How Did Christmas Start?

It’s common knowledge that the Christmas holiday is based on the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christian Bible gives no exact day or year for his birth so the December 25th date is generally considered to be myth or at least passed down only through oral history. Detailed calculations by a monk resulted in the year of Jesus’ birth being set. Sources included Roman history and references to Roman emperors in the New Testament books.

chritmasSome historians and students of religious history believe the date was miscalculated, but people around the world have continued to mark the birth of Jesus on December 25. In any event, this particular day became more than just a remembrance of this birth. It has become a major holiday, both social and religious in nature.

Late December was a time of celebration during the height of the Roman Empire. In fact, the 21st century holiday season surrounding Christmas has some roots in a pagan celebration called Saturnalia. This was a time of open celebration that bordered on being lawless. Some records indicate that this pagan festival was “converted” to a more Christian celebration by church leaders. This theory indicates that December 25 became the recognized date for Jesus birth as part of an agreement between Christian leaders and those who wanted to continue the pagan festival.

In some early churches of the United States, religious leaders transformed the idea of the festival into a Christian celebration. Other puritanical religious leaders took the opposite course and prevented church members from celebrating because the festival had pagan origins. Some populations in the U.S. and Europe used the festival dates and December 25 to continue traditions that bordered on criminal or at least licentious (no legal or moral restraint).

Through all of this mixed history, Christmas has survived as a major religious, social and commercial holiday. The pagan tradition of tree worship was transformed into the use of Christmas trees we know today. Lower-class citizens in Rome may have played a major part in the tradition of giving gifts during this season of celebration. According to written history of the Roman Empire, leaders demanded that people of the lower class shower the emperor with gifts in the latter part of December and in January.

Through the centuries the Christmas holiday has changed considerably, as populations around the world have adopted many of these traditions while abandoning the pagan connotations. This seasonal celebration has been given a new identity. It is now considered a time of peace, love and sharing.

Consider the history of Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas and by other names. Most historians of religious and social holidays point to a church bishop named Nicholas as the original “Saint Nicholas.” What began as a small cult centered on this one man grew to globe-spanning proportion. Major churches adopted the tradition of gift-giving, using Nicholas as the person responsible for spreading joy and treasures among the population.

A variety of cultural, religious and social customs have been combined over two centuries to make up the Christmas we celebrate today.

Category: History, Government & Society, Holidays and Traditions

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