The History of Christmas

16 Dec

xmasThis is the history of Christmas, the holiday, and not a history of the birth of Christ, which the holiday celebrates.

 The Early Church          1st – 4th Centuries

The early Church did not celebrate Christmas. Christmas did not even exist then. The Church calendar revolved around Easter, the celebration of the death, burial, and ressurection of Jesus Christ.

Christmas was not celebrated for a number of reasons.

1. No one knew the date of Jesus’ birth.

2. Ancient peoples did not celebrate birth days the way we do, also the reason for number one.

3. The death, burial, and ressurection of Christ was by far the more important event and therefore the focus of the Church at that time.

So where does Christmas originate if not with the early church? It began with pagan festivals.

The Pagan Holidays      Pre-Christendom

For as long as we have records, Man has held some kind of festival or celebration during the midwinter, usually coinciding with the Winter Solstice and set aside as a special, spiritual time. Almost every European culture held some kind of pagan festival during midwinter. The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, livestock who could not survive the winter were slaughtered to save feed, creating an ample supply of fresh meat. Also, most fermented drinks came of age at this time and were ready for drinking.

In Rome particularly, where the heart of Christianity moved after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, there were two different midwinter celebrations, all of which have significant bearing on Christmas.

1. Saturnalia, a holiday worshipping Saturn, was a hedonistic celebration full of drunken riots and orgies, when slaves ordered their masters around and society was turned upside down.

2. Mithras, a holiday celebrated on December 25th commemorating the birth of the Sun god’s only son, Mithra, who was born as a mortal.

High Christendom  4th Century – 15th Centuries

In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion in Rome. Years later it is declared the official religion of the Empire, banning all further pagan worship. Every imperial subject was “forced” to become a “Christian.”

As Christianity spread over all Europe, however, Church leaders noticed that most people continued to celebrate and observe their old pagan holidays. They were fun. People want to have fun. The Church had nothing to offer in its place. Church leaders were faced with two options: force the issue and threaten excommunication on millions of people or come to a compromise.

In the 6th Century Pope Gregory 1st decides to compromise. He declares that all pagan places of worship be converted into Churches rather than destroyed, that all pagan ‘high places’ be made into Christian shrines to various saints, and that all pagan holidays be transformed into Christian ones. Halloween replaces pagan Samhain on October 31st, and Christmas replaces the midwinter festivals and in particular Mithras on December 25th.

In doing so, however, the Church lost much of the control on how these holidays were celebrated. Images of baby Jesus replaced idols and pagan images, but the people contined to celebrate the holiday in much the same way: with drunken riots and mayhem. Some sot or beggar was crowned the “lord of misrule,” and was paraded around the city making ridiculous orders. The poor stormed the houses of the rich demanding food and money, and attacking them unless placated. Christmas at this time resembled the present-day celebration of Mardi Gras.

Anti-Christmas Reforms  17th – 19th Centuries

In 1517 AD, oddly on October 31st, Martin Luther publishes his 95 thesis, which are later nailed to the door of Wittenburg church, starting the Reformation that fractures the previous invincible Catholic church into various protestant Christian movements from which all protestant denominations come from today.

In England, where the church was ruled by the king and not the pope, reformers were split into two camps. The Puritans, who wanted to reform the Church of England to more Biblical standards, and the Separatists, who believed the Church of England was beyond reform and that a new Church was needed. Both despised Christmas for the thing it had become and felt, like any good thing gone bad, it must be done away with. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans overthrew the monarchy in the English Civil War, Christmas was outlawed. When the monarchy regained control, it re-instituted Christmas in all its mayhem for the sake of public approval.

When the Puritans and Separatists (Pilgrims) came to America, the issue of Christmas was dealt with on a case by case basis. In some places it was practised informally, others not, and some places banned it and made it a fineable offense.

After the American War of Independence and the formation of the United States, any and all English customs fell out of favor and Christmas disappeared almost entierly.

By the 1800’s, Christmas was almost totally dead in America. Where it wasn’t ignored, it was a terrible riot of ungodliness, and in general, good and consciensous people hated it.

The Re-inventing of Christmas  19th Century – Present Day

So where does OUR Christmas come from? Simple, we invented it, and almost totally from scratch.

In the early 1800s one Christmas celebration got so bad that the city of New Yorkcreated the first professional police force to stop it. This event was widely publicised and convicted many of the elite that something had to be done.

In 1819 AD famous author Washington Irving wrote a series of pieces describing the ideal Christmas celebration. One that centered on the family and generosity to the poor. It was not based on anything Irvinghad ever witnessed, it was entierly his own fancy.

At the same time another famous author, Charles Dickens, penned A Christmas Carol, the classic tale of Scrooge who is converted by the Christmas spirits. The moral of this tale struck home with many, further defining what Christmas was all about.

During this time an awareness of the importance of children was also on the rise, and Christmas provided a time where parents could lavish gifts on children without “spoiling” them.

Americans, now enthralled by the holiday, began finding new ways to celebrate it, such as Christmas cards, while re-discovering old traditions as well, such as Christmas trees.

This was also the rise of commercialism. Department stores like Macy’s and Sears and Roebuck quickly discovered was to capitalize on Christmas with things like greeting cards, toy sales, wrapping paper, and magazine ads appearing almost as soon the “new” Christmas. Like it or not, there really was no time when what we call Christmas was not shot through with commercialism. In fact, were Christmas not such a cash-cow, it would probably not exist.

Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870.

Santa Claus, the Myth, the Legend

Santa Claus was single handedly invented in 1823 in the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, more commonly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was published anonymously. Everything we know about Santa, including his appearance, methods, transportation, and magical powers, are first told here.

Santa Claus is loosely based on myths concerning Saint Nicholas, a bishop from the 3rd Century who died in December. Legends say he was very generous and often secretly dropped bags of money in on the poor. Sometimes the legends say he threw the coins down chimneys. Other than this legend about his generosity and his method of delivery through windows and chimneys, there is no resemblance at all between St. Nick and Santa Claus.

Santa quickly catches on and becomes the posterchild of Christmas.

The Salvation Army has been sending Santa Claus-clad donation collectors into the streets since the 1890s.

My personal opinion on Santa Claus is that he is great fun if portrayed properly: as fiction. Fiction is harmless unless turned reality. When we lie to children and tell them Santa is real, we are working hand in hand with the Deceiver to destroy their faith and their trust in us. When they find out that one powerful, invisible, fatherly figure who rewards the good is not real, what will they think when we turn around and try to tell them about Jesus. I know from first hand, my struggle with doubt started with Santa Claus. Some say “they are only children, it does not matter when they are that small.” Yet these are the same people who say life begins at conception and a fetus has rights? Do we stop caring once they are born? Is not a toddler a human being with a soul in need of salvation? But I digress, this is about the history of Christmas, not a discussion on religion.

Why Christmas Is Important

For the Christian, it can be a time of focus for the family and the indivdual on Jesus Christ, celebrating His first coming and looking forward to His Return. We call this Advent, and while we should always focus on the Lord’s return, it is always helpful to set aside special times for concentrated focus and reflection. God instituted many such times for ancient Israel.

Even some of the most ardent unbelievers, secularists and humanists like Christmas. And even though they do their best to make it about anything but Jesus, there is no divorcing Him from the holiday entirely, try as they may, they will have to think about Jesus Christ, if only a bit. This can open doors of evangelism that might otherwise never be open. It is one of the few times Christians can talk about Jesus at length with people who would otherwise not be interested.

Lastly, there is nothing wrong with good fun. God wants us to be happy. In fact, He commands it. How often do the Scriptures command us to be joyful? Christmas comes during a rather bleak and dreary part of the year for most, and is a great time to have a lively and colorful celebration. Yes, with the eating and drinking and merrymaking, so long as there is no sin. Many of ancient Israel’s God-created holidays (Passover, for example) were feasts and times of happiness.


History Lectures from Tennessee Tech University (History 1010-1020, 4360)

History Channel Website

Wikipedia: Christmas, Martin Luther


Posted by on December 16, 2011 in History


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10 responses to “The History of Christmas

  1. Brandon Skaggs (@bkskaggs)

    December 17, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Very well done. Thank you for answering some questions I had.

  2. John Gardner

    December 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Nice work, brother. It’s always nice to read something that doesn’t resort to the clichés of the season. We can celebrate without giving in to consumerism and gluttony, while also not getting our panties on a wad about people taking the X out of CHRISTmas.

    I’m glad you listed some sources at the end. I’m a big time reference checker, and was starting to worry you might be writing this without any citations at all. I figured a lot of it had come from your college classes. The History Channel stuff was good, too.

    • jasoncohoon

      December 17, 2011 at 5:24 pm

      Thanks! I am GLAD you are a big reference checker, keep checking! Many of the errors we encounter today come from people not checking up on things and taking it at face value. I was compelled to write this due to a Focus on the Family program on Way-FM that told some truth and a lot of lies about the history of Christmas. No sources cited on their part, I might add. I wish I could have provided more than simply linking the TTU History Website and the courses in which I got the information. I still have most of the notes I took in those courses if anyone really wants to see them!

  3. alienambassador

    December 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    My parents never told from the beginning that Santa was not real, and that was great because it caused me to focus on Jesus instead of “what can I get this year?”

    • alienambassador

      December 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      I’m sorry, I meant my parent told me that Santa was not real

  4. servantsheart27

    December 5, 2013 at 11:53 am

    This is great! Very interesting information about past Christmases..almost creepy. Mind if I reference this post on my blog before Christmas?

    • jasoncohoon

      January 20, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Uh, this might be really late, but sure, go ahead and share it! I don’t know why I didn’t see this earlier.

  5. Whitney Moody

    December 5, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Great article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.



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