History of Christmas

How did Christmas Start?  Since festivities were mainly founded on Pagan practices, at first, December 25 was not accepted by the Christian Church as Christmas Day. The history of Christmas has gone a long way. Festivities can be traced back from Roman celebration, Epiphany and Saint Nicholas, to Christians most important celebration of Jesus’ birth, Christmas trees, Christmas carols, family reunion, gift-giving, a season of merriment and eating, and simply, a time for holiday.

When Did Christmas Celebration Begin?

The answer to this question depends on what is meant by the term “Christmas.” For the purpose of this article, the answer is in reference to the general season of celebration, placed in ancient history, with the rise of Winter Solstice, the time when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun.
Although the event’s interpretation varies according to cultural affinities, most cultures recognize Winter Solstice as involving rebirth, and therefore signal holidays and festivities. These celebrations or rituals in those times can be traced back to ancient cultures that include the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Persians.

It was only during the first century that Christianity began, then spread throughout the world by mid-second century. Nothing much has been recorded during the third century, but by the fourth century, many pagan religions, including the polytheistic worship of Greece and Rome, had been overtaken by Christianity. Following, Christmas also overtook the Winter Solstice festivities.

The Origin of the Term “Christmas”

Literally, the word “Christmas” means “Christ’s Mass” which was intended as a religious celebration of the birth of Jesus. Most historians place the birth of Jesus Christ between the years 6 and 1 B.C. Jesus was crucified in A.D. 30 or 33, and became famous in the decades that followed. As was customary during the time to celebrate the birth of famous people, Christians wanted to celebrate this Christ child’s birthday.

In the Western Roman Empire, the earliest celebration of Christmas has been dated December 25, 336 A.D. For many years, the Eastern part of the Roman World celebrated the birth of Jesus on January 6. Eventually, the western date was adopted.

A Christmas Controversy – Christmas Day as December 25

Controversy among Christians brewed over the issue of celebrating the birth of Jesus. Firstly, some Christians argued that the celebration resembles pagan practices, besides, Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection are considered of far greater significance. Secondly, there’s no historical proof that Jesus was born on December 25. It was until the third and fourth centuries that Christmas became widely celebrated.

Roman Christian Celebration of Christmas

According to some scholars, the Roman celebrated December 25 as the festival of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. Since this old holiday persisted, the church eventually adopted it, also to counteract the pagan feast of the nativity of the Invincible Sun, since Jesus Christ signifies as the Sun of Righteousness.

Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome (129-138), ordained that in the holy night of the Nativity, public church services be celebrated. However, December 25 was not officially designated as Christmas and a church festival until between the years 325 and 350, with the earliest mention of Nativity on December 25 in a calendar tabulating the practice in Rome in year 336.

Eastern Celebration of Christmas

The feast of the Epiphany commemorated the baptism of Jesus in the East. Epiphany is the day that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, January 6. It’s also the day that the Wise Men visited to present their gifts to the Christ child. By the mid-5th century, most of the Eastern Churches adopted December 25 as a separate feast of Nativity.

Saint Nicholas and Christmas

Nicholas was a priest serving churches in Asia Minor while Rome was busy with Christmas festivities. Nicholas became Archbishop of Myra, a sea coastal town. He exerted great influence on the Byzantine Christendom. After his death December 6, 326, he became Saint Nicholas. Legends grew about his generosity.

It has been told that the gifts of Saint Nicholas were given secretly and that he rode on a white horse through central and northern Europe. Eventually, this same Saint Nicholas personality crossed the Atlantic to become the all-time children favorite, the American Santa Claus.

The Future of Christmas

The greatest challenge among traditionalists Christians today is the decreasing mention of “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” in public, with the increasing multicultural sensitivities in the name of tolerance.
As current trends and signs indicate, probably only in Christian churches and other related venues will Christmas retain its religious identity. In recent times, diminished significance of Christmas has been noticeable even in some Christian homes and families, with more focus on gifts, Santa Claus, Christmas trees and endless shopping and merriment, rather than reflecting about the Christ child born in a lowly manger, visited by shepherds and the three Wise Men. No one really knows what the future of Christmas holds. To believers, it took a miracle of Christ’s love and grace.



History.com Information about the history of Christmas

Note, 19 Dec 2011:   I originally wrote this article for TheFreeResource.com few years back, whilst a contributing writer there. 

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