Last month I wrote on the origins of Thanksgiving. This month I want to talk about another holiday—Christmas. As the name suggests, Christmas is intended to celebrate the birth of Christ. However, there really is no reason to think he was born on December 25th. Just as it was for Thanksgiving, the history of how Christmas came to be what it is in its modern form, is a long and complicated process.
According to my research, the first time Christmas was celebrated on December 25th, was in 336, which is about a decade after the Council of Nicaea (the council that resolved much of the doctrine for Christianity). The specific reasons for the choice of December 25th are not entirely known for sure but there are a few theories. One theory is the idea that Christians moved the date to coincide with pagan celebrations around the time of the Winter solstice to make Christmas more palatable to these people. However, unlike what some might claim, it was not built from the ground up based on the pagan traditions. It is also possible it was moved to be near the time of Hanukkah, as both it and Christmas have a connection to lights – although I suspect the dates in that case are more coincidental.
Prior to this, the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birth was not seen as nearly as important as other events in his life such as his baptism or resurrection. In fact, many Christians preferred to celebrate his birth on the same day as Epiphany, or the day the Magi arrived, which is celebrated on January 6th. The Armenians still do this to this day. Complicating the matter even further is the fact that the Eastern Church celebrates Christmas on the 7th of January, but this is due to the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. As for the actual date of his birth, we don’t know. There is some speculation it was in the spring but there is nothing definitive. We are not even sure of the exact year but it was likely sometime a bit before the year 1 based on historical data.
As far as some of the traditions we celebrate. There was a historic figure known as Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the third century. Although he did not fly a sleigh through the air or have reindeer or shimmy down chimneys in the middle of the night, he did give out presents. Church tradition has his feast day celebrated on December 6th. Some of tradition comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas although he is a much more sinister figure, who instead of reindeer has an assistant known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete as he is a black character who punishes naughty children, a character whose portrayal would surely been seen as racist in our modern American society. Our current appearance of Santa Clause can largely be attributed to the Coca Cola Company in their ad campaigns of the 1930s. Prior to that, his appearance was inconsistent and not standardized. Much of the rest of the traditions surrounding him have been built up by various media over the years. The Christmas tree was brought over first to England from Germany when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria and from there was adopted by America as well. While gift giving had long been associated with the gifts of Christmas in the Bible, of gold Frankincense and Myrrh, ever since the industrial, revolution, it has had different meaning, and the likes of Hallmark have capitalized on it.
America as a whole did not always embrace Christmas traditions however. The puritans actually opposed the celebration of Christmas due to its connection to wild parties at the time and the idea that it was actually too pagan. This did change eventually however. Christmas became a federal holiday in the in 1870 but it had been celebrated openly by that time for a while. And the rest is history.
In our modern time, Christmas has lost much of its significance as a Christian celebration and has gained a reputation as a largely secular holiday. You may get time off work. You may watch movies featuring Santa or Frosty the snowman. So, in the hustle and bustle of going out to buy presents and spend time with your family, think of the name Christ-MAS. The feast of Christ. And that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.
With that. I wish you all a Merry Christmas!