Celebrated by diverse cultures all around the world, Christmas is both a sacred holiday and a cultural phenomenon that transcends borders. For hundreds and even thousands of years, individuals from many different backgrounds have come together to honor this day with a mix of religious and secular traditions. But who really invented Christmas? Dive in and explore the early roots of this special holiday!
Ancient Winter Celebrations
Long before there was an official Christmas holiday, many people throughout the western world celebrated throughout the month of December, particularly around the winter solstice. The winter solstice is on December 21 and is the shortest day of the year. After that, the nights continually get shorter, and the days become longer. For thousands of years, various peoples celebrated during this time because it was the return of sunlight after the darkness of winter.
Before the birth of Christianity, for example, Germanic peoples honored the pagan god Wuotan or Wōden during the midwinter holiday. They believed that he flew through the night sky observing the people below, deciding who would have a prosperous coming year and who would not. As you can imagine, many people opted to stay inside during this time to avoid judgment.
In Scandinavia, people celebrated the winter solstice with Yule. Beginning on December 21 and running through January, people feasted and celebrated the rebirth of the sun. The traditional “Yule-log” or “Yule-tide fires” of Christmas originated with these celebrations. People ventured out and searched for the largest logs they could find to bring back for the Yule fire. Once the fire was going, they reveled and feasted until the log completely burned out. So, the bigger the log, the longer the party — sometimes a Yule log could last for as long as 12 days!
Further south in Rome, people didn’t have to worry about the harsh cold winters of the north. Instead, they honored the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, with Saturnalia. A week before the winter solstice and into the following month, this hedonistic holiday took over all of Rome. Romans closed schools and businesses so they could feast and party into the late hours of the night. There was food, drink, and raucous celebrations for everyone — even the slaves! In fact, during Saturnalia, Roman citizens treated their slaves as equals. Some of the upper-class members of Rome also celebrated on December 25 to honor the birthday of the infant god Mirtha.
The Christian Connection: The Birth of Christ’s Nativity
For early Christians, Easter was the biggest celebration of the year. Church officials in the fourth century decided to create a new holiday to celebrate the birth of Christ as well. However, the Bible doesn’t state what time of year he was born. Thus, some may say that the Christians invented Christmas. Pope Julius I chose to dedicate December 25 as the unofficial birthday of Jesus Christ — most likely because it was also a popular “pagan” day of celebration. By choosing this day, the Christian church could incorporate the wild traditions of Saturnalia into a more low-key, religious holiday.
With Christmas — originally known as the “Feast of the Nativity” — aligned with other winter solstice festivals, its popularity grew. Although it helped to bring people of both Christian and pagan backgrounds together, the Christian church couldn’t control exactly how people celebrated the new holiday. By the Middle Ages, most of Europe’s pagan religions had been replaced by Christianity. However, some of the old traditions carried over. While everyone attended church on Christmas, they spent the rest of the day celebrating, much like people do at Mardis Gras today!
When catholic reformers like Oliver Cromwell came on the scene, many Catholic practices were canceled for a brief time in Europe — including Christmas! The English separatists who came to America in 1620, in turn, also left behind the wild Christmas celebrations of their homeland. There was even a legalized ban against Christmas in Boston from 1659 to 1681, and anyone celebrating Christmas was fined. In fact, Christmas wasn’t officially declared a federal holiday in the United States until 1870.
The Rebirth of Christmas in America
Although Christmas was banned in Boston, in other areas it lived on. Washington Irving even included it in his 1819 collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Here Irving re-invented Christmas as a new kind of holiday, one that brought people together in peace. Over in England, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. The book was a tale of “goodwill towards all” that deeply influenced England and the United States. This new version of “Christmas cheer” aligned well with Victorian sensibilities, and the holiday transformed into a warm, family-centered celebration.
Over the following decades, Americans began adding new traditions from recent immigrants to their Christmas celebrations. Many of these elements are still present in Christmas today. For example, advent calendars were born from German traditions, while “The Nutcracker Ballet” came from Russia. Ugly Christmas sweater parties hail from Canada, and Christmas trees came from German and European settlers and Queen Victoria.
Even the tradition of Santa Claus came over with Dutch immigrants. Each December, they honored the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolass”, a monk from Turkey who shared his wealth with the poor. “Sint Klass” began to infiltrate American traditions, solidified by Clement Clarke Moore’s Christmas poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (now known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) and Thomas Nast’s famous illustrations in the 1860 to the 1880s.
Who Really Invented Christmas?
As you can see, answering the question “Who really invented Christmas?” is a bit complicated. In fact, it’s impossible to truly pinpoint an exact moment or a single individual responsible for inventing Christmas as we know it today. Instead, it is a holiday that has evolved over many centuries, weaving together various influences from different cultures and time periods. From the ancient winter solstice celebrations to the celebration of Christ’s birthday and the legend of Saint Nicholas, Christmas is a collective holiday that reflects our desire to come together to find joy and hope in the company of loved ones.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Sarsmis/ via Getty Images
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