Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas market visits: Christmas is celebrated long before 25 December, almost worldwide, and it seems to have become a city festival long ago. This knowledge even makes some people feel a little guilty. Can it be called a Christmas party when it’s only Advent? Isn’t there too much jingle bells and too little Jesus child? Too much commerce and too little devotion? And perhaps going even deeper: Doesn’t the sweet Jesus child conceal the meaning of the Christian message of Christmas? But this text is not about a theological view, not about the question of what the true core of Christmas is. The religio-historical question is which traditions shape today’s practices, whether of Christians or non-Christians, of non-religious or religious people. To answer this, it is necessary to go deeper into history in a few steps, into pasts that still shape the present, here and elsewhere.
Step 1: The global family celebration
Christmas is the feast in and with the family. The commercialisation of the festival is based precisely on the reciprocal giving of presents and the willingness to spend a lot of money (and often on joint consumption) for our loved ones. It was not always like that. Christmas as a family celebration is romantic and Biedermeier. The fir tree in the middle-class living room is the most successful symbol of this connection. And perhaps the most successful German export product before the Volkswagen. Prince Albert of Saxony-Coburg and Gotha carried the Christmas tree into the palaces of his beloved Victoria – and from there they began their triumphal march into the Anglo-Saxon world, into the USA. And were further spread by Charles Dickens and Hollywood. The mass produced piano and the exploding number of Christmas songs make it possible to ritualize the domestic celebration even without any church organ. Johannes Daniel Falk not only composed “O du fröhliche”, but also built the Lutherhof in Weimar, a caring home for neglected children. The inventor of the Advent wreath, Johann Hinrich Wichern, himself an early orphan, invented it for a comparable institution. Especially for those lacking a family, “family Christmas” requires special efforts. That is another reason why many people donate these days for people in precarious situations, worldwide.
Donations don’t just come from Christians. Even the folk song “O Tannenbaum“, “O fir-tree”, written in 1824, managed without any biblical figure. The bourgeois family Christmas does not need the church in principle – and nevertheless includes going to church even in the cities of Western and Central Europe. The long Advent season is today a time of preparation for Christmas presents, which works with a steady increase in symbols, first gingerbread, then lights, crib, scented candles, Nativity scenes. In the final phase, however, people like to leave themselves to the professionals, the specialists in the churches. And those know how to use the situation, how to mobilize against de-churching: with the Catholic invention of the “Feast of the Holy Family” at the end of the 19th century, with crib celebrations for different target groups and new ritual forms of Christmas praise today – baptism not presupposed. From the perspective of religious history, celebrating Christmas has always been a balancing act.
Step 2: Village community celebration
How was Christmas celebrated in front of the bourgeois family? A look into the folklore and the anthropological, folklore and local history museums give an impression. There, temporary rulers of the village are roaming and howling, clubs are carrying meter-high torches to a local mountain on December 24th, and horrible-looking women are beating their way through the village streets. Groups of children ring through the houses and perform scenes of shepherds or narratives from cribs in a more harmless way. Shepherds and kings – then towards the end of the Christmas season – fill their sacks in a similar way. Christmas is at the winter solstice and at the end of the year, and this has provided a helpful and problematic calendar setting right from the start. A Christmas party in the circle of friends is also at the end of the year – like so many company celebrations.
Even before “Merry Christmas”, Christmas was merry and loud. The village rituals marked (and in some places still mark) a state of emergency. Particularly the special role of those otherwise second or third in “rank” – children, young people, women – strengthened the broader community of the village to which even adult men had to subordinate themselves. After all, it was winter. When it wasn’t about big fires, village life was transferred to the heated rooms: there was no barrier of privacy behind which one could hide. It was worse not to be able to get a visit from these monsters or kings.
That, of course, is a Christmas, which did not please a renewed Christianity. The protagonists of the Reformation did not only want to end church Latin, but also such “pagan nonsense”. The rigorous solution was to ban Christmas. The Puritans in England banned Christmas in 1649, in Boston, North America, in 1659. Clearly these bans did not last long. It was better to convert suitable customs to Christian customs or to theologically upgrade them. Not only Catholic baroque princes enjoyed Christmas theatre plays.
Step 3: The poor Jesus child
Spiritual performances, however, were not an invention of the early modern period. To see a Jesus figure being raised at Easter or on Ascension Day and disappearing behind the church ceiling is different from just hearing some short biblical text. Playing along, whether as the one who carries a cross or as the evil Pilate, enabled a different experience. The same applies to all the Maries, Josephs and shepherds of the Christmas performances. Already for medieval piety, emotional identification, compassion and help were the most important approaches of an intensified, individualized Christianity.
What Good Friday performances and processions offered to the men, the Jesus child, wrapped in diapers and in the cradle, offered to women and girls. Since 1300 the wrapped Jesus developed as a baby doll. At first it was made as a toy by and for nuns. From then on, it spread as a girl’s toy or handicraft project – even into the middle-class children’s rooms. Rocking the Christ child (Kindelwiegen) – which Josef, who was initially presented as old and thertefore weak , was not yet able to do – became a religious achievement. Mary showed it off in the pictures of the High Middle Ages, she lovingly looked at the child in the manger, took it out, breastfed it. But Joseph also had to find his role and later became an active foster father who supplied his wife and child with the porridge he had stirred.
It was Franciscan and Dominican monks who, from the 13th century, gave these scenes a central place in the piety that they themselves practiced and preached. In their entourage, crib depictions appeared in the following centuries. After the Reformation it was the Jesuits who placed this object at the centre of their Christmas games. It quickly spread as something that could also be set up in one’s own home as a Christmas symbol. The crib, a feeding trough for animals, not a sleeping place for people and at the same time an old iconographic motif, became the object of devotion as well as an invitation to action – and this tradition is also part of the contemporary approach to Christmas.
Step 4: The Son of God
Christmas is older than the Middle Ages. But it’s not “super-ancient”. For those Jews of the first centuries, who saw themselves as “Christians”, the crucified one was important as the first Person persecuted by the Romans, and a resurrected Jesus was identified as the future ruler of the world. Christmas was only invented when minds heated up on the question of how exactly Jesus Christ was to be thought of: an angel of God? God in human disguise? a man who became God? God and man at the same time?
How to celebrate the appearance of the Redeemer became a declaration of war. Natalis domini, “Birthday of the Lord”, was really for the “true man”, a slap in the face for all the churches and theologians who saw only God in Christ. The “appearance” (Epiphany) in the manger conveyed the same message: down with the false believers. In the eastern Mediterranean, for example, this was emphasized by the fact that Mary was represented not only as the Mother of God, but also as the mother of a human being: She was laid on a puerperium, close to a bath tub – it was just a real birth with midwives and the first bath of the newborn. Where that was not important, she would sit next to it and looking around.
While in Constantinople in the middle of the 4th century, the theologians argued, the church in Rome introduced 25 December, the churches in Alexandria or Jerusalem 6 January as Christmas Day. The one date before, the other after the beginning of the new year on 1 January. No one had ever claimed to know the day Jesus was born. From the beginning, Christmas was associated with celebrations and rituals of the end of the year and the turn of the year – or competed with them, with Saturnalia and sun worship, with New Year customs and divination about the future. Which of the two dates became more important depended on power and trade relations. In Armenia the 25th of December never arrived, in Gaul, later called France, it interrupted at first only briefly a six-week fast before Epiphanias. Advent was also a question of interpretation: Preparation for Christmas, for the celebration of the historic birth of Jesus, as with the Romans, or preparation for the Second Coming, the Last Judgment? Here most of today’s practices position themselves very clearly, namely Roman. Protestant strongholds are on the same page. For confessional sophistry, Christmas was no longer the most important place in modern times.
5. Going to Bethlehem and into the stable
But where in a spatial sense does Christmas belong? Are people adequately celebrating Christmas in the hustle and bustle of the inner cities, crowded with Christmas markets? Does not Christmas belong where it actually happened: out in the fields, in the mountains, where the view of the star is unspoiled by light pollution and the shepherds do not have to be afraid of being run over? One does not have to think of the nationalist excesses – especially the “German Christmas”, which the Nazi regime used and pretended to protect – to ask this question. The answer leads back one last step.
Since the fourth century Jesus was born in a lonely stable or even, in Eastern Mediterranean traditions, in a cave. The greatest mystery of the world invisible to most, and yet visible to those who want to see it: the shepherds, in whom the respective viewers can find themselves, and the others, the Jews and the Gentiles, who become witnesses at least in the form of animals, as ox and donkey. The earliest narratives, probably written more than a century after the birth of Jesus (someone like Paul was not yet interested in biographical details), are unambiguous here. With Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born in the city of Bethlehem. Luke is really important for the urban: he emphasizes the urban character of Bethlehem, speaks of the lack of rentable spaces. The shepherds must leave their place of work, change their location. Epochs that were once again proud of their urban culture also settled their Christmas stables in their pictures in cities, in the Carolingian-Ottoman period, in the High Middle Ages and later. In this respect, the urban Christmas of the present is in a very old, even the oldest tradition. It is in the city in particular that the contrast of the Christmas story increases. Right here, the stable is even more a place that is inappropriate for a birth. This tension does not spare any tradition.
— Jörg Rüpke
Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations”.
All images (c) Jörg Rüpke.