Christmas is a significant religious holiday celebrated on December 25th that has become a cultural and commercial phenomenon worldwide. For over two millennia, people all around the globe have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular. Christians commemorate Christmas Day as the birth anniversary of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their faith. Popular customs include:
Decorating Christmas trees.
Sharing meals with family and friends.
Eagerly awaiting Santa Claus’s arrival.
The Starting of Christmas
Winter has been a time of celebration all over the world. Even before the birth of Jesus Christ, people in Europe rejoiced during the darkest days of winter. The winter solstice marked the end of the worst of the winter, and people could look forward to longer days and more sunlight.
The Norse celebrated Yule in Scandinavia from December 21st, the winter solstice, through January. Fathers and sons would bring home large logs to burn in recognition of the sun’s return. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born in the coming year.
December was the perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
In Germany, people honoured the pagan god Odin during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Odin, believing he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people and decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
Saturnalia and Christmas
During the winter season in Rome, Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, was celebrated. The harsh winter of the far north was not experienced in Rome, so the month-long festival began in the week leading up to the winter solstice. Saturnalia was a time of indulgence, where food and drinks were in abundance, and the standard social order of Rome was turned upside down. During the festival, enslaved people were granted temporary freedom and treated as equals. Businesses and schools remained closed, allowing everyone to enjoy the festivities of Saturnalia.
Apart from this, Romans also observed Juvenalia, a feast that honoured the children of Rome, around the winter solstice. It was also common for members of the upper classes to celebrate the birthday of Mithra, an infant god born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was considered the most sacred day of the year.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the primary holiday, and the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. It was only in the fourth century that church officials decided to establish Jesus’ birth as a holiday. However, the Bible does not specify the date of his birth, a point that Puritans later used to deny the legitimacy of the celebration. While some evidence suggests that his birth occurred in the spring, Pope Julius I selected December 25th as the date. This day is believed to have been chosen to adopt and absorb the customs of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Initially referred to as the Feast of the Nativity, the tradition spread to Egypt by 432 and England by the end of the sixth century.
By celebrating Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the likelihood that it would be popularly embraced but relinquished control over how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had primarily replaced pagan religion.
On Christmas, worshippers attended church and celebrated boisterously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule,” and enthusiastic revellers would play the role of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the wealthy and demand their best food and drink. If the owners did not comply, their visitors would likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became an opportunity for the upper classes to repay their actual or perceived “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
In the early 17th century, religious reform swept across Europe, altering how Christmas was celebrated. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took control of England in 1645, they resolved to eliminate decadence and cancelled Christmas as part of their effort. However, due to popular demand, Charles II was reinstated to the throne, and the revival of the beloved holiday came with him.
The Pilgrims, English separatists who migrated to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. Consequently, Christmas was not considered a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was banned in Boston, and anyone who expressed the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. However, Captain John Smith reported that everyone celebrated Christmas in the Jamestown settlement without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs, including Christmas, fell out of favour. Christmas was only declared a federal holiday on June 26th, 1870.
The Reivention of Christmas in America
Americans started celebrating Christmas in the 19th century. Before then, Christmas was a wild carnival holiday. However, in the early 1800s, America was experiencing a period of conflict and turmoil. The lower classes were unemployed and often rioted during the Christmas season. In response to a Christmas riot in 1828, the New York City Council formed the city’s first police force. This event prompted the upper class to change the way they celebrated Christmas.
In 1819, a famous author, Washington Irving, wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. It was a collection of stories about celebrating Christmas in England. Irving imagined Christmas as a peaceful and warm-hearted holiday that could bring people together, regardless of their wealth or social status. In his stories, people from different social classes mingled effortlessly and enjoyed ancient customs, including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Although Irving’s book was not based on any real holiday celebration, his stories created a new tradition by implying that they described the authentic customs of the season.
A Christmas Carol
During the early 1800s, families became less strict and more considerate of children's emotional needs. This was also when Charles Dickens, an English author, wrote the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. The story's message of charity and goodwill towards people resonated deeply with both the United States and England, and it showed the members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday. As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, they looked to recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopal churches to learn how the day should be celebrated. Old customs were revived, and in the next 100 years, Americans created their own Christmas tradition, which included elements of many other customs, such as decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and exchanging gifts. Even though most families believed they were celebrating Christmas as it had been done for centuries, Americans reinvented it to fit a growing nation's cultural needs.
Inventing Santa Claus
The origin of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born in Turkey around A.D. 280. After giving away all of his inherited wealth, St. Nicholas travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick, earning himself the reputation of being the protector of children and sailors.
In the late 18th century in New York, Dutch families gathered to honour the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or “Sinter Klaas” for short, which is where “Santa Claus” got his name from.
Fast forward to 1822, when Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem titled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more famously known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” The poem portrayed Santa Claus as a merry man who travels from home to home on a sledge pulled by reindeer to deliver toys.
The image of Santa Claus that we know today as a jolly man wearing red with a white beard and a sack full of toys was popularized in 1881 by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who used Moore’s poem as inspiration.
Around 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold annually in the United States. There are approximately 15,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States, and it takes between four and 15 years for the trees to grow before they are sold.
In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were similar to today's Mardi Gras parties, rowdy and raucous.
From 1659 to 1681, Boston outlawed the celebration of Christmas, and anyone caught breaking the law was fined five shillings.
On June 26, 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States.
The first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in Captain John Smith's 1607 Jamestown settlement.
Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828.
The Salvation Army has been sending Santa Claus-clad donation collectors into the streets since the 1890s.
Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was created by Robert L. May in 1939. May wrote a poem about the reindeer to encourage customers to shop at the Montgomery Ward department store.
Construction workers began the tradition of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 1931.