The Religious Roots of Christmas

Look back at the sacred history of the festive winter holiday.

Christmas, History

With deep roots in Christianity, to many people Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Over the centuries it has grown to represent so much more to everyone around the world. Whether it's thanks to the ancient festival of Saturnalia or the classic story A Christmas Tale, Christmas has become the holiday it is today because of it's rich and often tumultuous history. Let's take a look back at the roots of our current traditions and how Christmas became the holiday of charity and good will towards all mankind.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, 1783

Long before the man known as Jesus was born, societies all over ancient Europe would celebrate in the month of December, especially around December 21st, the winter solstice. It was a time when livestock would be slaughtered so they did not have to be fed through the winter, and often any beer or spirits that had been fermenting throughout the year would be ready to drink. With an abundant supply of fresh meat and drink, it's no wonder ancient cultures would celebrate the winter season. In Scandinavia, The Norse would celebrate Yule beginning on December 21st through January. To celebrate "the return of the sun", which alluded to longer days and the sun god, the Norse would set large evergreen logs on fire and feast until it burned out, often taking nearly two weeks to do so. This is often recognized as the origin of the Yule log tradition and even tangentially the origin of the Christmas tree. Further south where the winters weren't as harsh, the people of Rome would celebrate Saturnalia leading up to the winter solstice on the Roman Calendar, December 25th, in honor of the god of Agriculture, Saturn. It was a purely hedonistic holiday that saw social constructs fall away for the entire time of the celebration, but it was also a time of gift giving and caring for your fellow man. The Romans also celebrated Juvenalia at the solstice, a holiday feast honoring the children of Rome, while many upper class Romans would celebrate the birth of Mithra, the infant god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th.

Adoration of the Shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622, depicting the Nativity of Jesus Christ

It's not hard to see where many of our current customs come from, but it wasn't until the fourth century that Christmas would become inexorably tied to Christianity and Jesus Christ. It was around this time that the church decided to formally celebrate the birth of Jesus, but there was one problem... no one knew when Jesus was born, as the Bible does not explicitly say. Although there are many theories, including one that suggests Jesus' conception was on March 25 and thus was born nine months later, it is commonly assumed that the Christian church wanted to adopt and assimilate the pagan traditions of older solstice holidays, especially Saturnalia. There is also the strong connection to the "birth of the sun" and the "birth of the son", wherein both Roman belief and Christianity had infant gods that were born not from man. Pope Julius I officially declared December 25th the birth of Jesus Christ, instituting the Feast of the Nativity celebration that eventually spread throughout Egypt and England in the sixth century. By the eight century, Christ Mass as it came to be known had been widely celebrated, even spreading back to Scandinavia. The choice of December 25th by the church helped easily spread the celebration of Christmas, and by the Middle Ages, Christianity had replaced most pagan religions. However, the rowdy festival-like pagan traditions died hard, and the church found it couldn't dictate how the winter holiday was celebrated. 

In the 17th century, religious reform had changed the way Christmas was celebrated, causing English Puritans to denounce the holiday. As a result, Christmas was not a big part of early American history when the Pilgrims landed in 1620, even going so far as to outlaw the holiday in Boston from 1659 to 1681. This lead to Christmas falling out of favor until after the American Revolution, and wasn't a federal holiday until June 26th, 1870. Many things lead to a shift in how Christmas was viewed, but it was in the 1800s that the true change in mindset came about. In 1828, a Christmas riot in New York lead to a desire by the upper class to change how Christmas was celebrated in America. Numerous stories about Christmas being a holiday of warmth and caring for your fellow man regardless of social status began appearing in popular culture, including The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving. But it wasn't until Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol did Christmas truly begin to change in the minds of Americans. The touching tale of good will and cherishing family, coupled with a shift away from disciplining children to a more loving parental environment, really helped fuel a fundamental shift in how Christmas was celebrated. Over the years, Americans began to look towards older, more secular traditions of gift giving and feasting while slowly moving away from religious influences, creating a patchwork celebration that became a new holiday all it's own, and one we recognize today as Christmas.

Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast, 1881

Many of the custom we have today came from the traditions of old. In the Norse Yule celebrations, evergreen tree branches cut off of the Yule log were used to decorate the home. In medieval Germany, Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples, to symbolize the garden of Eden. Over time the apples would then be replaced with glass bulbs, giving way to ornaments of all shapes and sizes today. Santa Claus also has deep roots in ancient winter celebrations. In the fourth century, the Turkish bishop Nicholas was celebrated for his Saintly duties and secret gift giving habit. Known as Sinterklaas in Holand, Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children. His death was celebrated on December 6th as Saint Nicholas day, where good children awoke to gifts of toys and candy while bad children got nothing. It wasn't until the 19th century that America was introduced to Saint Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, or more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas." This version of Saint Nicholas traveled on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivered gifts to good children by climbing down the chimney. In 1863 and onward, cartoons of Saint Nicholas by Thomas Nast became popular, depicting a jolly, rotund man in a red outfit with a sack full of toys who lived at the North Pole and carried a list of all naughty and nice children. It was this poem and these memorable images coupled with American capitalism that single-handedly solidified the image of the mythical figure Americans know as Santa Claus today.

Merry Christmas - Traditions

Santa Claus is now ubiquitous with the holiday season, and there's no better way to celebrate your love of Christmas than by decorating! While it is fun to decorate, it's also enlightening to discover where those traditions come from. Just like the Norsemen of old, you can decorate your home with fun pine garlands, even one's with Christmas lights too. Carry on the tradition of Medieval Germany by decorating your tree with tons of fun ornaments. We love learning about the roots of some of our favorite traditions, as you can tell by the name of our store, Traditions! It's important to connect with the past and celebrate the future during the holiday season, and there's no better way to do that than by surrounding yourself and your family with warm, comforting decorations that remind you of the joy of childhood. Be sure to check out our gallery for fun decorating ideas, and be sure to check out our Ornament Section and Christmas Decor. Merry Christmas to all, from all of us at Traditions!

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