The history of Christmas is a story that has evolved over centuries, blending various traditions, customs, and religious beliefs. The celebration of Christmas, as we know it today, is a rich tapestry of influences from different cultures and historical periods. Here's an overview of the history of Christmas:
Pagan Roots: The earliest origins of Christmas can be traced back to ancient pagan festivals that celebrated the winter solstice. In many cultures, people marked the shortest day of the year with feasts, fires, and celebrations to welcome the return of longer days and the rebirth of the sun.
Roman Festivals: The Roman Empire played a significant role in shaping Christmas traditions. The festival of Saturnalia, which occurred around the winter solstice, involved feasting, gift-giving, and role reversals. In addition, the Roman holiday of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) celebrated the sun god on December 25th.
Christianization: Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire, and in the early centuries, it did not celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The date of December 25th was chosen as the official date of Christ's birth in the 4th century, likely to coincide with existing pagan celebrations and encourage the conversion of non-Christians.
Nativity Stories: The nativity stories, as described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, became an integral part of Christmas tradition. These stories describe the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the visit of the shepherds and the Magi (Three Wise Men), and the adoration of the infant Jesus.
Medieval Celebrations: In the Middle Ages, Christmas began to take on a more religious tone. It became a time for church services, feasting, and celebrating the birth of Jesus. Nativity scenes and caroling became popular during this time.
Reformation and Puritan Influence: During the Reformation in the 16th century, many Protestant groups, including the Puritans, rejected the celebration of Christmas. They saw it as too closely associated with Catholicism and pagan traditions.
Victorian Revival: In the 19th century, Christmas experienced a revival, thanks in part to the writings of Charles Dickens, particularly "A Christmas Carol." Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized the tradition of the Christmas tree, and the holiday became a time for family gatherings, gift-giving, and goodwill.
Commercialization: The 20th century saw the commercialization of Christmas, with the growth of Santa Claus as a popular figure and the emphasis on gift-giving. Advertising and marketing campaigns played a significant role in shaping the modern image of Christmas.
Globalization: Christmas has become a global celebration, celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike. Many cultures have adopted or adapted Christmas traditions, adding their own unique elements to the holiday.
Religious Significance: While the secular aspects of Christmas are widely celebrated, it remains a deeply religious holiday for Christians, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
The history of Christmas is a complex and multifaceted one, influenced by a wide array of traditions, beliefs, and historical events. Today, Christmas is celebrated in diverse ways around the world, with a focus on themes of love, giving, and togetherness, making it a beloved and cherished holiday for people of many cultures and backgrounds.
Christmas is for joy, for giving and sharing, for laughter, for coming
together with family and friends, for tinsel and brightly decorated
packages... But mostly, Christmas is for love. It was this love for which
Jesus came to this world and sacrificed his life. Though originated by the
Roman Catholics who commemorate the December 25th as the day of birth of
Christ Child, it has gradually come to be celebrated by the non-Catholics as
well. As far as the United States goes, the celebration of X'mas is
comparatively of recent origin. Much of the world was already well into
Christmas celebrations by the time the United States began to wake up. In the
first half of the 19th century the Sunday schools in America held Christmas
celebrations. And the celebration of Christmas in America owes its origin to
these schools. Alabama was the first state to grant legal recognition to X-mas
in 1836. The DC did it in 1870. By 1893 all the states and territories had
made similar acknowledgements.
Thus Christmas is a celebration of love and mirth symbolized by the Nativity,
the Santa, the caribou, the poinsettia and the evergreens. So be it the
United States or in other parts of the world Christmas is celebrated with
equal exuberance as the commemoration of the birth of Christ Child. And this
is the spirit that makes Christmas so popular throughout the world.
Christmas is an annual holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. Christmas
festivities often combine the commemoration of Jesus' birth with various
secular customs, many of which have been influenced by earlier winter
festivals. There are a number of traditions associated with the occasion.
Modern traditions have come to include the display of Nativity scenes, Holly
and Christmas trees, the exchange of gifts and cards, and the arrival of
Father Christmas or Santa Claus on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. The
last one mentioned is a highly popular tradition that has its origin in times
Have you ever heard of Saint Nicholas? St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in
Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. St. Nicholas was a Christian priest,
who later became a bishop. He was a very kind man and always helped the poor
and the needy. He loved children greatly and gave gifts to them. He became
the gift giver of Myra. He was a rich person, and traveled the country
helping people, giving gifts of money and other presents. His gifts were
given late at night, so that the gift giver's identity would remain a secret.
St. Nicholas did not like to be seen when he gave away presents, so the
children of the day were told to go to sleep quickly or he would not come! St
Nicholas was eventually named the patron saint of children, sailors, Russia
A famous story about St. Nicholas, is about a poor man who had no money to
give to his three daughters on their wedding day. St Nick dropped bags of
gold into the stockings which the girls had left to dry by the fire. The
sisters found the gold and ever since, children have hung up stockings on
Christmas Eve hoping that they will be filled with presents by Christmas
You are not too familiar with Saint Nicholas. But you are so with Santa Claus
- a latter day transformation of this same Saint Nicholas. The similarities
between the tale of these two saints are obvious. Like Saint Nicholas, Santa
Claus will not arrive in Christmas unless the children go to sleep early.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus happened largely in
America -- with inspiration from the Dutch. In the 1500s people in England
stopped worshipping St Nicholas and favored more another gift giving figure
Father Christmas. Over the centuries, St. Nicholas' popularity grew, and many
people in Europe made up new stories that showed his concern for children.
The name Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch Sinter Klass pronunciation of
St. Nicholas. In the early days of Dutch New York, "Sinterklass" became known
among the English-speaking as "Santa Claus" (or "Saint Nick"). Early Dutch
settlers in New York (once called New Amsterdam) brought their traditions of
St Nicholas. As children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klass,
this soon became Santa Klass, which was settled as Santa Claus. The old
bishop's cloak with mitre, jewelled gloves and crozier were soon replaced
with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images. In 1809
Washington Irving, a member of the New York Historical Society (which
promoted a Dutch Saint Nicholas as its patron saint), created a tale of a
chubby, pipe-smoking little Saint Nicholas who rode a magic horse through the
air visiting all houses in New York. The elf-like figure was small enough to
slide down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad
ones. Santa Claus is the sum total of several trends, customs and beliefs
that only got unified about a century and a half ago. His story is told
through an ex-animation of the 3 names given to him in America: St. Nicholas,
Kriss Kringle and Santa Clause. Much of the present form of the Santa story
is undoubtedly due to the works of Clement Clark Moore and the cartoons of
Thomas Nast. In 1822, Dr. Moore from New York wrote a Christmas poem, "A
visit from St. Nicholas" to read out to his children on X'mas Eve. Clement
was the son of the bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York. The
poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" was written as a Christmas gift for his
children in 1822. The following year one Ms Harriet Butler read the poem and
requested a copy from him. Later she sent it without Dr. Moore's consent for
publishing to Troy, New York Sentinel. Consequently it was published and
became popular. In 1938 Dr. Moore revealed that St. Nicholas was his
creation. And since then it has appeared countless times. The poem is
currently better known by the title "The Night Before Christmas" from its
famous opening line.
Legends of the Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan
tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use
of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. The English
language phrase "Christmas tree" is first recorded in 1835 and represents an
importation from the German language. Many legends exist about the origin of
the Christmas tree. One is the story of Saint Boniface, an English monk who
organized the Christian Church in France and Germany. One day, as he traveled
about, he came upon a group of pagans gathered around a great oak tree about
to sacrifice a child to the god Thor. To stop the sacrifice and save the
child's life Boniface felled the tree with one mighty blow of his fist. In
its place grew a small fir tree. The saint told the pagan worshipers that the
tiny fir was the Tree of Life and stood the eternal life of Christ.
Another legend holds that Martin Luther, a founder of the Protestant faith,
was walking through the forest one Christmas Eve. As he walked he was awed by
the beauty of millions of stars glimmering through the branches of the
evergreen trees. So taken was he by this beautiful sight that he cut a small
tree and took it home to his family. To recreate that same starlight beauty
he saw in the wood, he placed candles on all its branches.
Yet another legend tells of a poor woodsman who long ago met a lost and
hungry child on Christmas Eve. Though very poor himself, the woodsman gave
the child food and shelter for the night. The woodsman woke the next morning
to find a beautiful glittering tree outside his door. The hungry child was
really the Christ Child in disguise. He created the tree to reward the good
man for his charity.
Others feel the origin of the Christmas tree may be the "Paradise Play." In
medieval times most people could not read and plays were used to teach the
lessons of the bible all over Europe. The Paradise Play, which showed the
creation of man and the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was
performed every year on December 24th. The play was performed in winter
creating a slight problem. An apple tree was needed but apple trees do not
bare fruit in winter so a substitution was made. Evergreens were hung with
apples and used instead.
Another story comes from Germany about spiders and Christmas trees. Long ago
families allowed their animals to come inside and view the Christmas trees on
Christmas Eve. Because the Christ Child was born in a stable, they felt that
the animals should take part in the Christmas celebration. But spiders
weren't allowed because housewives didn't want cobwebs all over everything.
of course the spiders were unhappy about this, so one year they complained to
the Christ Child. He felt sorry for them and decided that late at night He
would let them in to see the trees. The excited spiders loved the Christmas
trees and all night long they crawled about in the branches, leaving them
covered with webs. On Christmas morning the housewives saw what the spiders
had done. But instead of being angry, they were delighted. For in the night
the Christ Child had turned all of the cobwebs into sparkling tinsel. And
even today, tinsel is often used to decorate Christmas trees to add that same
sparkle the Christ Child gave the cobwebs long ago, in Germany.
The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in
the 18th century though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in
the 16th century. From Germany the custom was introduced to England, first
via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince
Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German
immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees may
be decorated with lights and ornaments.
Origins of its name - A popular Christmas tree is the mistletoe. The common
name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was
propagated from bird droppings. It was observed in ancient times that
mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left
droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word
for "twig". So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig". From the earliest times
mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of
European folklore. There are two types of mistletoe. The mistletoe that is
commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native
to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida.
The other type of mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin. The Greeks
and earlier peoples thought that it had mystical powers and down through the
centuries it became associated with many folklore customs. For its supposedly
mystical power mistletoe has long been at the center of many folklore. One is
associated with the Goddess Frigga.
The story goes that Mistletoe was the
sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of
the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother,
for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this
from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every
animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder
now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had
one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had
overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth
nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So
Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter,
Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in
earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to
bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, the goddess and
his mother. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly
white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone
who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree
that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall
them, only a kiss, a token of love. What could be more natural than to
translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and
accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death? Its
medicinal properties, whether real or imaginary, make it a just emblematic of
that Tree of Life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations
thus paralleling it to the Virgin Birth of Christ. In France, the custom
linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day: "Au gui l'An neuf"
(Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged under the
mistletoe any time during the holiday season.
Another popular Christmas plant is the Holly. The plant with its shiny green
prickly leaves and red berry has come to stand for peace and joy, people
often settle arguments under a holly tree. Holly was the sacred plant of
Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honor him. Romans
gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of
Saturn with it. Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued
their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. To avoid
persecution, they decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian
numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly lost its pagan
association and became a symbol of Christmas.
Holly is believed to frighten off witches and protect the home from thunder
and lightning. In West England it is said that sprigs of holly around a young
girl's bed on Christmas Eve are supposed to keep away mischievous little
goblins. In England, British farmers put sprigs of holly on their beehives.
On the first Christmas, they believed, the bees hummed in honor of the Christ
Child. The English also mention the "he holly and the she holly" as being the
determining factor in who will rule the household in the following year, the
"she holly" having smooth leaves and the "he holly" having prickly ones. In
Germany, a piece that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a
charm against lightning. Other beliefs included putting a sprig of holly on
the bedpost to bring sweet dreams and making a tonic from holly to cure a
cough. All of these references give light to "decking the halls with boughs
The sacredness of holly, however, finds a pagan origin. The Druids believed
that holly, with its evergreen look keeps the earth beautiful when the sacred
oak lost it leaves. They used to wear sprigs of holly in their hair when they
went into the forest to watch their priests cut the sacred mistletoe. In many
western cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used
especially in wreaths.
Do you know about the Glastonbury thorn? The Glastonbury thorn legend ties in
Christ's death as well as the celebration of his birth.
The legend goes that
soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain to spread
the message of Christianity. When he traveled there from the Holy Land he
brought with him his staff. Being tired from his journey, he lay down to
rest. In doing so, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he
awoke, he found that the staff had taken root and begun to grow and blossom.
It is said he left it there and it has flowered every Christmas and every
spring . It is also said that a puritan trying to cut down the tree was
blinded by a splinter of the wood before he could do so. The original thorn
did eventually die but not before many cuttings had been taken. It is one of
these very cuttings which is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey today.
With its beautiful, red, star-shape poinsettia is a favorite flower in the
United States. In Central America it is called the "Flame Leaf" or "Flower of
the Holy Night". Now very popular in the US, the American settlers were not
quite familiar with this one only a couple of centuries back. A native of
Mexico, it was brought here over a hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett,
the first US ambassador to Mexico. Most of the poinsettias used these days
come from California.
The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named
Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked
forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up
in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades
and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened
because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they
could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.
One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service.
On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to
take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course they
were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they
said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo
began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green
top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded
by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today.
The Christmas Rose
The Christmas rose, also called the Snow or Winter Rose, is a well known
English plant. It is traditionally regarded as a true Christmas flower. It
blooms in the depths of winter in the mountains of Central Europe. There is a
nice legend associated with it. Legend links it with the birth of Christ and
a little shepherdess named Madelon. As Madelon tented her sheep one cold and
wintry night, wise men and other shepherds passed by the snow covered field
where she was with their gifts for the Christ Child. The wise men carried the
rich gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense and the shepherds, fruits, honey
and doves. Poor Madelon began to weep at the thought of having nothing, not
even a simple flower for the Newborn King. An angel, seeing her tears,
brushed away the snow revealing a most beautiful white flower tipped with
pink - the Christmas rose. Also in central and northern Europe it is the
custom to break off a branch of a cherry tree at the beginning of the Advent
and keep it in water in a warm room; the flowers should burst into bloom at
Reindeer has come to be associated with the Christmas riding the tradition of
the Santa Claus. As Santa is believed to have from the far away North, what
else than a reindeer drawn sledge can serve as a better carriage?
It is man's most ancient herd animal, the first animals being raised around
15,000 years ago. Up until about 12,000 years ago, reindeer grazed over a
vast area of Europe. Rock paintings by primitive peoples featuring them are
widespread, as are discoveries of tools made from reindeer horn. there was
even a period of European prehistory in a part of France called Dordogne that
is sometimes called "the civilization of reindeer." The only surviving part
of such a civilization might be found in Lapland, which is the northern part
of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The legend of Santa's reindeer was created in a famous poem by Clement Clarke
Moore- "A visit from St. Nicholas", known better now as "The Night Before
Christmas" . Santa is believed to have eight reindeers, who magically pull
his sleigh through the sky. They are named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen,
Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.
Centuries ago, in the pagan times, Scandinavian people believed that elves
are house gnomes who guarded their homes against evil. If you were good, the
elves were good to you, but if you were bad, the mischievous elves would play
tricks on you. Although these gnomes mostly were benevolent, they could
quickly turn nasty when not properly treated, so it is told. Some of the
tricks they enjoyed playing were giving you nightmares by sitting on your
head while you were dreaming, tangling your hair as you slept, making your
milk turn sour, and stealing your sausages. Folks believed that if they left
a bowl of porridge on the doorstep at night, the elves would be happy and not
subject them to their ornery antics. Throughout the centuries, they were
either loved or loathed. Some people even believed them to be trolls and
cannibals. The perception of gnomes largely depended on whether a person was
naughty, or nice.
By the mid-1800's the true purpose of the elves was revealed by the
Scandinavians. Elves - already a tradition associated with story telling and
magic, assumed a new significance in the mid-1800's and their true intention
began to be held as nothing else but to help Father Christmas (Santa Claus).
This was the handiwork of the popular Scandinavian writers of the day. At
this time, elaborate Christmas festivals regained popularity and Scandinavian
story writers such as Thile, Toplius, Rydberg sketched the elves' true role
in modern life: fairies that are somewhat mischievous, but the true friends
and helpers of Father Christmas. It is during this period when the elves
began to be referred to as the "Christmas elves", or simply "elves", and not
"house gnomes" anymore. Artists such as Hansen and Nystrm completed the
picture of elves for us. It is now began to be held that the elves help Santa
design and make the wonderful toys and gifts he brings to children. They were
said to have other duties as well. Some elves take care of Santa's reindeer
and keep his sleigh in good condition, ready to fly through the skies on
Christmas Eve. Others help Santa keep his naughty and nice list in order, and
some elves guard the secret location of Santa's village. Elves make sudden
appearances in the days before Christmas, to keep an eye on each children and
see which of them are behaving well and obeying their parents. They are
believed to be Santa's secret agents and report their findings back to him.
Children who are unkind and misbehave have their names added to the naughty
list and may wake up Christmas morning to find their filled with lumps of
coal or bundles of twigs!
Today, elves associated with Christmas are symbols to remind children to be
good and not naughty!