Why do we celebrate Christmas like we do? Where did we get these holiday traditions?
For millions of people around the world—religious or not—every December is a familiar scene. A Christmas tree is set up in the living room. Presents are bought and decorations displayed. Candles and lights adorn the houses and streets of neighborhoods. And nativity scenes are everywhere—complete with shepherds, wise men, and a little baby in a manger.
But where did all this come from? Aside from the companies who relish in another reason for all of us to buy more stuff, why do we celebrate Christmas the way we do? What is the history behind the holiday?
The Birth of Jesus
First of all, there is Jesus’ birth—“the reason for the season,” if you will. Two different ancient accounts—the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke—record the birth of Jesus of Nazareth as occurring in Bethlehem of Judea.1 Truthfully, his birth wasn’t that different from any other baby boy’s at that time.
Of course, there are a few unusual elements. There is the report of a remarkable star in the sky and stories of angels singing. But most of the details of Jesus’ birth are quite ordinary.2 Though somewhat scandalous—an unmarried couple having a baby out of wedlock—it’s a story that normally wouldn’t garner much attention.
Except, of course, that this little baby grew up to be a revolutionary Jewish teacher, a threat to the religious establishment, and a crucified leader of a band of misfits who claimed to see him risen from the dead three days later.
And that story certainly did garner attention, eventually transforming the mighty Roman Empire and launching the Christian movement that today counts over two billion followers.
At first, Christians were focused on remembering just Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Few thought to commemorate his birth as an important marker.3 But by the early Middle Ages, Christian leaders had decided to celebrate this holiday on December 25 (in the western part of the Roman Empire) or January 6 (in the east).
They could not be certain about the actual date that Jesus was born because there were no records. Jesus was born among the poorer classes, and no one stopped to mark the day or even the month a poor child came into the world. So the early church leaders chose a day to set aside for celebrating Jesus’ birth.
This may be hard for us to imagine, given the importance many cultures now put on birth certificates and birthdays. But it is important to remember that Christmas does not celebrate the day Jesus was born; it celebrates the fact that he was born.
There are indications that early Christians attempted to calculate the date of Jesus’ birth based on accurate calculations of other dates in Jesus’ life.4 About the same time, in 274, the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted a pagan festival celebrating the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun,” which coincided with the winter solstice on December 25. It’s unclear if Aurelian was attempting to create a pagan alternative to a date already of some significance to Roman Christians, or vice versa.5
Either way, in the years that followed, as Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 as Christmas—“Christ’s mass”—was adopted.
A second Christmas tradition also emerged in Middle Ages: Advent. The word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. During this time, Christians remember Jesus’ coming as a baby, anticipate his coming again at the end of human history, and celebrate his coming into their lives.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great initiated this tradition by creating special worship services for the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day.6 Today Christians celebrate this “preparation time” with special church services, advent wreaths and candles, and even advent calendars in which a new treat awaits every day before Christmas.
But what about jolly old Saint Nick? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the story of Santa Claus was popularized in America. Popular culture began to include legends about a home in the North Pole, a workforce of elves, and flying reindeer that helped Santa deliver gifts to children around the world. Songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and imagery from Coca-Cola did much to perpetuate these holiday traditions.
The story actually goes back to Saint Nicolas, a Christian bishop in Asia (modern Turkey) who died on December 6, 343.7 Tradition says that he secretly donated money to the needy—one time even dropping gold in a stocking that was hung up to dry.8 Christians later celebrated a feast day in his memory on December 6. The custom of giving generous gifts to those in need later became the full-blown Santa story we now associate with Christmas.
The Christmas Tree
There is one more element of Christmas tradition that can’t be ignored. Why do so many people chop down a tree, set it in their living rooms, and decorate it every December, only to dispose of it a month later?
The Christmas tree first came into use in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Germany and Eastern Europe. At that time, evergreen trees were set up in town squares and homes, decorated with fruits, candies, and candles for the holiday. They stood as a metaphor for life and light during the dark cold of winter.
Some believe that the origins of this tradition go back to pre-Christian pagan rites. Either way, eventually it became another symbol associated with the life-giving meaning of Jesus’ birth at Christmastime.9
Secularization of Christmas
Thus the history of Christmas is long and complex. It begins with the birth of Jesus, whom many believe is the long-awaited Savior sent into the world by God. As different cultures have celebrated the holiday over the centuries, numerous other traditions have been added to enhance its meaning with themes of life, light, and generosity.
Some of these customs may have been “secular” in origin. But as one scholar reminds us, “Christmas has always had a secular element, which, if applied sensibly, can flourish alongside the religious element and even add to the season.”10
However you choose to celebrate the holiday, may it serve as a reminder of hope in a world that desperately needs it.