving. New ideas (and new ways to spread them—thanks for the printing press, Guttenberg!) started appearing in the West during the Renaissance, and they made their way around the world via great writers and major events that everyone heard about. The people at the forefront during the Renaissance were breaking with tradition; they were saying, “It’s OK to do something new (or revive something ancient that’s fallen out of fashion).” In the 1500s, Shakespeare helped to spread the notion that royals were just as ignorant and frail as everyone else; 150 years later America’s Founding Fathers spread the idea that all men are created equal and should be allowed to govern themselves.
In the 1800s, new ideas were everywhere. People were starting to rise out of poverty and reconsider how children should be treated. Then Dickens’ Christmas Carol swept the Western world with the notion that not only could mean people change, but people behave the way they do for a reason—and if you understand the reason, you can help them change. This idea really caught fire near the end of the 1800s when several individuals in Germany, Vienna and the United States (for example, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung) formalized this idea into the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis.
Another new idea spread across the world in 1859 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, laying out the Theory of Evolution. By showing how life could evolve from one form to another, he made it clear that not only are we related to all living creatures on our planet, we’re all related to each other. We’re all distant cousins. Suddenly, people who seemed utterly different from us were seen in a different light.
Yet another huge change in everyone’s world view was set in motion in the late 1800s, as new inventions like steam locomotives (and in the 20th Century, airplanes) made travel easier, and inventions like the telegraph and telephone made communication with distant people possible. Suddenly, people began to think about the world differently. It became possible to imagine the whole world as a unit—something few people did before that time.
This new perspective was captured and spread around the world by another great writer: Jules Verne. Several of his books presented the Earth as a finite planet (for example, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and From the Earth to the Moon). But the most powerful Jules Verne book of all was Around the World in Eighty Days, which described traveling all the way around the world in a short time. This opened the door to seeing the world’s inhabitants in a new way as well. Not only were we all related, it was (as Walt Disney would later say) “a small world after all.” Verne’s story became wildly popular, and like A Christmas Carol, was translated into numerous plays and musicals and eventually big-budget films.
Yet another shift in perspective occurred in the early 20th Century when astronomers realized that the universe was full of solar systems like ours, conceivably with civilizations inhabiting some of their planets. This did for the universe what Jules Verne did for our planet; suddenly our imaginations could extend far beyond our own world.
So what was this all leading to?
Throughout recent centuries (and perhaps before that) small groups of people have periodically become interested in the idea of living in a Utopia—a world in which everyone lives together in harmony. Communities trying to live this way have been formed many times over the years; a half dozen attempts to create an “ideal community” happened in America in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, many Christians felt that the way to achieve this was to get everyone to follow the ideals preached by Jesus—the same ones associated with the Christmas holiday: Kindness, turning the other cheek (making peace possible), respecting the poor, the possibility of redemption, and so on. But all of these attempts to create a utopian society eventually fell apart. It was hard to sustain something like that when the rest of the world thought you were completely unrealistic.
However, by the middle of the 20th Century, millions of people were seeing the world in a different light. Maybe world peace—where everybody gets the idea and behaves better—was possible after all. Thanks to television and other media, most people everywhere on the planet were now aware of everyone else’s existence. And the idea that bad behavior happens for a reason—and can be changed, instead of just punished—was sweeping the world.
When the generation of Americans born after World War II (the Baby Boomers) became young adults, they took this idea and ran with it. They proclaimed that it was time for people to start aiming for world peace, to get past prejudice and love one another. Obviously, not everyone thought this was realistic, and bad things continued to happen in the world. But this was a huge leap for human civilization: For the first time ever, millions of people thought that achieving a civilization based on peace and justice was a real possibility.
This sense of optimism about the future was captured perfectly in a hit song from the Broadway show Hair, called The Age of Aquarius, written by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. Using astrological references, the lyrics describe this vision well:
When the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions…
The fact that this song became a huge hit says a lot about how widespread this image of our possible future had become.
Many artists and writers threw their talents behind this idea. Two individuals in particular had a profound impact, in terms of spreading this idea far and wide: John Lennon and Gene Roddenberry. Lennon, of course, was a driving force in the Beatles, whose music captured this spirit well, helping to make them the most popular musical group of the 20th Century. Two of Lennon’s songs stand out in this respect: Imagine andHappy Christmas (War is Over). Imagine describes a possible future version of our world where everyone lives in peace (notably, without religion!) This is considered by many to be one of the pivotal songs of the 20th Century. The other song, Happy Christmas (War is Over), isn’t as popular, but it’s not a coincidence that he chose to remind people of a possible war-free future in a holiday song.
I’ve written about Gene Roddenberry before (you can read my discussion about him and his creation Star Trek elsewhere on this website). In a nutshell, the unbelievable popularity of Star Trek, which has become one of the most successful entertainment franchises in history, spawning an endless stream of TV series and motion pictures, wasn’t because it was a clever science fiction program. Gene’s premise, which he enforced strictly in the first two series’ scripts, was that the future shown in Star Trek is a future in which we’ve solved our behavioral problems. War and poverty are gone. All people are treated with respect. (After Roddenberry’s death, some of the folks who took over didn’t appreciate the importance of this, but he set up the premise so clearly that the shows and movies that came after him still follow his lead.)
It’s this positive vision of the future that caught the imagination of millions of people. The worldwide popularity of this series of shows and films has helped to cement this possible future in people’s minds, just as the Beatles music did, and just as Jules Verne’s books about the future and Charles Dickens’ Christmas story helped spread a new vision of where the human race could end up.
I can hear some readers saying: “Look at the condition of the world today! The idea of peace on earth is a fairy tale that no one believes any more. The 1960s in America were a fluke.” I would point out that change never happens in a straight line; it’s like the old saying, “two steps forward, one step back.” We’re talking about a vision of the future, not our current reality. The vision has to come first, and it has to capture the imagination of lots of people before it can become a reality. The fact that the Star Trek universe and songs like Imagine remain popular around the world is a strong indication that we’re headed in that direction.
Which brings us back to Christmas. The Christmas holiday has evolved in parallel to these ideas. Instead of celebrating a simple historical event, it’s become a time for celebrating a vision of the world much like the one Gene Roddenberry, John Lennon and others have envisioned—a world filled with peace, joy, justice, love and hope. This is reflected in much of what people think about and sing about at Christmas, best captured in the phrase peace on earth. Today, Christmas is not just a celebration of the birth of Jesus, or the Santa Claus story. It’s become a celebration of the idea that people treating each other with respect and care isn’t just a far-fetched utopian dream; it’s something we might actually achieve, and not in some distant future, but soon.
Now that’s something to celebrate.
The evolution of Christmas into a universal festival of hope for the future has taken it far beyond any other religious holiday, in part because it’s evolved from being a simple celebration of a historical religious event into a celebration of ideals like generosity and a hopeful vision of the future. That makes it extremely powerful as a force for positive change.
In reality, no religious doctrine is ever going to catch everyone’s imagination. Instructions that religions provide for how to interpret reality and how to behave are specific to each of the more than 4,000 religions on Earth. For the most part, they don’t translate from one religion to the next. Try as you might, no amount of proselytizing or missionary work is going to get everyone to join your religion, no matter how hard you try or what your religion preaches.
On the other hand, when you stop talking about doctrine and start talking about ideals for human behavior, you’re in a universal arena. These are ideas that are widely accepted by people, regardless of their background. So the modern-day Christmas celebration is bringing people together in a way no religion ever has. In a very real way, it has transcended traditional religion.
To put it another way, most religious holidays require members to have certainty that the event being celebrated is real, and that it means what the religion says it means. Christmas has evolved into a celebration of a universal, hopeful vision of the future that requires no certainty or acceptance of religious doctrine. That’s why people all over the world celebrate the holiday—even if they’re not members of a Christian religion.
Maybe—just maybe—this is how religion is meant to evolve over hundreds and thousands of years. Maybe the differences between religions are meant to fade into the background, leaving us with a vision of the best that human beings can be. If that should turn out to be the case, the Christmas holiday may be one of the first examples of that transition.
One final thought: Some people feel that Christmas has been degraded by the focus on things other than the birth of Jesus. Yes, the emphasis on purchasing goods is a bit nonspiritual; but giving gifts to others is hardly a bad thing. In any case, the other associations people have with the holiday—peace, forgiveness, redemption, generosity, and so forth—would undoubtedly please Jesus. I suspect that the main reason he came here was to convince people to treat each other better, and most aspects of the modern Christmas celebration do indeed push people in that direction.
So, when you see people celebrating peace, love, joy, hope and the possibility of redemption when the Christmas season rolls around, don’t be shy about joining in. Every vision of a future built around these ideals is a step in a wonderful direction. Jesus—and Charles Dickens, and John Lennon and Gene Roddenberry—would all be proud.
(Copyright 2021 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.)