People all around the world celebrate Christmas Day as both a religious, commercial, and cultural phenomenon on December 25th. Read more to learn about the history of Christmas, its cultural roots, and how it has changed over the years.
Beyond Santa Claus, Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, and sharing a feast, Christians celebrate the origins of this holiday as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth almost two thousand years ago.
Why Do We Celebrate on December 25th?
Jesus was not actually born in late December. The Bible mentions in Luke 2:8-9 that shepherds were watching their flocks of sheep near Bethlehem. In Jewish custom, shepherds would send their sheep to pasture anywhere from spring to early fall. This means it was likely that Jesus was born no later than October.
So, why then do we celebrate in December? The mid-to-late months of winter have always been a time of celebration for cultures all around the world. Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Europeans celebrated birth and light in the darkest days of winter.
The winter solstice, December 21st, was a time of rejoicing, as the darkest days of winter were finally in the past. The cattle had likely been fattened by this time and were ready for slaughter so they wouldn’t have to be fed through the winter. This meant fresh meat, a highly-scare commodity. In addition, the beer and wine which had been fermenting all year were finally ready for drinking.
A Yuletide Celebration
Have you ever heard of a “yule log”? This is a specifically-selected log to burn on the hearth or a delicious traditional chocolate-y roll cake. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from the winter solstice in late December all the way through January.
To celebrate the longer hours and return of the sun, families would bring home large logs to set on fire. They feasted until the log burned out, which could sometimes take as long as 12 days. This tradition of “Yule” is likely one of the reasons that late December became a season associated with celebration.
The History of Christmas in Roman Tradition
The Romans didn’t experience nearly the harsh winters as those further North. They celebrated Saturnalia, a holiday that honored the god of agriculture, Saturn. It began the week leading up to the winter solstice until late December (typically celebrated from December 17-23).
Saturnalia was a time of indulgence, with plentiful food and drink to go around. All work and business were suspended and the rules of society were turned upside down in almost every single way. Masters gave slaves temporary freedom and the laws and tight order of society were very loosened.
Modern traditions of the holiday season also find their roots in the celebration of the Roman New Year on January 1st. During this time, houses were decorated with fresh greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the needy.
When did it become a Christian Holiday?
Early Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus Christ as a holiday, originally called “The Feast of the Nativity.” Pope Julius I, the first Christian Roman emperor, chose December 25th. It is generally believed that this day was chosen in order to absorb the celebration of the pagan festival Saturnalia, and perhaps adapt some of its more hedonistic and morally questionable traditions.
By selecting a time to celebrate that was already saturated by tradition, Christian church officials lost a lot of control over how the holiday was going to be celebrated. Even so, the chances of the holiday being embraced were much higher. By 432 A.D., the custom spread to Egypt and two hundred years later, to England. Towards the end of the eighth century, its celebration had spread to Scandinavia.
The History of Christmas in the Middle Ages
By the start of the Middle Ages, people widely embraced Christianity and for the most part, it replaced pagan religion and customs. On Christmas, Christians would attend church then celebrate in a rowdy, raucous state similar to modern-day Mardi Gras. Citizens crowned a student or beggar as “the lord of misrule” and the excited crowd participated as his doting subjects.
In the tradition called “wassailing,” the poor would travel to upper-class houses and demand their best food and drink in exchange for a toast to the wealthy’s good health. If they failed to deliver, the rowdy crowd likely terrorized rich with mischief and mayhem. Christmas quickly became a time when higher class citizens could “repay their debt” to society, whether real or imagined, by entertaining the poor.
The Decline of Christmas
Religious reformation swept through Europe in the early 17th century, largely changing the celebration of Christmas. Oliver Cromwell brought a wave of Puritanism to England in 1645. The Puritan’s observance of piety and devout self-discipline starkly contrasted the frivolous manner of Christmas. They largely stamped out the holiday’s grand celebration. In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne, which saw the reinvigoration of the Christmas holiday in England.
The History of Christmas in America
The Pilgrims, the first to settle in the New World, were even more orthodox in their beliefs than the Puritans. As a result, Christmas was not a celebrated holiday in the early days of settlement in America. In fact, the local government outlawed the celebration of Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681. Anyone thought to be celebrating the holiday or exhibiting the Christmas spirit received a 5 shilling fine.
As tensions continued to rise, the English government struggled to control the Puritan sentiments of New England. The Crown implemented English-friendly governors more likely to institute and enforce laws favorable to English customs. Bostonians were particularly adamant about not celebrating the holiday. It represented yet another way the English Crown attempted to exert their authority and meddle in colonists’ affairs.
In 1681, the English government lifted the ban on Christmas. The Puritans continued to protest the holiday. Many reports said the Puritans of Boston marched through the streets on Christmas Eve shouting “No Christmas! No Christmas!” years after the government lifted the ban. Citizens of Boston revolted and even attempted to overthrow an English governor who shut down schools and shops on Christmas Day in 1686.
Through the American Revolution, sentiments toward Christmas continued to remain unfavorable due to its close ties with English tradition. The government finally re-declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870.
Christmas Comes Back
The early 19th century saw a great deal of class conflict and turmoil. Class conflicts intensified around the Christmas season, with high unemployment and gang riots. New York City Council instituted its first police response force to a Christmas riot in 1828. This catalyzed the upper class to begin re-branding the holiday, hoping to change it in the eyes of American citizens.
In 1819, Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about an English manor house celebrating Christmas. It painted a picture of people from different classes coming together to celebrate a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday. This contrasted the climate of class tension and strife of the day.
Irving took quite a bit of creative liberties in his implications of what the “traditions” and “origins” of the holiday were. In fact, many historians agree that Irving’s account invented tradition by implying the “true customs” of the season in his descriptions.
Christmas Takes Off
Christmas finally began to win favor in the eyes of Americans by the 19th century. This is when it began its transition from a rambunctious carnival-like atmosphere to a family-centric time of nostalgia and peace. In 1984, English author Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. This heart-warming tale that celebrated goodwill towards all men really resonated with Americans and English of all classes alike.
The 1800s also saw a changing sentiment of catering to the emotional needs of children as opposed to the mere functionality of family life. Christmas became a time when parents could buy gifts for their children without the underlying assumption of spoiling them.
Traditions of Austria and Germany bridged the gap between the secularized family-centric holiday and the Christian festival by identifying the Christ-child as the giver of gifts. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch tradition of Sinter Klaas which traces back to the 3rd-century Christian monk, patron Saint Nicholas. In some European countries, St. Nicholas appears on his feast day (December 6). He brings small gifts of candy and other gifts to children.
During the next hundred years, the United States looked to the traditions of immigrating families, the Catholic church, and the Episcopal Church to form a new image of the holiday that we know today. Although it seems as though the holiday was steeped in century-old tradition, most of the Christmas rituals celebrated in the United States formed to fit the cultural needs of an ever-growing nation.
The Modern History of Christmas
Countries all over the world celebrate Christmas in unique ways. In the United States, we know the holiday to be a time of giving gifts, caroling, bright lights, decorating a Christmas tree, or a big holiday feast. Santa Claus has become a big part of Christmas, especially in commercial culture.
For Christians, Advent is the season leading up to Christmas day, a time of waiting expectantly in anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas day is the culmination of that anticipation of the arrival of a Savior, born to a young woman named Mary in a manger in Bethlehem. No matter how it’s celebrated, Christmas finds its roots in celebration all around the world.
What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions from your family’s history? Let us know in the comments!