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The History of Christmas

by Paul H. Belz; a personal essay, December 2017

Every year as winter solstice looms I’m reminded of the history of the Christmas holiday it ushers in and the roller-coaster evolution of that festive day. Today, December 25th is both a holy day and a legal holiday but it didn’t begin that way nearly seventeen-hundred years ago.

The shortest 24-hour period of daylight occurs between the 20th and the 23rd of December. During that span ancient cultures feared that the sun was going to disappear forever, leaving them in permanent darkness unless they somehow intervened. The days perceptibly lengthen by the 25th, so that date was commonly chosen by pagans for lighting candles to help the sun’s struggle against darkness. That’s the genesis of the “Yule log” some people burn for 12 days.

Feasting, displays of generosity, fire festivals, and prayers to the gods and goddesses became common elements of the season’s rituals for many religions and cultures.

Then late in the third century Roman Emperor Aurelian combined many solstice celebrations into one called Birthday of the Unconquered Sun and decreed that December 25th be the day of observance. In 336 the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, set the 25th as the immovable date to celebrate Jesus’ birth. The Catholic Church reinforced that decision in 354 when Bishop Liberius of Rome also ordered Jesus’ birth commemorated on the 25th.

These actions fueled the ire of many Christians who refused to obey the decrees because of the date’s long association with the pagan festivals. Christians preferred to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th and the Epiphany on January 6th. Christmas fell in and out of favor over the years but became wildly popular in the 19th century because of the confluence of actions by songwriters, storytellers, state lawmakers, artists, and shopkeepers seeking profits.

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol was an instant sensation that changed the focus of Christmas from religious rituals to a broader secular celebration encompassing family togetherness, community goodwill, and generosity to the downtrodden.

Queen Victoria’s lifelong love of the German Christmas tree tradition did much to popularize that facet of the holiday, particularly after publication in the United States of the image of Victoria and Albert’s Windsor Castle tree.

Clement Moore’s 1822 poem Twas the Night Before Christmas made gift giving integral to the holiday and triggered the oft-heard objection about excessive commercialism, with Harriet Beecher Stowe being the first luminary to complain.

Englishman Sir Henry Cole introduced Christmas cards for sale in 1843 and Louis Prang’s firm added this popular facet to America’s holiday tradition with great success in 1875.

Many popular Christmas carols were written in the 19th century and that became the final ingredient in a recipe for uplifting the general population.

If there was a victim in all of this, it was poor St. Nicholas. Not only was his feast day forsaken, but Twas the Night Before Christmas portrayed him as jolly and so portly that he shook like a bowlful of jelly when he laughed. Philadelphia department stores rejoiced at the makeover of the stern-faced St. Nicholas into the roly-poly Santa Claus who was a magnet for children and therefore a boon to toy sales.

In 1836, the state of Alabama was the first in the United States to make the 25th its official legal Christmas holiday. Many states quickly followed suit. Then on June 28, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law making Christmas a national holiday.

Historians agree that Jesus was not born on December 25th. The tension between advocates for a more religious versus a more secular focus persists. One should not preclude the other.

What is undeniable is that it’s a time of year when, in general; charity, goodwill, family and community cohesion are all uplifted by the pervasive ethos Christmas creates. Regardless of one’s religious preference, cultural background or social standing, this national holiday fosters outreach rather than insularity and an elevated level of goodwill that society can never get enough of regardless of its origin.


This essay was published in the Baltimore Sun on December 21, 2017. On December 28, it

was published by the Hartford Courant in Connecticut and the San Diego Union-Tribune

in California.


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 The Hartford Courant

The San Diego Union-Tribune

The Baltimore Sun

The history of Christmas