A Short History of Christmas

In honor of the holidays, I’ve decided to research the history of Christmas beyond the nativity. I was raised in a religious home, so it wasn’t until I started college that I began to question our Christmas tradition. What does Santa Claus have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25th when the Bible never states Jesus’ date of birth? Is Christmas only a corporate holiday devised by corporations? All very good questions. Allow me to share with you what I have found.

Christmas is both a religious holiday and a commercialized festivity. Its origins actually date back before the arrival of Jesus. The middle of winter had always been a cause for celebration in ancient civilizations. They celebrated the winter solstice, the day with the shortest period of daylight, because it signaled the end of the harsh winter and they could start to enjoy longer days. In Scandinavia, they had to slaughter the cattle because they could not feed them during the winter. This provided them with plenty of food, which was cause for great celebration. On top of that, most of the beers and wines they’d been preparing throughout the year fermented by winter.

However, the most well-known pagan tradition that took place during the end of winter was Saturnalia. Celebrated by the Romans, Saturnalia honored the god of agriculture, Saturn. This was a time for much riot and disorder: the slaves were masters, businesses and schools closed, and peasants ran the council.

In the fourth century, the church decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Although the Bible does not specify the date of his birth, Pope Julius I chose December 25th. Many say that this was because Saturnalia was held on this day and the church wished to absorb or adopt the traditions of the festival. While doing this increased the probability that people would celebrate the holiday, they now had no control over how it was to be done. Over centuries, Christmas acquired a carnivalesque atmosphere that resembles that of today’s Mardi Gras.

 

Christmas was not a holiday in early America. As a matter of fact, it was actually outlawed in Boston and anyone who exhibited Christmas spirit would be fined five shillings. However, Jamestown, VA did celebrate the holiday, as they were Catholics. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday. This was greatly due to writers, such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, who wrote about Christmas in a way that swayed popular opinion. It was at this time that Christmas started to focus on children. Now, parents could present their children with presents without worrying about spoiling them. After their works, Christmas ceased to be the riotous affair of its origins in favor of becoming the more family-friendly, well-wishing celebration it is today.

As for Santa Claus, his origins can be traced back to 280 A.D., the year Saint Nicholas is believed to have been born in Turkey. He was a monk who denounced all of his riches to help the needy. Over time, he became known as the protector of children. His feast day is celebrated on December 6th, the anniversary of his death.

His first appearance in America was in 1773 after a newspaper reported that a group of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death in New York.

The name Santa Claus has its origins in Dutch, as Sinter Klaas is the shortened version of Sint Nikolaas, which is the Dutch variation of Saint Nicholas. In 1804, woodcuts of Sinter Klaas began to be distributed and in 1809, Irving helped normalize stories of Sinter Klaas when he called him the patron saint of New York in his book. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem Twas the night before Christmas a visit from St. Nicholas also helped popularize the image of Santa Claus. By the 1840s, store Christmas ads featured images of Santa Claus. However, it wasn’t until 1881 that Santa got his red suit. Soon after, the Salvation Army began dressing up volunteers in the Santa Claus outfit in an effort to get more donations. From then on, Santa Claus has been embedded in the collective imaginary of the nation.

 

Image credit: 1, 2, & 3