Yuletide through the Years: A History of Christmas

Merry Christmas! (Frohe Weihnachten!), Moriz Jung, Moravia 1885–1915 Manilowa (Carpathians). Color lithograph; sheet, 5 1/2” x 3 7/16”, print. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Merry Christmas! (Frohe Weihnachten!), Moriz Jung, Moravia 1885–1915 Manilowa (Carpathians). Color lithograph; sheet, 5 1/2” x 3 7/16”, print. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For two millennia, individuals across the world have observed the sacred holiday known as Christmas, with traditions and practices unique to their differing cultures, but each seemingly with a recognizable theme: that of hope and the dawn of new life. As the holiday approaches this year, lights flocking city neighborhoods, poinsettias on doorsteps, I felt it prudent to meander through a brief history behind the 25th of December, sacred as the birthday of Jesus, as well as fascinating in its origin and long-held traditions.

The Birth of Christ

For believers of Christianity, December 25th has long been a holy day of celebration, as well as a humbling reminder of the sacrificial love of God, that He sent His son into the darkness of humanity so that we, as His beloved people, might see light. Perhaps the most famous biblical verses chronicling Jesus’ birth can be found in the book of Luke:

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and lineage of David: To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” - Luke 2: 1-11

The spiritual significance of Christmas is plain: it symbolizes the hope we each long for in life, exemplified by the fact that divinity in the form of Christ could descend to earth at a time of utmost ignorance, greed, hypocrisy, and immorality. Jesus offered and indeed carried out transformations in the lives of many people, ushering in a new dawn for a fallen world.

marking the midwinter

The middle of winter has been marked for centuries among civilizations, both religious and secular, as a revered time period. In ancient Rome, a holiday in honor of the Romans’ recognized god of agriculture, Saturn, was celebrated in the week leading up to the winter solstice, an astronomical event when one of the Earth’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun. Saturnalia was hedonistic in nature and can be considered the Roman equivalent to the Greek holiday of Kronia, which had an earlier founding in history. Similarly, ancient germanic peoples, such as the Norse, observed the festival of Yule, or Yuletide, from the winter solstice on December 21st to the first day of January. Several populations recognized midwinter as a pivotal mark of better things to come, being that the worst of winter was over, and they could rejoice over extended days in the sun.

It wasn’t until the fourth century that church officials decided to institute Jesus’ birthday as a holiday with a clear date, considering the Bible doesn’t mention the exact date of Christ’s birth. Some historians have claimed His birth took place in the spring or summer, since the census-taking, or taxation, mentioned in the verses above supposedly did not occur in winter, but in the year 340 AD, Pope Julius I proclaimed Jesus’ birth to be December 25th on historical record. Scholars claim this decision was not so much based on fact as it was to absorb the traditions of Saturnalia and other such paganisms. Originally named the Feast of the Nativity, by the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread throughout the globe. In likely observance of the teachings of Jesus, Christmas became the holiday when the rich and powerful could offer aid to the less fortunate in society by entertaining them with food, drink, and shelter, an idea that was rapidly embraced in later centuries with the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The Real St. Nick

Lastly, Circa 270 AD, the man known to history as St. Nicholas was born in Patara, Lycia, a land that is part of present-day Turkey. He was a devout Christian who reportedly used the inheritance from the death of his parents to help the ill and needy. He later became the bishop of Myra, a city now called Demre. Many legends of St. Nicholas’ generosity increased his popularity over time. One such story tells of a poor father of three daughters who considered selling them into servitude since he didn’t have enough money to pay their respective dowries. On three separate occasions, St. Nicholas supposedly entered their house at night and placed a bag of money inside, so that the daughters might not have to suffer. It was for such good works as these that St. Nicholas eventually became known as the protector of children.

It was the Dutch who brought the stories of St. Nicholas to America in the 18th century, referring to him as “Sint Nikolaas,” or simply “Sinterklaas.” The figure known today throughout the modern world as Santa Claus became a part of the Christmas holiday tradition due to this transference of culture. Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 26, 1870. By then, Santa’s jovial, ruddy-cheeked appearance and sleigh-flying practices were well known to young children. Although it’s not known what the real St. Nicholas looked like, in 2017, a team from the University of Oxford tested a fragment of a pelvic bone said to be his. The test confirmed that the bone fragment dated from the saint's era.

No matter your opinion of Christmas, its importance among humanity is undeniable: the sheer endurance of its traditions reveals, at least to me, the hope we all strive for in new things to come.

HistoryAlex MeyerComment