Christmas: A History

Decorating the tree, singing carols and exchanging gifts—these are some of the things that make Christmas the most anticipated holiday of the year. Many happy traditions revolve around the Yuletide season, but have you ever wondered when we started celebrating Christmas and how it came about? In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the origin of this beloved holiday.


When did Christmas Start?

Some people think that Christmas began shortly after the life of Jesus Christ. However, the first recorded celebration of Jesus’ birth took place three centuries later during the time of Constantine, the first Roman Christian emperor. Once an avid supporter of pagan gods, Constantine claimed to have seen a vision of the cross before winning an important battle. This led him to renounce his pagan beliefs and ultimately convert to Christianity. In the year 313, he legalized Christianity. Constantine also declared Christmas to be an immovable feast and encouraged all under his rule to observe the occasion. Before this period, Christians had kept mainly to themselves with little to no sign of celebration, as they were fiercely persecuted for their beliefs.

It may be interesting to note that early celebrations of Christmas were a far cry from how we observe it today. In the Middle Ages, the poor would visit the homes of the rich and ask for food and drink. Mischief would ensue if this wasn’t provided, making this early version of Christmas more similar to modern celebrations of Halloween.

Christmas festivities took a turn toward our modern traditions in the 1800s, thanks in part to bestselling authors. Washington Irving released a series of stories called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. in 1819. These stories revolved around an English squire and how he celebrated Christmas in his manor home. Around this time, Charles Dickens also wrote the classic favorite, A Christmas Carol. This timeless tale is credited with popularizing the phrase, “Merry Christmas!”, in the exuberant sense it is used today. Thanks to these two books, the idea of a warm-hearted, family and child oriented Christmas began to take hold and gain influence in both England and the United States.

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It was also in the 1800s when Prince Albert introduced Germany’s time-honored practice of decorating Christmas trees to Britain after his marriage to England’s Queen Victoria. In 1848, after a portrait of the Royal Family alongside their decorated evergreen tree reached American publications, the tradition began to gain popularity in the United States as well. On June 26, 1870, Christmas was officially declared a federal holiday by President Ulysses Grant. Several decades later, one of the nation’s most famous symbols of the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve in 1931, shortly after the site was cleared for construction, workers set up and decorated a 20-foot balsam fir tree with strands of cranberries, paper garlands, and possibly even tin cans and gum wrappers.

Why is Christmas Celebrated?

Christmas is a happy and joyous occasion that is celebrated by millions of people around the world. Have you ever wondered why people celebrate Christmas? The history of Christmas is rich and storied, and involves not just religious components, but cultural ones as well. For Christians, it is a sacred religious holiday to commemorate the birth of Christ—but many people of other faiths participate in the tradition as well. According to the Pew Research Center, around 81 percent of non-Christians in the United States celebrate Christmas. The holiday is generally viewed by non-Christians more as a cultural event to bond and connect with family and friends. Christmas is also widely associated with Santa Claus, a beloved and iconic symbol who is said to bring treats to well-behaved children.

Photo by iStock member Bojan Kontrec.
Photo by iStock member Bojan Kontrec.

In addition to religious and social reasons, many people consider Christmas an opportunity to gather and share blessings with loved ones. Christmas is typically celebrated on the day itself, and on the day before, Christmas Eve. During this time, families traditionally have a festive meal and children wait eagerly to open their presents. The holiday in itself transcends tradition and has become more of an occasion that revolves around family values and togetherness, making it truly a season of peace, joy and love.

A powerful testament to the power of Christmas occurred during one of the darkest periods in modern history. Five months into the First World War, heavy fighting continued along the European Western Front. On 7 December 1914, Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary truce to celebrate Christmas, but his request was officially rejected by the warring countries. On Christmas Eve, however, thousands of opposing troops held unofficial ceasefires.

The “Christmas Truce” began with German and British soldiers singing carols to each other across the battlefield. In some areas on Christmas Day, unarmed German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out Christmas greetings to Allied soldiers. Men from both sides spent the day singing songs, sharing food, and exchanging gifts and souvenirs. The time was also used to collect the dead off the shell-pockmarked battlefield and give them a more respectful resting place. Some accounts describe soldiers from both sides playing friendly football matches in the middle of “no man’s land” with real or makeshift footballs.

Another story involves an English soldier, a former barber, offering haircuts to German and British soldiers alike. Unfortunately, fighting resumed the next day and such a display of goodwill has never be repeated on a similar scale. But this moment of peace and unity reminds us that Christmas holds a special place in many people’s hearts.

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Did you ever think of why Christmas is celebrated specifically on December 25? Some people may be surprised to learn that the Bible never indicates when Jesus was born. No specific date or year is ever mentioned. Some experts say that Jesus was born in spring, not during winter, because shepherds were tending their flocks in the field. Other chronologists put the month of his birth in September or November.

Photo from iStock member David Freund.
Photo from iStock member David Freund.

There are several theories as to why Christmas is set on December 25. December was always considered an auspicious time of year. It is the time of the winter solstice: the day with the shortest time between sunrise and sunset. To many people, it was a time to rejoice and commemorate the sun’s “rebirth” and the start of winter. The Norse celebrated Yule from the winter solstice until January. They celebrated the sun’s return, and would have feasts until the Yule log burned out. Germans also held mid-winter festivities in honor of their god, Odin, who they revered. In other parts of Europe, December was a period of celebration because most cattle were slaughtered during this time, which gave people a supply of fresh meat. Plus most wines were fermented during this season. Jews also observe their festival of lights, called Hanukkah, in the month of Kislev, which is December in the modern calendar.

Establishing December 25th as the official birth of Jesus began with ancient Roman festivals called Saturnalia and Dies Natali Solis Invicti (meaning “birth of the Unconquered Sun”), both of which were held at roughly the same time in December. Saturnalia was a period of revelry and feasting when Roman courts were closed and lawlessness was tolerated. Social classes were reversed and master would take on the role of servant, and vice versa. On the other hand, Dies Natali Solis Invicti was a festival declared by Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D. in honor of their sun god and in celebration of the winter solstice. One theory is that, during the reign of Constantine, this festival was associated with the birthday of Jesus because he was mentioned as the “sun of righteousness” in Christian writings. Most likely, 3rd-century Christian officials adopted the date of these festivals in order to convert pagans with the idea that they could continue their celebrations as Christians.

One more theory as to why Christmas was set on December 25 is based on dating Jesus’ death. Early historians such as Augustine and Tertullian of Carthage held a firm belief that Christ was born and crucified on the same date. In the Bible, the Gospel of John puts the date of the crucifixion on the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. Tertullian’s calculations resulted in his speculation that the date Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 on the Roman calendar. March 25 was later on recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation, when Jesus was said to be conceived. Fast forward to exactly nine months later, and it’s December 25.

The history of Christmas is long and fascinating, with many interesting bits of trivia and tales that often get overlooked in the hustle and bustle of all the season’s preparations. We hope that this post has shed some light on the origin of this popular occasion, helping to make it even more meaningful and memorable. For more on holiday traditions and Christmas trees, visit the Tree Classics site.

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