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The Truth About Christmas DOCUMENTARY
1. Early Christians had a soft spot for pagans
It's a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism, said Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. However, he said, you'd be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.
Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term "pagan," said Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K. The term is related to the Latin word meaning "field,". The lingual link makes sense, he said, because early European Christianity was an urban phenomenon, while paganism persisted longer in rustic areas.
Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, Shaw said, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.
"Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism," he said. "It's obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it's also something they think is worth remembering. It's what their ancestors did."
2. We all want that warm Christmas glow
But why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it's a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there's nothing left to be done in the fields.
3. The Church was slow to embrace Christmas
Despite the spread of Christianity, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas for hundreds of years. The Bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born, which wasn't a problem for early Christians, Nissenbaum said.
"It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday," he said.
4. The Puritans hated the holiday
But if the Catholic Church gradually came to embrace Christmas, the Protestant Reformation gave the holiday a good knock on the chin.
In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism, Nissenbaum said.
This likely had something to do with the "raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion" in which Christmas was celebrated, he added.
5. Gifts are a new (and surprisingly controversial) tradition
While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year's Day.
"They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends," Hutton said.
It wasn't until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria's children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armor.
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