The History of Christmas
Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noel! Uh . . . glad tidings? Given that my blog was scheduled for Christmas Day, it seemed appropriate to post about the holiday. People’s minds will be filled today with presents, cleaning up wrapping paper, spending time with family and close friends, and getting that darn turkey into the oven on time. But when you sit down and bite into that succulent turkey, did you know that many Britons feasted on beef prior to the 1950’s? Or that the origins of Santa Claus date to the 4th century in Turkey?
Where did Christmas originate? What about the Christmas tree and Christmas cards? I’m going to briefly cover all of that here in this post and hopefully by the end, you’ll appreciate the meanings and traditions and feel a bit more Christmas spirit.
The history of Christmas is more complex than people might realize. What we see today in the music, meals, decorations and economic shopping sprees is not how it all began. The simplest description of Christmas is that it has morphed over the last two millennia from pagan winter festivals and religious traditions of Europeans into an international holiday known more today for multi-colored LED light displays and airport lines. Well, and meals with family, of course.
Let’s begin with the name Christmas itself. In Old English, Christmas means “Christ’s Mass” which references an annual winter festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Sounds fairly simple. But historians and scholars disagree on the actual birth date of Jesus. Some say he was conceived at this time. Others argue that in an effort to Christianize Roman and pagan winter festivals, Dec. 25th was introduced as the birth of Christ. There are countless other theories floating out there as well. Suffice it to say, Dec. 25th was widely adopted and recognized by the Christian Church in the 4th century.
Now let’s look at some of the modern symbols of Christmas. The Christmas tree, which today can be purchased in nearly every country in some form or another, originates with the pagans once again. Trees were worshipped and winter festivals were major happenings so the two become connected. Furthermore, Saint Boniface, a missionary living in Germany, introduced the concept of worshipping a trinity shaped tree as a more appropriate gesture. Later on, the marriage of a German aristocrat into the British monarchy introduced the decorating of a tree for Christmas to the British. When Queen Victoria documented her delight at having a decorated tree laden with gifts in Windsor Castle, the idea took off, although predominantly in upper class homes.
The famous ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’ poem, penned by Clement Clarke Moore (who first published it anonymously in 1832, later acknowledging his authorship of the poem in 1837) helped to popularize and expand the tradition of gift giving.
The first commercial Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843.
The ubiquitous Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas dates back to a 4th century saint (named Nicholas) living in Turkey, who was known for his generosity and gift giving toward children.
There are many greetings when it comes to this time of year. Popular now is the all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”, though it’s important to remember that being all-inclusive also means not excluding the traditional greeting of “Merry Christmas”. The key is to feel comfortable with whatever your go-to greeting is if it feels genuine for you. Christmastime is itself a word and a world unto itself; a magical time that seems to soften and lift people’s spirits, perhaps in anticipation of gathering with friends and family or by following the tradition of giving gifts. In many countries, Christmas is a recognized and legal national holiday. But it seems Christmas has a life of its own and exists today in countries where it has not historically been a cultural tradition.
So whether your family shouts “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Yuletide” or whether you chow down on beef, fish or turkey, or even whether you decorate a tree or your entire lawn, I hope today is a satisfying one to be treasured for what it should be: precious time together with your loved ones during this wintery time of year.