Good Day to all and Happy Holidays! Hope you enjoy the first of my annual Christmas columns. Did you know, although a huge celebration today, the proclaimed date of Jesus’ birth has not always been so, and that the first record of Christmas in today’s Charlotte County dates from 1876?
Early Christianity’s focus was on Easter, liturgically the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but by the fourth century, church officials decided to also designate Jesus’ birth as a time for celebration. Pope Julius I is credited with establishing December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity, which didn’t become “Christmas” for quite some time, reference to which first appears in the Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript completed two years after Julius I’s death in 352 A. D. Though no specific date of Jesus’ birth appears in scripture, it’s speculated December 25 was chosen since it fit within the timeframe of celebrations that had existed for centuries and would be easily adopted by converts. Within eighty years, by the fourth century A. D., the custom spread to Egypt, to England by the sixth century, and Scandinavia by the 700’s.
Long before Jesus’ birth, the winter solstice, December 21, was celebrated as the time when days would grow longer and the countdown to winter’s end began. It naturally seemed a good time for feasting. Cold outside, meat was typically plentiful due to the slaughter of livestock reducing the number needing feed during harsh winter months. And, perhaps more importantly, most beer and wine produced from the previous harvest would be adequately fermented. What better time to have a party?
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated “Yule” from the winter solstice through January and Germanic folk honored their chief god Oden during the same period. Even Rome had an existing holiday, Saturnalia, a time of plentiful food and drink, which began a week before the solstice and continued for a month. It was such a raucous celebration that slaves were allowed to act as masters and peasants symbolically placed in charge of the city. Additionally, Juvenalia was also observed, honoring the children of Rome, and members of Rome’s ruling classes celebrated December 25 as the feast of Mithra, an infant god.
By the Middle Ages, Christmas (Christ’s Mass), the phrase first appeared around 1100, had become a major celebration across Europe as pagan religions were replaced by Christianity. However, it was carnival-like, more in the nature of Mardi Gras. That tended to end in the early 17th century when Europe was swept by a wave of religious reform.
In 1645, the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, took control of England and actually cancelled Christmas! Can you imagine that? Upon Cromwell’s death, Charles II reclaimed the throne in 1660 after nine years in exile and Christmas returned. The Pilgrims, who, believe it or not, thought the Puritans “too loose”, did not celebrate Christmas either and actually outlawed it in Boston from 1659-1681. During that time, anyone exhibiting “Christmas spirit” was fined 5 shillings. Hard to believe today!
After the Revolutionary War, in the soon to be United States, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. However, in the early 1800’s American society began to reinvent the celebration, transitioning it from a raucous, carnival atmosphere, to a family centered celebration. However, it wasn’t until June 1870, seven years after Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day, that Christmas was officially recognized. Just a few years later, the first record of Christmas celebrated locally can be found. It appears in Jarvis Howard’s journal. More on that and other local Christmas stories in my December 20 column.
Check out History Services’ yearlong project, “Telling Your Stories: History in the Parks”. It began in January 2021 with placement of the first interpretive sign “Charlotte Harbor Spa” at South County Regional Park. The last was dedicated December 15, 2021 at Centennial Park featuring Florida postcards. All dedicated signs can be viewed at online library resources. Select “Programs and Services”, then “History Services” and “Virtual Programs”.
Visit the same site to access recently released oral histories featuring 40 local folks. Select “History Services” and scroll down, or phone 941-629-7278, to find out what history related programs and videos are available.
“Did You Know” appears, typically, every other Wednesday, courtesy of this newspaper and the Charlotte County Historical Society. The Society’s mission is to help promote and preserve Charlotte County’s rich history. We are also always looking for volunteers and interested individuals to serve as board members. If you believe our area’s history is as important as we do, please visit Charlotte County Historical Society on-line at https://cchistoricalsociety.com/, or call 941- 769-1270 for more information.
December 6 column