How Christmas Works

By: Sarah Dowdey  | 
girl decorating Christmas tree
It's hard to know who loves Christmas more, kids or their parents. Marko Geber/Getty Images

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 gingerbread cookies wafting through the house, and visiting friends and relatives pile into ever room of your house. 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.


History of Christmas

We haven't always celebrated Christmas as we know it today. For instance, the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the god of agriculture. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

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 Dec. 25 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. Enslaved people 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 through 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.


Christmas Gifts

wrapping Christmas gifts
Giving gifts is almost as awesome as getting them. Almost. LOUISE BEAUMONT/Getty Images

For many people — whether they care to admit it or not — Christmas is about presents. Children nearly burst in anticipation of Christmas morning. Far-sighted adults start stockpiling on-sale gifts early in the summer. The procrastinating multitudes flock to the mall in the week preceding the holiday. Americans spent over $$789.4 billion billion on gifts in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes retail and online sales.

Christmas's gift-giving tradition has its roots in the Three Kings' offerings to the infant Jesus. The magi traveled to Bethlehem to present Christ gifts. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches and European countries still celebrate the traditional date of the Magi's arrival — Jan. 6 or Three Kings' Day — with a Christmas-like gift exchange.


Romans traded gifts during Saturnalia, and 13th century French nuns distributed presents to the poor on St. Nicholas' Eve. However, gift-giving did not become the central Christmas tradition it is today until the late 18th century.

Gifts were ostensibly meant to remind people of the magi's offerings to Jesus and of God's gift of Christ to humankind. But despite the rationalized Christian roots of gift-giving, the practice ultimately steered Christmas closer to the secularized holiday it is today. Stores began placing Christmas-themed ads in newspapers in 1820. Santa Claus, the increasingly popular bearer of gifts, started popping up in ads and stores 20 years later. By 1867, the Macy's department store in New York City stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve, allowing last-minute shoppers to make their purchases.

Today, Christmas is a bonafide gift-giving bonanza. Desperate parents scrabble over the under-stocked toy of the season. Stores bring out the tinsel and greenery in early October. And sale-enthusiasts queue up before dawn the day after Thanksgiving. Most retailers rely on the holidays to make up for the summer doldrums and prepare for the slow sales of the New Year. This dependence has made Christmas, a single day in late December, swell into a three month holiday season. "The holidays" — with their sales, decorations and mall Santas — now reign through nearly a quarter of the year.

Some shoppers appreciate the early bird merchants. They make their purchases over the summer or in the early fall to avoid stress or save money. But for many consumers, October allusions to Christmas only serve as an annoyance, or, in some cases, even a deterrent from shopping at all. In response to consumer complaints, many stores have adopted subtler holiday tactics. They still begin their sales and ad campaigns in early October but hold back the overt holiday images and greetings until closer to November [source: New York Times].


Christmas Traditions

Christmas tree
There are a lot of traditions surrounding Christmas, but one that is a standard is the Christmas tree. It has never gone out of style. Mike Kurtz/Getty Images

Christmas traditions have a way of feeling timeless — you may have seen the same ornaments, sung the same songs and eaten the same foods for your entire life. Some Christmas traditions are, in fact, ancient. They have pre-Christian roots and originate from pagan winter-solstice celebrations or Roman festivals. Other traditions are relatively modern — either rescued from oblivion or conjured up in the surprisingly recent past. Some significant holiday traditions include decorations, activities and food.

Christmas Decorations

With Americans spending about $8 billion annually on Christmas decorations, it's clear that tinsel, green trimmings and electric lights are an important part of most peoples' holiday. Evergreen trees and garlands were used as decorative symbols of eternal life by ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews; European pagans sometimes worshiped evergreen trees. By medieval times, western Germans used fir trees to represent the Tree of Paradise in mystery plays about Adam and Eve. They decorated the trees with apples and later with wafers to symbolize the host. The trees grew increasingly popular in Germany and settlers introduced them to North America in the 17th century. Many people also decorate with holly, mistletoe and ivy. Decorators started lighting up their trees with electric bulbs in the 1890s. Since then, lights have become an integral part of Christmas decorating.


Christmas Activities

Outdoor light displays and other decorating traditions have created Christmas activities of their own. Decorators sometimes compete over the most ornate lighting displays and spectators walk or drive through neighborhoods to marvel at the exhibits. Schools and churches often stage Christmas pageants that reenact the nativity scenes. Saint Francis of Assisi started this custom in 1223, believing a life-size staging of the crèche would make Jesus' story clear and accessible. Christmas pageants might also include traditional carols that are still sometimes sung door to door by groups of friends or neighbors.

Christmas Food

Traditional Christmas food often gets a bad rap — there's green beans soaked in mushroom soup, potentially primordial fruitcake and blob-like figgy pudding that, for some reason, made carolers sing "we won't leave until we get some." But Christmas fare is also a delicious combination of harvest feast foods, like turkey, squashes and potatoes; winter festival foods like roasted meats and an array of baked goods that outdoes any other time of year. Many novelty treats mimic other Christmas traditions: the Bûche de Nöel imitates the Yule log, gingerbread houses copy well-trimmed colorful chalets and cookie cutters turn out legions of trees, stars and Santas.


Was Jesus Really Born Dec. 25?

Nativity scene
Nobody is sure when Jesus was really born, but scholars are pretty sure it's unlikely that it was in December. Andrew_Howe/Getty Images

­At Christmastime, you might notice signs amid residential light displays or on church boards that merrily proclaim "Happy Birthday, Jesus" or announce that "Jesus is the reason for the season." Of course, such messages are merely meant to remind people of the sentiment behind Christmas for Christians. But the signs do raise questions about the accuracy of Biblical dates and the history of the Church year.

But by the early fourth century, Church leaders decided they needed a Christian alternative to rival popular solstice celebrations. They chose Dec. 25 as the date of Christ's birth and held the first recorded Feast of the Nativity in Rome in A.D. 336. Whether they did so intentionally or not, Church leaders directly challenged a fellow up-start religion by placing the nativity on Dec. 25. The Cult of Mithras celebrated the birth of their infant god of light on the very same day.


Church leaders may have also had theological reasons for choosing Dec. 25. The Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus had identified the 25th as Christ's nativity more than 100 years earlier. Chronographers reckoned that the world was created on the spring equinox and four days later, on March 25, light was created. Since the existence of Jesus signaled a beginning of a new era, or new creation, the Biblical chronographers assumed Jesus' conception would have also fallen on March 25 placing his birth in December, nine months later.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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