Christmas is a time of tradition. And there are so many traditions associated with Christmas, like turkey dinners, decorated trees, Christmas cards, Santa Claus, mistletoe, yule logs, carols and bells. Many of the things we do at Christmas are based on Christianity, but many have other interesting origins. So we’ve put together this overall history of Christmas, and included as many little histories as we can. So prepare to be enlightened.
Nobody really knows Jesus Christ’s birthday. There have been many dates suggested, like January 1st, January 6th, March 25th, and May 20th. Many thought May 20th was the closest because of the mention in the Gospel of Luke of shepherds watching their flocks by night. And since they only did that during the spring, it was concluded that May 20th would have to be the correct date.
What prompted the institution of December 25th as Jesus’ birth date was the Christian priests’ fear that they were losing converts to a rival religion – Mithraism. This religion observed the “Birthday of the Invincible Sun God”, Mithras, and it had been declared the official state religion by Emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D. The Christian priests were losing their foothold in the religious foundation of society, and they had to do something quickly.
So, acting on the basis that Romans loved a good festival, and that their Mithraism celebrations were held in December, the Church officially declared December 25th to be the birth date of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior. But they had to keep the celebrations meaningful as well, so they marked the day with a mass – Christ’s Mass. You can see where we’re going with this!
Christmas was established by the Christian Church. It was aptly described by a theologian somewhere around the year 320, when he said, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” And this was followed shortly thereafter, in 337, by the official baptism of Roman Emperor Constantine, and the ensuing unity of the emperorship and the Church. Christianity was declared the official state religion.
It’s no surprise that the famous Christmas carol, “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree” was translated from the German original because it was in Germany that the idea of a Christmas tree was born. It happened back in the early 700s, when St. Boniface, an English monk and missionary, was preaching a sermon on the December 25th Nativity to some Germanic Druids.
In order to quell the Druids’ idolatry of the oak tree, St. Boniface cut down a huge one. As it came crashing down, it crushed every bush in its path, except for one small fir sapling. Although this was purely a coincidence, St. Boniface cleverly decided to capitalize on it – he declared it a miracle that this one single sapling hadn’t been killed, and concluded, “Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child.”
By the 16th century, it was common practice in Germany for Christmas trees to be decorated with roses made out of multi-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt and sugar. The placing of lit candles on the tree was the brainchild of Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer. It’s said that he was walking home one winter night, when he looked up and saw, between the branches of the fir trees, a star-filled sky. When he got home, he erected a tree in his house and filled it with lit candles, to try to duplicate the scene for his family.
The Christmas tree, like so many of our American traditions, was brought across the ocean by early European settlers. The actual date of its inception in the United States can be traced back to an entry in the diary of Matthew Zahm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, dated December 20, 1821. The Puritans strongly rejected what they considered a pagan custom as being disrespectful of the original meaning of Christmas.
But, to the ire of the Puritans, there was a movement underway that brought a more festive attitude towards Christmas, and it was led by a women’s magazine called “Godey’s Lady’s Book”. This publication had already helped to bring Thanksgiving to national recognition, and it was doing the same for Christmas holiday festivities. It wasn’t much different from the magazines you see at the counters today, as Christmas approaches, filled with household decorating tips, Christmas recipes, Christmas stockings and instructions on how to make Christmas decorations and other crafts. Godey’s Lady’s Book was very influential in swaying housewives towards the idea that Nativity wasn’t just a holy day, but was cause for festive holiday celebrations, too.
The original idea of Santa Claus, (or Father Christmas in Britain, or Papa Noël in France, etc.) came from St. Nicholas. He was a very pious fellow, born in Lycia, Turkey, in the early 4th century. After his parents died, he totally dedicated his life to Christ and joined a Lycian seminary. It’s been said that he performed miracles of the same magnitude as Jesus. One example that was particularly memorable was the raising of his arms to still a violent storm at sea. This prompted the people to name him the patron saint of sailors.
While still quite young, Nicholas was appointed bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor. He became famous for his generosity, especially towards children. That image has obviously survived the ages. But it didn’t impress the Roman emperor of that time, who threw him in prison. And there he stayed for many years until a new emperor, Constantine, came into power.
Constantine was a Christian, and freed Nicholas, who became a member of Rome’s first Church council in 325. St. Nicholas died on December 6, 342, but his name lived on. He was named the patron saint of Sicily, Greece and Russia, as well as the patron saint of all children.
During his productive days, St. Nicholas used to ride from town to town on a donkey, converting people to Christianity, and helping the poor, especially the children. On December 6th, his Christian feast day, he’d leave gifts beside the hearth: fruit, nuts, candies, and wood and clay figurines. These were more practices that have been adopted by the modern-day Santa Claus.
The Dutch were the only ones to hold onto the St. Nicholas tradition. They put an image of him on the prow of the first Dutch ship to sail to America. They also named the first church built in New York City after him. They brought a couple of other traditions with them, too.
Back in the 16th century, the Dutch put clogs by the hearth on the night St. Nicholas was to come to leave gifts. They filled the wooden shoes with straw, to feed his donkey. St. Nicholas would leave a small gift in the clog in return.
It was also the Dutch name for St. Nicholas that eventually became Santa Claus. The Dutch called St. Nicholas “Sint Nikolass”, which got changed to the Americanized version, “Sinterklass”. When the English took control of New Amsterdam in the 17th century, Sinterklass was Anglicized to Santa Claus.
One aspect of St. Nicholas that’s really changed is his appearance. He was a tall, slender man and, although he did have a long white beard, that was about the only physical resemblance he had to the jolly, big-bellied Santa Claus of today.
There were two things that aided in his conversion – a poem and a cartoon. We really are influenced by the media, and that’s a good example of it. One of the most famous poems ever written is “The Night Before Christmas”, by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore. He wrote it for his children, and kept it within the family because he didn’t want his peers, all classical scholars, to know he’d “stooped so low” as to write a simple children’s poem.
However, a “friend” took a copy of the poem and submitted it to a newspaper. It was quickly picked up by a magazine, and soon became published all across America. The description of Santa Claus in the poem gradually influenced people’s image of him.
The other influence that changed Santa’s physical appearance was a series of cartoons by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for “Harper’s Weekly”. From 1863-1886, Nast published a series of cartoons involving Santa Claus and his activities. They showed him during the year, making games & toys, checking on children’s behavior, and receiving children’s “wish lists”. They also depicted him as increasingly roly-poly.
All those factors add up to the image we now have of Santa Claus.
Christmas is the number one card-selling holiday of the year, with more than 2 billion cards exchanged every year in the U.S. But the modern-day American Christmas card wasn’t introduced until 1875, by Louis Prang, the “father of the American Christmas card”.
Handwritten cards had been exchanged for years. At first, they were handed to the recipients, then they were mailed. In fact, they put quite a burden on the post office, who had to hire more people every Christmas, a practice that still exists today.
But the first Christmas card made for sale was designed by a London, England, artist named John Calcott Horsley. The card read, “merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you.” There were 1,000 of these cards printed, and 12 still remain today, in private collections.
Printed cards became the rage in England, and soon spread to Germany. And it was the Germans who started producing penny Christmas postcards and importing them to America, that eventually put Louis Prang out of business. (Prang’s Christmas cards were very fancy and very expensive.) After World War I, the American greeting card industry began, and became the source for all kinds of cards for every holiday occasion, not just Christmas.
There are several plants and flowers associated with Christmas. Probably one of the most well-known customs (and also one of the oldest) is the hanging of mistletoe. That’s been practiced since the 2nd century B.C., when the Druids hung it around their homes as a symbol of hope, peace and harmony.
The ancient Romans used it, too, for decoration during their Mithraism festivities. After the Christian Church’s inception of Nativity on December 25th, in an effort to do away with any idolatrous custom, they forbade the use of mistletoe for any reason and replaced it with holly. The sharp pointy leaves represented the thorns in Jesus’ crown, and the red berries represented his blood. That’s another tradition that still lives today, with holly wreaths and branches decorating the inside and outside of homes.
And then there’s the poinsettia. This lovely red Christmas plant was found in Mexico, where it was known as the “flower of the blessed night”, representing the Star of Bethlehem. In 1828, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant home with him, where it was named in his honor.
Most people in the world celebrate Christmas. Although there are some religions who believe Christ’s birth wasn’t on December 25th, and so celebrate at other times of the year, the holiday remains the most popular of the year – especially for the kids.
Even though Christmas has become a celebration of gift-giving, it's important that we look back on all the Christmas traditions and remember their relevance to the holiday. We need to remember that Christmas is a time for getting together with family and friends, and sharing together, the peace and harmony that are a natural part of our lives.
The history of Christmas is spread among many customs, from many countries. But the underlying international tradition always lives on – “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men”.
Gareth Marples is a freelance writer providing valuable tips and advice for consumers purchasing gift baskets, fresh flowers online and games for the whole family. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.
This article on the "History of Christmas" reprinted with permission.