The celebration of Christmas with its brightly lit Christmas tree, with Santa Claus and his presents, and with traditional Christmas songs has spread throughout almost all of the western world.
One might think that this wide-spread popularity of the Christmas celebration is simply due to Christianity's position as a world faith - Christmas spread with Christianity. But there can be no doubt that the present way of celebrating Christmas became popular at a time when the over-all importance of religion itself decreased, in the life of individuals as well as in public life. Therefore, it seems relatively certain that it was the sociological changes since the 19th century, above all the rise of the middle classes, that brought about the spread of the Christmas celebration in its contemporary form. As the history of Christmas indicates, Christianity is open to many different possible ways in which the birth of Jesus may be celebrated. But the actual form of the Christmas celebration as it has established itself today is above all the product of the 19th century.
The connection of the Christmas celebration with developments in social history is most readily apparent if we consider the example of the Christmas present which has taken on a central importance in the Christmas activities of today's Germany, just as it has everywhere else as well. It is true that giving presents was already customary in Roman times on the occasion of the
calends festivals at the beginning of the year. And during the Middle Ages presents were given by convents and other established institutions to subordinates and to poor people as acts of charity, just as today gifts are given to orphan homes or Christmas collections are taken up in the churches. There were also presents for children given at Christmas time even before the 19th century. However, these were primarily presents given by godparents to their godchildren, and not presents from parents to their children. In addition, there were expeditions made on Christmas for gathering presents like the
trick or treat excursions already mentioned in connection with the
Day of the Magi and other holiday occasions.
But, unlike today, these early presents were known or could be anticipated in advance; they were
useful things, which belonged to the set obligations of the godparents. The gifts given at Christmas to servants and hired hands on the farm were also given because of set obligatzons. As payments in kind (frequently clothing) or money they were actually a legitimate part of the salaries (just as the
Christmas bonuses of workers and employees are fixed today by work contracts).
In all of these forms of giving there are two elements missing which we have in our modern Christmas presents. These are: the element of surprise, and that of reciprocity. There was a one-way flow of presents from the wealthy to the poor (or from adults to children, in which case the presents had a pedagogical value, too) and the contents of the presents were usually determined by custom. The close connection between presents and legal obligations already mentioned in the discussion of Easter occurs again here.
With the decline of the rigid feudal class system in the 19th century the family gained a new importance. Women were more exclusively confined to the home than ever before or after this period, and new forms of education opened up new possibilities for the children. Therefore, at this time the presents for children, and above all toys, became very important.
The exchange of surprise presents between grown-ups for the sake of enjoyment developed at the time of the Renaissance, when people began to attach greater importance to the individual personality.
The practice has spread in a manner which parallels the giving of presents to children. Of course, it could not remain one-way in modern society. Both the principles of equality and competition made reciprocal giving and taking a necessity. And today commercial advertising also plays its part in making the reciprocal exchange of presents a social must, which one cannot escape if one does not wish to lose the esteem of the relatives and friends who belong to one's
circle of exchange.
The fixing of the date of the birth of Christ is a relatively late tradition in the Western Church. At first the feast of Epiphany on January 6 was celebrated as the birthday of Christ, but then, as far as we can tell, in the second third of the 4th century the tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25 was developed in the Roman Church. This is the same day that the Emperor Aurelian (who reigned from 270 to 275 A.D.) proclaimed as the day of the festival of the sun. Shortly thereafter, under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity documented its victory over paganism by taking over this date for its own celebration. Starting in Rome the celebration spread rapidly throughout the realm of the Roman Empire, and along with Christianity it reached the far corners of the world.
Elements of charitable giving live on in the modern world. But along with the tenets of equality and social justice there came the awakening of the social conscience. Take Charles Dickens'
Christmas Carol, a typical example of 19th century literature. It shows us how the Christmas presents given to the poor serve to calm the conscience of a society which feels that the brotherly love required by Christianity cannot be practiced in a workaday life that is ruled by keen competition and social antagonism.
Today's Christmas celebration in the Federal Republic of Germany is above all a family celebration, that is to say it involves the immediate family, which may be extended to include the grandparents, who are otherwise mostly living by themselves.
These Strange German Ways and the Whys of the Ways by Susan Stern