A banned mince pie. Probably best banned. It’s weird eating the baby Jesus.
4. The fairy/angel/whatever you call the female sprite thing on top of your tree. Similarly a ‘tin-gold angel’ used to represent Jesus atop the Christmas tree. Again, that’s a tad idolatrous, so bye-bye Jesus, hello (thanks, eventually, to Queen Victoria and her in-fashion dolls) angel, fairy, or whoever else you want to put up there.
5. Santa – and a bit less Mary. Protestantism effectively downgraded Mary. Their Christmas focused in on the infant Jesus, rather than those around him. Saints’ days were discouraged, sparking an attempted coup on St Nicholas. His celebration day of 6 December had been a day of gift-giving for centuries – but that didn’t sound very reformed. It’s not that easy though to take gifts away, so instead they were postponed, to Christmas Eve. The “Christkindl”, the Christ-child, was said to be the new bringer of gifts rather than St Nick.
6. Santa’s workshop. Now alright – Martin Luther didn’t invent Santa’s workshop – but he paved the way for it. Helping St Nick’s transformation into Santa was the illustrator Thomas Nast. This Protestant Bavarian chap drew the jolly elf more than anyone else. Nast’s anti-Catholic polemic was undoubtedly a big influence behind his saint-lampooning caricatures – and he also added a list, a North Pole address and a workshop with elves.
‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ by Thomas Nast, 1881 – lampooning Catholic saints (especially this one) for decades.
7. Thanksgiving, Hogmanay, commerce and, well, everything. Yes, then there’s the Puritan takeover (sparked by the Reformation) cancelling Christmas, shaping American culture, letting in Thanksgiving, and allowing the shops to get the jump on Christmas while the church was still working out whether to celebrate Christmas or not (see this previous blog on ‘happy holidays’ for more on that).
Meanwhile in Scotland… well this may be just for the real history geeks, but here are the rest of Reformation’s Christmassy moments:
- 1517… On Halloween, reformer and alleged Christmas tree co-inventor Martin Luther nails what’s wrong with the church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther permits celebration of Christmas; other reformers disagree.
- 1521… In Wittenberg, Protestant reformer Andreas von Carlstadt performs Christmas Mass in German rather than Latin, probably lasting considerably longer due to the length of the words.
- 1522… Luther translates the New Testament into German, so that people can check the reformers’ complaints against the papacy. As long as they read German.
- 1526… William Tyndale translates the New Testament into English, although it’s illegal for fifteen years. It’s just in English and German to begin with; Cockney and Klingon translations come later (though are now available).
- 1536… Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries, changing the face of English religion. Unemployment rises by 2%, with thousands of monks, friars, and nuns suddenly out of work. And yes, sorry – a lot of canons were fired (no really, it was very serious at the time).
- 1541… The mock role “the Boy Bishop” is one of the first Christmas traditions to be stopped by the Reformation. Spoilsports.
- 1559… John Calvin publishes his “Institutes”, picking up Luther’s mantle and running with it (not too far because the mantle was nailed to the church door. This is all very metaphorical, by the way). Unlike Luther, Calvin does have a problem with Christmas, because it’s not biblically sanctioned. He doesn’t quite outlaw it; he grumbles to one minister to follow “the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day as you are wont to do”. Christmas is safe. Just not in Scotland…
- 1560… Scotland goes the extra mile (or 500 miles) – Christmas is banned by the Church of Scotland under John Knox. For about four centuries.
- 1575… Christmas Day called “Yule Day” in Scotland; punishments handed out to those found playing, dancing, and singing “filthy carols”.
- 1585… Philip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses records that, “Especially in Christmas time there is nothing else used but cards, dice, tables, masking, mumming, bowling, and such like footeries… Do they think that they are privileged at that time to do evil?… Be merry in the Lord, but not otherwise, not to swill and gull… The true celebration of the feast of Christmas is, to meditate… upon the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, God and man.”
- 1602… Shakespeare’s latest footery – Twelfth Night, or What You Will – debuts on, when else, 2 February – not Twelfth Night, but Candlemas. Elizabeth I’s habit of requesting Christmas plays often forces Shakespeare to write at very short notice. This was intended to close the Christmas season, though it’s not a Christmas play. It’s more Roman Saturnalian, full of cross-dressing and mistaken identity.
- 1607… King James I of England (where they celebrate Christmas) a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland (where they don’t) requests a play for Christmas Day, as well as after- dinner games. The suggestion angers Puritans, Scots, and the king’s players who thought they had Christmas off.
- 1618… King James reinstates Christmas in Scotland, but hardly anyone turns up to celebrate it.
- 1640… Scotland bans Christmas again.
- 1958… Scotland officially reinstates Christmas three hundred years later. In the meantime a New Year celebration, Hogmanay, has filled the gap.
…But apart from Santa, the Christmas tree, mince pies, mistletoe, the Christmas fairy, Mary, Hogmanay, Christmas lights… what did Luther ever do for Christmas?
Indulge yourself: Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available for all good people who click that link.