The History of Christmas
Christmas is perhaps the most interesting holiday we celebrate for a variety of reasons. First, it is because it is an observation of the birth of Jesus Christ, a subject we will talk about well in a variety of manners into the future. Secondly, it is because the holiday has become a phenomenon that almost eclipses the religious aspect universally, but certainly does for those who don’t believe. There are quite a few customs and traditions, discussed separately in other parts of this website, that make the holiday season highly recognizable, and one that people tend to look forward to all year long [or else this site would not be needed!].
The question of the history of Christmas is more complicated than it seems. For Christians, it was some time before there was a recorded celebration. In fact, in could be anywhere between the third and fifth century before the actually celebration occurred. You have to remember: the amount of Christians post-Christ was very, very, very small, as occurs with most religions, or the growth of anything. It wasn’t like Christ died, and everyone on Earth became Christians and decided to celebrate his birth.
What I’m going to present now is what some Christians don’t want to believe, but it goes without saying that it is most likely truly. As someone who does consider himself to be a believer, this information isn’t really blasphemous. In fact, the most likely situation we explain below makes complete and total sense, and those who stick to the “Jesus was born on December 25th narrative” are probably the more incorrect of the bunch.
There are three main traditions that are likely to have formed why Christmas takes place when it does: Norse, Roman and European. These traditions lend some of their own traditions to what we know Christmas as now, and are the reason Christmas takes place the way it does. Let’s take a look at a brief history and description of these celebrations.
The Norse worshipped gods, namely of which is Odin or Oden. Same god, different spelling. TheNorse referred to the winter solstice as Yule, which they celebrated from around the middle of December until the Yule log burned out, which could take as much as two weeks. Interestingly, one of the nicknames of the god Odin translates our to “Yule Father”. Even in one short paragraph, you can see how many modern traditions are likely to be from this celebration.
Before we discuss the other two celebrations, let’s establish the fact that, like with many things, traditions from one area of the earth or celebrations came to become a part of other parts of the world and celebrations. There are two main reasons for this. In this specific situation there are two events that took place that likely affect things. As Christianity spread, many Norse and other belief systems began to convert to Christianity. When they did, they most likely brought some of their native traditions with them. Thus, you get Yule logs which we still have today, as well as the referring to of Santa Claus as “Father Christmas”, borrowing the “Yule Father” title of Odin. When these converts moved to other portions of the world, they meshed their beliefs with the area they were moving in to.
Interestingly, Europe also had celebrations around this time of the year. Many farmers would slaughter their cattle at this time, to avoid having to give them food and shelter through the winter. This meant that there was an abundance of meat for celebration. This is also the time when a lot of the alcoholic beverages were done fermenting, only adding to the celebration.
As proof of the paragraph I wrote above about customs from other areas spreading into new areas, there was Norse influence on some of the European traditions. As paganism rose, Germanic people began worshipping Odin. They believed that Odin would fly through the sky at night to check on the people who believed in him to see who would continue and who would have their final fate told. This gives way to multiple current traditions of Santa flying in his sleigh at night and the naughty and nice list.
The Roman’s had three main celebrations that occurred during this time; two to honor pagan gods and one to celebrate children. The holiday of children was called Juvenalia. One of the gods that was celebrated at this time as well, similar to a child, was that of Mithra, an infantile god. This celebration was mostly celebrated by the rich.
The final Roman celebration was Saturnalia, which of course honor the god Saturn. This celebration, much like Yule, lasted an extended amount of time, in some circumstances over a month. The livestock had just been slaughtered, and alcohol flowed. During this time, much of is centered on the poor, and putting them into a place of prosperity, which is where it is assumed the Christmas adages of “goodwill to men” and the “season of giving” originated, in that those with substance allowed those without substance to enjoy the same pleasures as they did.
So there is the “Old World” history of Christmas, well, at least kind of. I’m sure you can find lots of more detailed information about it, and I’m sure in time we’ll do more digging and figure out a lot more about things. For now, though, let’s move ahead a few centuries and figure out where things went as American came on to the scene.
The Puritan movement attempted to stop Christmas, in an effort to rid England of the negative associates, such as drunkenness. They succeeded for a while, but eventually, a king who would like to see these customs continue. This was one of the reasons we saw many of the pilgrims leave the area and come to America. Many of these people were more fanatical than their predecessors, which resulted in some of the cities in America not celebrating Christmas. One America won the Revolutionary War, Christmas to an extent was dropped, as English behaviors fell out of the times in the newly independent country.
June 26th, 1890 is the date when America recognized Christmas as an official federal holiday. That might be surprising to some, as I think we tend to believe our traditions have been here throughout, but there was definitely a time where Christmas wasn’t as big as it is now.
Two stories essentially brought Christmas back into the mainstream. The first was a series of stories written by Washington Irving. They were called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which at the basis was a description of celebrations of Christmas in old England in a manor. This was the first book which showed the Christmas traditions that had been lost for quite some time due to English traditions falling out of favor.
However, it was the much, much more popular Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, that brought Christmas firmly into the mainstream. The underlying theme of the novel, charity and good will to all men, brought back the original ideas behind Christmas, and these themes really struck the society in both the US and in Europe. It was a result of the book that many started to celebrate the holiday as they once did.
We know what Christmas is now: it’s hyper commercialized, but at the same time, it does, at it’s core have the same concepts of Christmas past: charity, good will toward men, family and spending time together. That is what I know Christmas as, and when I try to live the Christmas spirit all year round.
I hope you enjoyed this article. I’m releasing it as a blog first, but my ultimate hope is to continue to add to this to make it much fuller. If you want to contribute anything, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!
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