The Origins of Christmas

Kayla Corless on Dec 21, 2022 6:00:00 AM

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is right around the corner (quite literally), which entails time spent with loved ones and celebrations for the holiday season. But do we truly know many of the origins of one of the world’s most popular holidays?

Today, we know Christmas to be a time of gift-giving, delicious food, and time spent with our friends and family, which is rather accurate to how the holiday has been celebrated for years. However, early celebrations for Christmas and other holidays during this time were celebrated differently than what we know now.

Initially, before the celebration of Christmas, early European holidays were celebrated instead. Pagans had a strong hold on December-related celebrations in Europe around the time that Christianity was spreading throughout the continent. One of the most popular celebrations, known as Saturnalia, was celebrated by the Romans to honor Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. Saturnalia was celebrated a week before the winter solstice, and celebrations included food and drinks for every person, as well as school and work closures.

Alongside Saturnalia, the Norse celebrated Yule beginning on December 21st which extended through January. People would celebrate through feasting, and men would gather and burn logs to symbolize the hope for abundance in the new year. In much of Europe, winter solstice celebrations were common. Many cultures wanted to honor and recognize the incoming year, with a strong emphasis on welcoming abundance into communities and personal lives. 

Initially, Christmas was actually overpowered by Easter in terms of Christian celebrations. During the fourth century is when the church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but since there was no clear indication of when his birth was, Pope Julius I chose to celebrate it on December 25th. Slowly, Christian practices for Christmas began to overpower Pagan celebrations, and had become widely celebrated by the Middle Ages. 

Early Christmas celebrations were far different from what we know today. Celebrators would wreak havoc in their communities. The poor would demand the best foods from the rich, and would even harass the rich until they fulfilled their wishes. 

During the 17th century in England, Puritan beliefs took over, and Christmas was no longer a welcomed holiday. Oliver Cromwell, a political leader in England, thought of Christmas celebrations as too decadent, and wanted to rid the country of Christmas. In fact, this way of thinking carried over to America with the early Puritan settlers during the early 1600s. 

In the 1800s, Americans began to change the narrative of what Christmas had represented in the past to something much more meaningful. What was once a day of chaos turned into a day of peace and calmness. Author Washington Irving can be credited to be the re-inventor of Christmas through his depiction of a family-centered holiday. Irving created stories depicting togetherness and giving during Christmas, which was new considering how Christmas was celebrated previously. In the United States, Christmas was officially declared a federal holiday on June 26th, 1870 and has been celebrated annually since.

Gradually, more authors and public figures began to explore this new identity for Christmas. More people began to incorporate traditions that were original to the holiday’s early celebrations and even began to combine traditions from different cultures, like tree decorating and gift giving, for example. 

From all of us at CEWT, we wish you a very Merry Christmas! No matter how you decide to  celebrate, may you have a joyous day filled with peace and joy.



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