It is for many Americans the most beloved of all of our holidays. But it is also one for which we often know little about its origins. We think of December 25th as being the birthday of Jesus Christ, but there is no record of when he was born. Using the Bible as a guide, Jesus was probably born in the spring due to the references to shepherds herding their sheep. So how did December 25th become the date for Christmas?
In many countries, the winter solstice (December 21st) was a day of celebration marking the rebirth of the sun. Animals were slaughtered, alcoholic spirits were finished in the fermenting process, and crops from the harvest season were plentiful. The celebrations were often raucous. It was also a time for worshipping gods which were unique to different peoples.
For Christians, Easter was their main holiday. The birth of Jesus was not celebrated. It was Pope Julius I who chose December 25 as the day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. He chose this date to align it with other traditional celebrations. It was only celebrated in the Roman Empire at first, eventually making it to England in the sixth century.
Christmas was often a drunken carnival type of event. During the religious reforms that began in the 17th century, the Puritan forces eliminated Christmas. When Pilgrims landed in America, they refused to celebrate Christmas. It wasn’t until the American Revolution that Christmas celebrations returned. But Christmas remained little celebrated.
In the 19th century in the U.S., class riots broke out at Christmas time. The upper class decided that Christmas celebrations needed to be repurposed into one of giving and sharing. It was at this time that Christmas took on more of a family flavor. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was designated as a federal holiday along with New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving Day.
Over time, Christmas has evolved into what we now know as a combination of religious and commercial celebrations. It’s ironic that the raucous celebrations that were the beginning of Christmas have now returned as office parties that can get out of hand. The feasting of early celebrations remains with us. The generosity of spirit that was hoped for with Christmas celebrations remains today, but with it has come stress over “what to give”. Christmas, like many of our national celebrations, seems to be one where commercial interests have overwhelmed its intended meaning.
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“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more.” – Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas