Christmas: a brief history

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It's Christmas time again, with trees, gifts and Santa Claus. But how did we come to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ how and when we do? We take a look at some key points in the history of Yuletide.

The pre-Christian origins

The history of Christmas does not begin with Christ. The winter solstice – the shortest day of the year – has been celebrated in one form or another for millennia. Northern Europeans called it “Jul” (a term remembered in the English word Yule, which now means Christmas); in ancient Rome it was the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or "the birthday of the unconquered Sun”. Through sacrifices and feasting, pagans celebrated the beginning of the Sun's revival.

The prophecies foretell...

The birth of a Messiah to the Israelites had been heralded in many books of the Old Testament. There is some debate, however, over whether the prophecied “virgin birth” was actually a mistranslation: the Hebrew word that is translated to “virgin” more usually means “young woman”, which would be considerably less miraculous.

A child is born

Or is he? The existence of Christ the historical figure is still a controversial topic among scholars of the period. The most problematic point is the date. Mediaeval Christians put it at (what we now call) 0AD, but the Gospels say it is in the reign of King Herod, who died in 4BC. Further, the Gospel of Luke says that Joseph and Mary travelled before his birth to Bethlehem for a great census. The closest such census took place in 6AD. But as Humphrey Carpenter says in his book Jesus, we can regard it as “virtually certain” that a Jewish religious teacher was born around this time, and was executed by crucifixion between 28AD and 30AD. It is just far from clear that he was born in December: some early reports put it in May.

Emperor Constantine

Famously, the Roman Empire did not immediately take to the young religion, burning some Christians and throwing others to the lions. But as the new creed gathered momentum, polytheistic Rome had to take notice. Constantine I was the first Christian emperor of Rome, and in 313AD passed an edict permitting the practice of the religion and forcing the return of goods confiscated from the Church. He also worked to make Christianity more palatable to his still pagan subjects, by co-opting the December festivals of Saturn and Mithras for a celebration of Christ's birth.

Charlemagne crowned on Christmas Day

Still, 25 December was not the most important date in the Christian calendar. The arrival of the Magi, known as the Epiphany, celebrated on 6 January, and Easter were more widely celebrated. However, once the all-conquering mediaeval Emperor Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day 800AD, the date took on greater significance. In England, it was brought to greater attention after the Christmas coronations of Edmund the Martyr (855AD) and, of course, William the Conqueror (1066AD).

The 12 Days of Christmas

After the birth of Christ, according to tradition, the Three Wise Men, or Magi, trekked from their Eastern home to see the new King. Their arrival 12 days later was celebrated as the abovementioned Epiphany. But the famous “12 days of Christmas”, lasting from Christ's birth until their arrival, were not celebrated as a single holiday until the 12th century. In some Christian cultures, gifts are given on the 12th day; in others, on all 12.

They're banning Christmas!

Certain commentators still claim this, usually in by-the-numbers “it's-political-correctness-gone-mad” articles about some local council or other (see Winterval, below). But back in the 17th century, this was actually true. The English parliament under Oliver Cromwell, and Massachusetts Puritans, both tried to ban the celebration of Christmas; in England because it was “popish” and pagan, in America, because 25 December was viewed as an arbitrarily selected date, rather than the true anniversary of Christ's birth, and because drinking, eating, dancing and having fun were not things that went down well with 17th-century American Puritans generally.

Underneath the Christmas Tree

Trees, specifically evergreens, were a common part of pre-Christian solstice celebrations, but in England it wasn't until Victorian times that the idea of having one in the house was revived. It was the Queen's own family who introduced the custom to the country: her German parents were familiar with the custom, which was widely practised in their Rhineland home.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are, or were, two different people. St Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of sailors, ships, archers, children, students and pawnbrokers, became in Dutch folklore a bringer of gifts at Christmas, known as “Sinterklaas”. He originally was shown as a large, bearded man in a green cloak, like the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Father Christmas, or Pere Noel, was a depiction of the Christmas spirit of cheer, but was not associated with gift-bringing. The two myths were merged, until they became synonymous. Until the 1930s Santa wore a variety of colours, but a Coca-Cola advert by Haddon Sundblom showed him in red and white, and the image has stuck.

Christmas truce in the Trenches

Three months after the start of the First World War, an amazing thing happened. In long stretches of the Front, as German and British troops stared across No Man's Land, a spontaneous ceasefire broke out between the two armies. It began as German troops started hanging candles on trees and singing carols, notably Stille Nacht (Silent Night). The British troops responded, and eventually, cautiously, representatives of the two sides crept out into the wasteland and exchanged gifts. In places, impromptu football games broke out between the enemies. Proper burials of the dead were possible as both sides mourned. In places, the truce lasted until the New Year.


Or, They're banning Christmas – the reprise. In 1997, Birmingham City Council decided to call the period between 20 November and 31 December, which covered Diwali, Christmas and the Chinese and Western New Years, “Winterval”. There was a predictable outcry; it was suggested that it was an attempt to avoid using the word “Christmas” in case it offended minority faiths. This was not the case; Christmas was still called Christmas, but fell within the overall Winterval period. This is reminiscent of a 1957 controversy in the United States, when the Church League of America claimed that the term Xmas was an attempt by “world Jewry” to subvert Christmas, using the symbol X as an “unknown quantity” and a “blasphemous omission of Christ”. In fact, X stood for the Greek letter chi, the first letter of the word Christ in Greek. But the idea of a war on Christmas continues in the popular mind and the press, even as the holiday is more widely celebrated than ever before.