We’ve just had the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (this blog missed the big day, as we were busy going on about Halloweeny Christmas creatures). So before we get too far from the half-millennium birthday of Luther nailing 95 these to a door on Halloween (“Trick or indulgence?”), I wouldn’t be doing my job plugging my new Christmas history book if I didn’t stop and think about what old Marty L brought us. Here are 7 things at least – and I’ve not even included reformed ham…
1. The Christmas tree. Alright, Romans brought in shrubs centuries earlier, but Martin Luther’s credited with popularising not just the household Christmas tree, but a certain type of decoration.
The story goes that he was out walking – after a hard day’s reforming – when he happened upon a forest. He probably happened on it quite quickly – this was Germany, so he probably couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But what he did see was the starry starry night, and was so enthralled by a starlit tree and how it recalled the star over Bethlehem, that he ran home to tell his wife of the beautiful scene. Words failed him, so he went back, felled the tree, and plonked the fir in his living-room, adding candles to recreate the starry night.
“There, it looked something like that.”
“You could have just told us, Martin…”
His was thought to be the first traditional German Christmas tree: the Christbaum.
2. Mistletoe. After Luther started a-reforming, some thought the church needed even more reforming. Puritans for example, when in power under Ollie Cromwell, banned all sorts of potential idol worship – including the effigy of the holy family, hung above the front door. The effigies vanished but the sprigs of evergreen surrounding them stayed, especially the mistletoe. The priest used to greet the household under the effigy with a Christian kiss – so that became a kiss under the mistletoe, which handily had berries to pluck after each kiss, ensuring the smooches were finite.
3. The mince pie. Ultimately what used to be known as a ‘Christmas pie’ changed shape under the Puritans because once again, it was a bit idol-worshippy. The pie back then was shaped like a manger (or a coffin – how very theological) – so enterprising British bakers changed the shape to flout the ban – circular, not crib-shaped.
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.
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.