The history of Christmas, with its vast and various celebrations world-wide, began about four thousand years ago, before the birth of Christ. Those beginning seeds of Christmas were spawned by the darkness and dreariness of winter, and from such fears evolved the Winter Solstice. At that time, the winter solstice and its celebration declared to men and women everywhere that winter was almost over, and longer and brighter days were at hand.
It is ironic that the celebration of the Christ child was not celebrated until 300 years after his death and resurrection. In addition, it wasn’t until the fourth century that church officials instituted a “holy feast” day marking his birth. It was Pope Julius I who chose December 25 as the day for the “Feast of the Nativity.” History records that he did this unwillingly, but he did the choosing so that Christians would celebrate two occasions: the solstice festival and the Nativity.
In England, around 1645 Oliver Cromwell wanted to throw out what he felt were pagan practices—the celebration of birthdays and solstice celebrations, which he believed with his Christian background and research, to be unholy and unchristian.
What is even more interesting is that Europeans, during the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, believed in evil spirits, and from such suspicion and fear of evil spirits, and as they approached the end of winter and its bleakness and dreariness, they became fearful that the sun would not return. Therefore, they developed special rituals, much of which was incorporated into and celebrated in the Winter Solstice Festivals, in the hope that light and hope would return to the earth, and happiness would once again return. These celebrations were colorful, spirited and loud.
Christmas, as we know it today, didn’t materialize until the early 1800s. It seems that Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” with its emphasis on goodwill and peace toward each other, reached the “soul” of America and gradually traditions of Christmas began to evolve. Much of how and why we celebrate Christmas comes from Europe, and it wasn’t until the early 1920s that Christmas and all its trappings—trees, cards, gifts, holiday meals, Santa Claus and lights—came into being.
Also interesting is the number, 25. That number was sacred to the Romans and the Persians, whose religion at that time was Mithraism and was a chief rival of Christianity. What is interesting is that the Church confiscated the lights, the happiness and gifts of the Saturnalia festival which came from Mithraism, and incorporated them into what we now know as Christmas.
And so it seems that Christmas in all its various forms and stages has been around for thousands of years, with the beginning of the Winter Solstice and its celebration of the end of winter and its dreariness, and over time has evolved into today’s Christmas, with the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, trees in bright decoration, the sharing of gifts, the eating of delicious food, caroling, and of course, the realization and hope that winter would soon end and that brighter and happier days are close at hand.