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Christmas Origins

There are many theories about how Christmas started. Some come from Christianity others from Norse celebrations and even others from Saturnalia. All of these theories/stories have believers and non-believers however regardless of where the theories come from, I will try and cover all of them in this post.

*This post is in no way an attempt to degrade any certain religion. I want to make it known that I have respect for all values of any religion. This post is an attempt on my behalf to expand my knowledge and is in no way meant to be derogatory.*


Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For over 2000 years, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature.

Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teaching form the basis of their religion.

Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and of course waiting for Santa Claus to arrive.


How Did Christmas Start?

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many people rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of daylight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21st, which was the winter solstice through January. To recognize the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would then set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which sometimes could take as long as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.

The end of December was the perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn't have to be fed over the winter. For most people this was the only time of year that they had a supply of fresh meat. Also most wine and beer made throughout the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Odin during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Odin, as they believed that he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decided who would live and die. Due to his presence, many people chose to stay inside.



In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in Scandinavia, Saturnalia- a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture- was celebrated. Starting the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For the whole month, slaves would becomes masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Businesses and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year.


Is Christmas Really The Day Jesus Was Born?

In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention a date for his birth. This fact was later pointed out by Puritans in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring. This is considered simply because shepherds would not be herding in the middle of winter. Pope Julius I chose December 25th. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in a effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. It was first called the Feast of the Nativity, and the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the 6th century.

By the 8th century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13-14 after the 25th. This is due to Western churches using the Gregorian Calendar while the Eastern churches use the Julian Calendar, which is 13-14 days behind the Gregorian Calendar. Both Western and Eastern churches celebrate Epiphany or Three Kings Day, 12 days after their own respective Christmases. This day is believed to have been the day that the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle ages, Christianity had for the most part replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously 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 eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If the owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of the year that the wealthy citizens could repay their real or imagined "debt" to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens


When Christmas Was Cancelled

In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way that Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1647, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, because of this they cancelled Christmas. The protestant reformation had restructured churches across the British Isles, and holy days, Christmas included, were abolished. The usual festivities during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 to January 5) were deemed unacceptable. Shops had to stay open throughout Christmastide, including Christmas Day. Displays of Christmas decorations – holly, ivy and other evergreens – were banned. Other traditions, such as feasting and the celebratory consumption of alcohol, consumed in large quantities then as now, were likewise restricted. Christmas Day, however, didn’t pass quietly. People across England, Scotland and Ireland flouted the rules. In Norwich, the mayor had already been presented with a petition calling for a celebration of a traditional Christmas. He could not allow this publicly, but ignored illegal celebrations across the city.

In Canterbury, the usual Christmas football game was played and festive holly bushes were stood outside house doors. Over the 12 days of Christmas, the partying spread across all of Kent and armed force had to be used to break up the fun. Christmas Day was celebrated in the very heart of Westminster and the churchwardens of St Margaret’s church (which is part of Westminster Abbey) were arrested for failing to stop the party. The London streets were decked with holly and ivy and the shops were closed. The mayor of London was verbally assaulted as he tried to rip down the Christmas decorations with the help of the city’s own battle-hardened veteran regiments. Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk also celebrated Christmas rowdily. Young men armed with spiked clubs patrolled the streets persuading the shopkeepers to stay shut. Taking up arms and breaking the rules weren’t just about experiencing the fun of the season. Fighting against the prohibition of Christmas was a political act. Things had changed and the Christmas rebellion was as much a protest against the “new normal” as it was against the banning of fun. People were fed up with a range of restrictions and financial difficulties that came with the Presbyterian system and the fallout of the civil war.

The aftermath of the Norwich Christmas riots was the most dramatic. The mayor was summoned to London in April 1648 to explain his failure to prohibit the Christmas parties, but a crowd closed the city gates to prevent him from being taken away. Armed forces were again deployed, and in the ensuing riots, the city ammunition magazine exploded, killing at least 40 people. Norwich was not alone. In Kent, the grand jury decided that the Christmas party-going rioters had no choice but to answer to the law and the county went into exuberant rebellion against parliament. Royalists capitalised on the popular discontent and began organising the rioters. Successively in 1647 and 1648, parties led to riots, these riots led to rebellions, which, in turn, caused the Second Civil War that summer. King Charles I was put on trial after his defeat in the war and was executed. This resulted in a revolution and Britain and Ireland became a republic – all because of Christmas.

By popular demand Charles II was restored to the throne in May of 1660 and with him came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620 were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659-1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident. After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favour, including Christmas. In fact Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.


Washington Irving Reinvents Christmas

It wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. When they began to embrace it they re-invented it and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800's piqued American interest in the holiday.

The early century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city's first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This caused certain members of the upper classes to change the way that Christmas was celebrated in America.

In 1819, bestselling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. Th sketched feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving's mind, Christmas should be peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across the lines of wealth or social status. Irving's fictitious celebrants enjoyed "ancient customs" including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving's book however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended- in fact, many historians say the Irving's account actually "invented" tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.


A Christmas Carol

Around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The stories message; the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind; struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday. The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of their children during the early 1800's. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention and gifts on their children without appearing to "spoil" them. As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed.

People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieced of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift-giving. Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries. Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.


Who Invented Santa Claus?

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas who was born n Turkey around 280 A.D.. St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors.

St. Nicholas first entered American popular culture in the late 18th century in New York, when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of "Sint Nikolaas" (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or "Sinter Klaas" for short. "Santa Claus" draws his name from this abbreviation.

In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," more popularly known today by it's first line: "Twas the night before Christmas." The Poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today.


Hope you enjoyed today's post. Have a merry holiday season and enjoy time with you families.


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