How Did Christmas Start? The History Behind the Holiday

Updated June 16, 2021
Nativity Scene Christmas Ornaments

People often assume Christmas has been celebrated since the birth of Christ. However, Christmas as a festival or holiday did not start until some years after Christ's birth and death. Even the actual date of Christ's birth is in question because of the reference to multiple calendars over the years. So how exactly did Christmas as it is celebrated now begin?

How Did Christmas Celebrations Start?

Some theorists have surmised that the celebration of Christmas is related to the Jewish Festival of Lights, during which Jesus was born. Others associate it with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was a celebration of the births of several Roman gods.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia online, Christmas (or "Mass of Christ") was not one of the earliest celebrations of the Catholic Church. However, in various places around the Holy Land, starting in about 200 AD, masses celebrating Christ's birth became annual events. In the fourth century, most churches settled on December 25 as the date of the annual celebration.

These masses started in various locations around and near the Holy Land. Some of the early masses included dramatic representations of the Nativity. As early as the fourth century, hymns and carols became part of these dramatic events. It was not until 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi presented the nativity in the form of the crib or crèche used today.

How Did the Celebration Change?

Elements of various pagan celebrations that took place around the month of January gradually worked themselves into Christmas celebrations, many of which are still practiced today. Among these elements were gift giving, the inclusion of a Christmas tree, giving and receiving greeting cards, and including the Yule log, which was based on a practice of a landlord providing a tenant with wood on the birth of a child. Various other elements, such as decorating with sprigs of holly and visits from Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, were based on other holidays and practices performed throughout various cultures in the world.

Over time, Christmas became a major feast day with special foods people didn't eat during the rest of the year, such as minced meat, goose, and hot mulled spirits. Other saints' days, such as Saint Lucia's Day in Sweden, also became associated with the Christmas holidays.

Oh, Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree, which was probably based on pagan symbols, became a symbol of everlasting life and hope, especially in Europe and North America. Adorned in lights (initially candles) and smelling of the outdoors, it became an important part of the Christmas celebration. Gifts were originally hung on the tree, and they now take the place of honor under the tree. The holly leaf is also an evergreen symbol of everlasting life and is also associated with the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he was crucified. Holly is a natural component of many festive Christmas decorations to this day.

Illuminated Candle On Christmas Tree

Here Comes Santa Claus

Santa Claus has been around in one form or another since the fourth century. Santa Claus, Old St. Nick, and all of the other incarnations of Father Christmas are based on St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors. Dutch settlers arriving in the New World brought along their beliefs of St. Nicholas and would give their children small gifts on December 25th. The tradition caught on and eventually evolved into gift-giving via the big-bellied, bearded Santa Claus seen today.

During the time of western settlement, not everyone was in the Christmas spirit. The Puritans believed the celebration of Christmas was too rooted in Paganism and went as far as to outlaw any observance of Christmas-related practices and traditions from 659 and 1681. When the celebration of Puritan Christmas finally did return to public practice, it was kept a strict religious celebration, with no ornate bells and whistles.

Saint Nicholas Stained Glass Window

Commercialization of Christmas

So how did Christmas start? As history explains, it began as a religious festival. Over the years, elements of pagan festivals were integrated into the Christmas celebration. Nonetheless, Christmas was consistently a time for families to come together to celebrate the birth of Jesus and worship together. The religious activities were enhanced by food, drink, decorations, and an appreciation of winter as a doorway to the renewal of spring.

Christmas continues to be celebrated around the world. It has even been adopted in countries like Japan, where the population is not predominantly Christian. Christmas has also been commercialized, with merchants counting on the Christmas season to bring in the lion's share of their profits each year. Children have come to expect not just a gift or two from Santa Claus but to receive a large number of expensive gifts each year. Adults feel pressure financially and work to create an outstanding celebration with perfect food, drink, and decoration for their families. Because of the prevailing culture, it is often difficult to simplify Christmas and to focus on its origins.

Christmas Presents Under Tree

Keeping the Tradition Alive

Christmas traditions continue to evolve depending on where you live in the world and what holiday traditions your family holds fast to. In looking at the past, Christmas will continue to change over time, but, likely, the meaning and message behind the holiday and some primary elements will remain the same for years to come. So long as families pass known the practice of Christmas, it will always have a place on calendars and in the homes of Christian people.

How Did Christmas Start? The History Behind the Holiday