The origins of Christmas stretch back thousands of years to prehistoric celebrations around the midwinter solstice. And many of the traditions we cherish today have been shaped by centuries of changing beliefs, politics, technology, taste and commerce.
Scroll down to discover the history of Christmas through the ages, starting around 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic.
For many of us, Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year. According to the Pew Research Center, about 90 percent of Americans and 95 percent of Christians celebrate Christmas each year, so it’s a widely celebrated holiday centered on many much-loved traditions: decorating our houses and putting up a Christmas tree, baking Christmas desserts, attending church services on Christmas Eve, eating lots of holiday foods we’ve looked forward to for ages, and exchanging gifts on the big day. The Pew Research Center’s staggering numbers aren’t necessarily surprising: It feels like people start celebrating the holiday as soon as the leaves change color each fall.
It’s no secret that Christmastime is busy. So, with all of the excitement around the holiday, have you ever stopped and wondered where it all started? Well, we’ve done the research on the history of Christmas for you to help you truly understand its backstory. As you probably guessed, the holiday has changed a lot since its inception.
When did Christmas begin?
Officially, Christmas as a holiday most likely began sometime around the 4th century. But let’s back up a bit. According to the History Channel, winter has always been a time of celebration—even before the arrival of Jesus. “Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight,” according to the History Channel. The Norse celebrated Yule, and Germans honored the god Oden. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, and the holiday Juvenalia was held on December 25 for the infant god, Mithra (this was the most sacred holiday for some Romans at the time).
All of that changed in the 4th century when Pope Julius I selected December 25 as the official date when Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus. Why the change? The reasons are still debated, but the generally accepted belief is that December 25 was chosen to increase the likelihood that the celebration would be embraced by Christians around the world over pagan traditions that were already celebrated at the time.
By 432, Christmas had spread to Egypt, and by the Middle Ages, the practice of celebrating Christmas had spread around the globe and replaced pagan festivities, and it would continue to spread in the following centuries, too. Christ’s birth was celebrated on December 25, and January 6 became the date that people marked the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem and found Jesus in the manger. (The period of time between both dates would become known as the 12 days of Christmas.)
By the 17th century, religious reforms were gaining speed, and they also impacted how Christmas was celebrated. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans cancelled Christmas, and it did not return until Charles II returned to the throne. When the Pilgrims came to North America in 1620, they did not bring Christmas with them, and it was actually outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Not wanting to embrace anything British, Americans declined to celebrate Christmas after the American Revolution, so Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday in the U.S. until June 26, 1870.
Americans would go on to embrace and update the Christmas traditions brought to the United States by immigrants, such as the Dutch families who honored the now-very-well-known Saint Nicholas, and welcome new traditions from abroad, such as the Christmas tree, molding the holiday’s traditions into what we know and love today.