With Thanksgiving barely behind us, Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, has arrived along with its many traditions. My family cuts down a tree, its evergreen scent filling our living room. We sing carols — loud — throughout the house, unwrap the delicate manger scene and bake gingerbread cookies. And each year, my children dress up in white robes and tinsel halos, “perfect” angels for the pageant at their grandparents’ church.
These traditions engage our senses with the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of Christmas. For all our merriment, it would be easy to think that Christmas has always had these customs.
But as Christian holidays go, Christmas is a relatively new one. It emerged late, after the feast of Easter was well-established. Since no one knew the actual date of Christ’s birth, the feast of the Nativity was celebrated in December, coinciding with the winter solstice and the Roman agricultural festival of Saturnalia.
During the Middle Ages, church was an important part of Christmas, but so was raucous revelry, with riotous crowds in a carnival atmosphere and the poor threatening the rich if they were not offered food and drink. These traditions led the Puritans who settled New England to reject the observance of Christmas. In fact, the holiday was illegal in Boston from 1659 to 1681.
But one 13th-century Christian had a different vision for observing Christmas. Francis of Assisi was the well-dressed but frivolous son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant. He was converted from his dissolute ways by a vision of Christ speaking to him from a crucifix, telling him to rebuild his church. He began giving away his father’s cloth to the poor, and when his dad brought him before the bishop on a charge of theft, Francis threw off his fancy clothes, as well as his ties to his father. Embracing a life of radical poverty, Francis went about the Italian countryside preaching to anyone who would listen. His followers begged for their daily food and slept on the forest floor at night.