History of Christmas Story
Although no one knows on which date Jesus was born, there were several reasons for early Christians to favor
December 25. The date is nine months after the Festival of Annunciation (March 25), and hence the Incarnation. It
is also the date on which the Romans marked the winter solstice.
Around 220, the theologian Tertullian declared that Jesus died on March 25, AD 29. Although this is not a
plausible date for the crucifixion, it does suggest that March 25 had significance for the church even before it
was used as a basis to calculate Christmas. Modern scholars favor a crucifixion date of April 3, AD 33 (also the
date of a partial lunar eclipse). (These are Julian calendar dates. Subtract two days for a Gregorian date.)
By 240, a list of significant events was being assigned to March 25, partly because it was believed to be the
date of the vernal equinox. These events include creation, the fall of Adam, and, most relevantly, the Incarnation.
The view that the Incarnation occurred on the same date as crucifixion is consistent with a Jewish belief that
prophets died at an "integral age," either an anniversary of their birth or of their conception.
Aside from being nine months later than Annunciation, December 25 is also the date the Romans marked the winter
solstice, which they referred to as bruma. For this reason, some have suggested the opposite of the theory outlined
above, i.e. that the date of Christmas was chosen to be the same as that of the solstice and that the date of
Annunciation was calculated on this basis. (The Julian calendar was originally only one day off, with the solstice
falling on December 24 in 45 BC. Due to calendar slippage, the date of the astronomical solstice has moved back so
that it now falls on either December 21 or December 22).
The idea that December 25 is Jesus' birthday was popularized by Sextus Julius Africanus in Chronographiai (AD
221), an early reference book for Christians. This identification did not at first inspire feasting or celebration.
In 245, the theologian Origen denounced the idea of celebrating the birthday of Jesus "as if he were a king
pharaoh." Only sinners, not saints, celebrate their birthdays, Origen contended.
In 274, Emperor Aurelian designated December 25 as the festival of Sol Invictus (the "unconquered sun").
Aurelian may have chosen this date because the solstice was considered the birthday of Mithras, a syncretic god of
Persian origin. Mithras is often identified with Sol Invictus, although Sol was originally a separate Syrian
Mithras was a god of light and a child of the earth who sprang up next to a sacred stream. He was born bearing a
torch and armed with a knife. Some later Mithratic beliefs were derived from Christianity, such as the belief that
Mithras' birth was attended by shepherds. Sundays were dedicated to Mithras and caves were often used for his
worship. A series of emperors promoted Mithraism beginning with Commodus. The cult emphasized loyalty to the
emperor and Roman soldiers were expected to participate. Mithraism collapsed rapidly after Constantine I withdrew
imperial favor (312), despite being at the peak of its popularity only a few years earlier.
As Constantine ended persecution, Christians began to debate the nature of Christ. The Alexandrian school argued
that he was the divine word made flesh (see John 1:14), while the Antioch school held that he was born human and
infused with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism (see Mark 1:9-11). A feast celebrating Christ's birth gave
the church an opportunity to promote the intermediate view that Christ was divine from the time of his incarnation.
Mary, a minor figure for early Christians, gained prominence as the theotokos, or god-bearer. There were Christmas
celebrations in Rome as early as 336. December 25 was added to the calendar as a feast day in 350.
Medieval Christmas and related winter festivals
Christmas soon outgrew the Christological controversy that created it and came to dominate the medieval
calendar. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin," now Advent. The fortieth day after
Christmas was Candlemas. The Egyptian Christmas celebration on January 6 was adopted as Epiphany, one of the most
prominent holidays of the year during Early Middle Ages. Christmas Day itself was a relatively minor holiday,
although its prominence gradually increased after Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day, 800.
Although the nativity narrative is among the most compelling stories in the Bible, other Christian holidays such
as Easter are more significant from a strictly religious point of view. The popularity of Christmas can be better
understood if it is viewed as a form of winter celebration. Agricultural societies typically hold their most
important festival in winter since there is less need of farm work at this time.
The Romans had a winter celebration known as Saturnalia. This festival was originally held on December 17 and
honored Saturn, a god of agriculture. It recalled the "golden age" when Saturn ruled. In imperial times, Saturnalia
was extended to seven days (December 17-23). Combined with festivals both before and after, the result was an
extended winter holiday season. Business was postponed and even slaves feasted. There was drinking, gambling and
singing naked. It was the "best of days," according to the poet Catullus. With the coming of Christianity, Italy's
Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent (the forty days before Christmas). Around the 12th century, these
traditions transferred again to the "twelve days of Christmas" (i.e. Christmas to Epiphany).
Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, and its pagan celebrations had a major influence on
Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul (Yule), originally the name of a twelve-day pre-Christian winter
festival. Logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder, hence the "Yule log." In Germany, the equivalent holiday
is called Mitwinternacht (mid-winter night). There are also twelve Rauhnächte (harsh or wild nights).
By the High Middle Ages, Christmas had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely note where various
magnates "celebrated Christmas." King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight
oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. The "Yule boar" was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Aside
from feasting, there was also caroling. This was originally a group of dancers who sang. There was a lead singer
and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemn caroling as lewd, the dancing
may have got out of hand now and then (harking back to the traditions of Saturnalia and Yule). "Misrule" —
drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling — was an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on
New Year's Day, and there was special Christmas ale.
The Reformation and modern times
During the Reformation, Protestants condemned Christmas celebration as "trappings of popery" and the "rags of
the Beast". The Catholic Church responded by promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. When a
Puritan parliament triumphed over the King Charles I of England (1644), Christmas was officially banned (1647).
Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities. For several weeks, Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who
decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Restoration (1660) ended the ban, but Christmas
celebration was still disapproved of by the Anglican clergy (and, therefore, more thoroughly enjoyed by Catholics
By the 1820s, sectarian tension had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out. They
imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday. The book
A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing
family, goodwill, and compassion (as opposed to communal celebration and hedonistic excess). The phrase "Christmas
tree" is first recorded in 1835 and represents the importation of a tradition from Germany, where such trees became
popular in the late 18th century. Queen Victoria and her German-born husband Prince Albert enthusiastically
promoted Christmas trees, as well as the idea of placing gifts under them. The royal family's tree of 1848 was
widely publicized and imitated. Christmas cards were first designed in 1843 and became popular in the 1860s.
The commercial calendar, created to answer children's questions concerning when Christmas would come, dates from
The Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas and celebration was outlawed in Boston (1659-81). Virginia
and New York, meanwhile, celebrated freely. Christmas fell out of favor after the American Revolution, when it was
considered an "English custom". Interest was revived by Washington Irving's stories, by German immigrants, and by
the homecomings of the Civil War years. It was declared a federal holiday in 1870.
Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave candy to the Dutch children on December 6.
Dutch settlers in New York brought this tradition with them. Irving writes of Saint Nicholas "riding over the tops
of the trees, in that selfsame waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." The connection between
Santa Claus and Christmas was popularized by the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (1822) by Clement Clarke Moore,
which depicts Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and distributing gifts to children. His image was created
by German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who drew a new image annually beginning in 1863. By the
1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the
1920s. Father Christmas is first recorded in the 15th century, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and
drunkenness until Victorian Britain remade his image to match that of Santa.
In the midst of World War I, there was a Christmas truce between German and British troops in France (1914).
Soldiers on both sides spontaneously began to sing Christmas carols and stopped fighting. The truce began on
Christmas Day and continued for some time afterward. There was even a soccer game between the trench lines in which
Germany's 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment is said to have bested Britain's Seaforth Highlanders 3-2.