Modern pagans still celebrate the winter solstice at Stonehenge in England.

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History of Christmas

It would be easy enough to imagine Christmas as a simple continuum of tradition dating from the birth of Christ. You'd begin with the nativity story, apply the December 25th date to Jesus' birth, establish the gift-giving precedent of the magi and work from there. Over the centuries, classic Christmas traditions would accumulate: perhaps beginning with the yule log, followed by the Christmas tree and finally winding up in the present day with giant inflatable snowmen and icicle lights.

The history of Christmas, however, is hardly a continuum. It is a varied and riotous story, one that actually predates the birth of Christ. Early Europeans marked the year's longest night -- the winter solstice -- as the beginning of longer days and the rebirth of the sun. They slaughtered livestock that could not be kept through the winter and feasted from late December through January. German pagans honored Oden, a frightening god who flew over settlements at night, blessing some people and cursing others. The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated yuletide, and each family burnt a giant log and feasted until it turned to ash.

In Rome, people celebrated the raucous festival of Saturnalia from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24 in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The celebration consisted of a carnival-like period of feasting, carousing, gambling, gift-giving and upended social positions. Slaves could don their masters' clothes and refuse orders and children had command over adults. Two other Roman festivals, Juvenalia, a feast in honor of Rome's children, and Mithras, a celebration in honor of the infant god Mithra, also fell near the solstice.

By the fourth century, the church decided that Christians needed a December holiday to rival solstice celebrations. Church leaders selected Dec. 25 for the Feast of the Nativity. Christmas gained ground over the next several hundred years, becoming a full-fledged holiday by the ninth century, although it was still less important than Good Friday and Easter.

Early Christmas, however, was not the peaceful, albeit busy family holiday we know today. Christmas' proximity to Saturnalia resulted in it its absorbing some of the Roman festival's excesses. Christmas in the middle ages featured feasting, drinking, riotous behavior and caroling for money. Religious puritans disapproved of such excess in the name of Christ and considered the holiday blasphemous. Oliver Cromwell went so far as to cancel Christmas when he seized control of England in 1645. Decorations were forbidden and soldiers patrolled the street in search of celebrants cooking meat. Puritans in the American colonies took a similarly dour view of Christmas: Yuletide festivities were outlawed in Boston from 1659 though 1681.

But by the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, Christmas began to take on the tame associations it has today. New Yorker Washington Irving wrote popular stories about Christmas that invented and appropriated old traditions, presenting them as the customs of the English gentry. Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert, introduced a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1846. An engraving of the couple with their children in front of the tree popularized the custom throughout England and the United States.

In the 20th century, the focus of Christmas became increasingly commercial. In the next section, we'll learn about traditions involving presents and the history of Christmas gifts.