Image Gallery: Christmas Trees
Image Gallery: Christmas Trees

Christmas is a mixture of secular and religious traditions. In New York City, crowds gather to watch the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. See more pictures of Christmas trees.

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The first harbingers of Christmas arrive in October when jarring sales and dec­orations follow fast on the heels of summer. But by December, Christmas's true heralds are out: twinkling lights lining streets, the smell of balsam and spice cookies wafting through the house and visits from friends and relatives. The season's spirit drives people to the mall, to the kitchen, to midnight mass and to festive gatherings.

­But how did people celebrate Christmas before the advent of shopping malls and electric lights? What's the history behind the tradition? At its core, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. The holiday's connection to Christ is obvious through its Old English root of "Cristes maesse" or Christ's Mass. For Christians, it is the time to renew one's faith, give generously and consider the past. But Christmas is also a secular celebration of family--one that many non-practicing Christians and people of other religions are comfortable accepting as their own. The secular nature of Christmas was officially acknowledged in 1870 when the United States Congress made it a federal holiday. Federal and state employees and most private businesses observe Dec. 25 by not working.

Christmas is also a fascinating miscellany of traditions: one that combines pre-Christian pagan rituals with modern traditions. Every family that celebrates Christmas has its own customs--some surprisingly universal, others entirely unique--but all comfortably familiar in their seeming antiquity.

In this article, we'll learn about the history of Christmas from its pagan roots to its modern incarnation as a shopping blitz.