A Brief History of Christmas

Matthew R. Bishop
10 min readDec 22, 2022

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6,000 Years in 2,000 Words — Give or Take

Early 20th-century Santa Claus. New York Public Library, Public Domain.

The modern American holiday of “Christmas” is an enormously complex web of previous holidays meshed together from around the world, so complicated that to explain its history requires us to divide the holiday into its separate prerequisite parts. While the tradition of the Christmas Tree stems from early pre-Christian Germany, for instance, its association with Christ dates to the end of the Late Roman Empire — and then two thousand years later, the Americans show up with a jolly old bearded character called “Santa Claus”, who somehow inserts himself into this already-strange holiday. Tracing the history of these different elements takes the reader on an exciting trans-Atlantic, multi-millennial voyage through Scandinavia, Central Europe, the Mediterranean coastline, and finally to the United States.

I: God of the Underworld: The Origins of Christmas in Ancient pre-Germany

The bleak midwinter was a harsh and unforgiving time for the ancient tribes of Central Europe. Early Germanic tribes, whose religion was a sort of mix between contemporary Greco-Roman religions and their own ancient animist traditions, considered themselves blessed and fortunate for each and every winter they survived. In order to guarantee their survival, they believed that they needed to offer gifts and sacrifices to their God of the Underworld — who, no surprise, also appears to have been their god of this dark and lethal season called winter.

On the darkest, longest night of the year, early pre-Germans trekked into the frozen wilderness of the Black Forest, where they placed valuable gifts beneath snow-covered evergreen trees. These gifts, neatly presented at the base of the still-green tree, were offerings to the God of the Underworld. If the deity was satisfied with their gifts, he would spare them through the winter, and perhaps their children and their neighbors, too. If their gifts were insufficient to please the deity, they might never see the light of spring again.

Thousands of years later, virtually no elements of these old traditions still exist, except for the one basic component which has survived through all these millennia: The Christmas Tree, under whose boughs doting American parents place presents not for the God of the Underworld, but for their very own children to unwrap on Christmas morning. This, then, is the oldest single element of the modern Christmas, dating back into the prehistoric spiritual-animist world of early pre-Germans, thousands of years before the birth of Christ.

The potent symbolism of the tree is undoubtably why it has survived the test of so many thousands of years. It was — and is today — a symbol of green life rebelling against a season of barren death, of light against midwinter’s frozen darkness, and of hope enduring against all odds. That symbolism, as poignant to our Stone-Aged ancestors as it is to us, lives at the heart of the origins of Christmas, born in a dark, ancient, mythical midwinter forest beyond the reach of recorded history.

Originally, this was a seasonal celebration centered around the Solstice. The odd date of December 25th does not appear until thousands of years later, and that’s the next stop in our abbreviated history lesson.

II: Setting the Date of December 25th: Sol Invictus, Jesus Christ and the Late Roman Empire

Sol Invictus, The Unconqeuered Sun, was the Roman sun god, and was one of the most prominent and powerful of all Roman deities — so influential that Sol Invictus cults spanned all the way from Syria to Italy. Sol Invictus was also of major political importance, being one of the most personally favored gods by the Late Roman Emperors themselves — and with some Roman Emperors even depicting themselves as living manifestations of the holy deity, much like Christ would later be depicted as a living manifestation of the Abrahamic God.

The annual day of celebration for Sol Invictus was set on December 25th. On this day, religious followers from London to Damascus exchanged valuable gifts with each other and with their families, and spent the day feasting, singing, and dancing. This is where the date of December 25th comes from, complete with its associated gift-giving traditions. In this holiday, we see many of the familiar traits of the ancient pre-Germanic celebration of the solstice, but we also find important new elements that remain a key component of Christmas today — the greatest of those being the date of December 25th itself.

While this early Roman “Christmas” (it was called Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn) lacked the iconic towering Christmas Tree of the ancient German tribes and the modern American home (probably because it was completely impractical to attempt to fit said trees into said homes), Romans did decorate their homes with evergreen boughs, which they believed (along with other ancient civilizations like Egypt) had mystical and spiritual energies. These evergreen boughs represented “fertility and new life in the darkness of winter”, according to the historian Dominique Wilson — much like the ancient evergreen of the Black Forest. Coincidentally, this is where the modern notion of Mistletoe derives from, an evergreen bough that Americans still use to decorate their homes today — and which still carries obvious hints of its original romantic connotation from the Late Roman Empire.

Throughout all of these centuries, Saturnalia — effectively the Classical-era equivalent of Christmas — was not at all associated with a man named Jesus Christ, not even in the least. That association did not begin until the middle of the third century C.E., around 200 years after the death of Jesus himself, when it became politically useful for the Roman Empire to create this association. Doing so was not an act of malicious propaganda on the part of the Roman state — rather, the powers of the Late Roman Empire, beginning with Emperor Constantine, decided to do this in the hope of avoiding religious conflict or even a religious civil war within the Late Empire. It was, in other words, part of a negotiated religious-political settlement.

The political power structures inside of Rome in the middle of the third century were strictly divided into two religious camps: Pagan and Christian. “Pagans” were the old order of the Empire and the even older Republic, who worshipped their ancestors and the traditional gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. “Christians” were those who had converted to Abrahamic monotheism, with some adherents calling Christ their prophet, and others even calling him their God. While “Christianity” was the trending new religion of the masses, “Paganism” was the established religion of the ruling order. Although Constantine gave a speech about how a dream from God convinced him to convert the Empire and merge holidays across both religions, historians today believe he did so as a political strategy to prevent class conflict andarmed conflict inside of his empire. And just like that, Saturnalia turned into Christmas — the Romans swapped out Saturn for Jesus Christ, but they didn’t even change the date.

Here at last, around sixteen hundred years ago, we find a holiday named Christmas with its date fixed to December 25th, in which celebrants exhanged gifts and decorated their homes with mistletoe. Suddenly, we’re much closer to the modern Christmas.

III: Medieval Christmas and Yule

Christmas becomes far more complicated as we move into the Medieval era. By now, the holiday had gained such fame that it had evolved into dozens of separate versions of its former self, spread out across not only nations but entire continents. Various religions and cults all claimed the holiday for themselves — and each group’s celebration could be wildly different from any other. Some even declared war or committed genocide against rival parties.

Notoriously, a war occurred between Venice and Constantinople, in which the body of Saint Nicholas was severed in half, and each party to the conflict received one half of his body as part of the peace agreements. That’s just to give you an idea of how weirdly disturbing some of this history is.

On the even-darker side, Christian knights “eliminated” entire pagan civilizations (what today would be called genocide) for — among other things — the crime of celebrating Christmas, which was often outlawed as a pagan holiday and punishable by death.

Early pagan traditions continued to dominate throughout Europe. In Scandinavia, for instance, the Germanic tradition of the evergreen tree became associated with the Tree of Life (Yggdrasil) and this became a centerpiece of Scandinavian Yule. Absent the violent intervention of Christian fanatics, these populations continued celebrating the pagan tradition without any notion of Christian association.

Yule, like other Medieval Christmas-type celebrations, could last anywhere from a few weeks to a third of the year. It was a season for feasting, celebrating, song and storytelling, binge drinking, and hibernating. “Opposite’s Day” has its origins here in these wintry celebrations, where in their drunken stupor local mobs would sometimes appoint a random civilian to lord over them for a day. The actual lord would be deposed, while the elected civilian’s decrees were entirely binding for that one day. In general, these were good-natured celebrations. The elected civilian might issue decrees ordering his fellows to drink and dance until midnight, for instance, and then a very hungover local lord would resume presiding over his subjects the next morning (or two mornings after, once his hangover had abated).

In some places this jovial celebration was not only tolerated, but in fact mandated. In some fiefdoms, and even entire kingdoms, the ruling class would even organize the celebration themselves. Such celebrations have a long and storied history of their own — often a silly, jolly history that makes the reader laugh and seems comfortably familiar to us today.

But all too often in Medieval Christendom, anyone seen celebrating Christmas could be killed as a religious heretic. Even in the British colony of Massachusetts in the 1600s, to be seen celebrating Christmas — even within the privacy of your own home — was a capital offense, punishable by humiliating public execution in the town square. Here, even in Colonial America, we see Christmas as a pagan crime punishable by death.

Removing the pagan traditions and pagan associations from Christmas was a millennium-long project for Christian zealots, spanning from the 400s to the end of the 1600s. It was a very bloody project, and it only recently ended. As recently as the 1600s, Christmas was still widely perceived as a pagan holiday, and its celebration could be punishable by execution inside any Christian kingdom. So in four short centuries (historically speaking) how on Earth did we move from a highly controversial and often violent holiday to a child-appropriate season of gifts, cookies, peace and joy?

This is the final stage of Christmas evolution: The story of how Modern Christmas arrived.

IV: Modern Christmas, the Popularization of Gift-Giving, and “Santa Claus”

Here in the Modern Era (1770s-Present) we find the rebirth and wide popularization of gift-giving along with the creation of the modern “Santa Claus”, the final missing element of today’s Christmas.

Gift-giving was initially a tradition that involved the rich giving gifts to the poor, donating to charities and orphanages, and doing other annual “good deeds” to help keep society in balance. In the 1700s and increasingly in the 1800s, masters and grandmasters left valuable gifts for their apprentices and journeymen. These were no longer the offerings left to some dark god of death in the cold, prehistoric wilderness. Here in the Modern Era, employers began leaving practical and valuable gifts for their own employees, and they often directly presented those gifts themselves.

By the end of the 1800s, parents began to pick back up on this old tradition. Their adaptation was a mixture of all previous Christmas-style holidays, minus some of the more comedic elements of a jolly Medieval Yule. They included the Germanic Christmas Tree, the Saturnalian mistletoe and leavings of gifts under the tree, and — following the Industrial Revolution — included gifts for children, coworkers and junior employees, as well as public pledges and donations to various charities, orphanages, and non-profit organizations. We see Christian icons everywhere. Here, then, we have the confluence of key elements which finally produces the modern Christmas. By 1900, the only missing piece left is the modern re-invention of Santa Claus.

In life, Saint Nicholas was famous for his charity, grace, compassion and goodwill — his strangely violent post-mortem notwithstanding. To American commercial advertisers, he represented everything they wanted Christmas to be. Older traditions spoke of devils, or imps, that would leave dirty tricks for naughty children — in some cases abducting them, or even eating them. Like most Medieval stories, these were authored in order to teach Medieval children valuable lessons (don’t wander alone into the woods at night). In modern America, storytellers no longer relied on such devices, and they saw no use for such villainous characters in an otherwise-jolly holiday.

The decision to reinvent a mythical Santa Claus, while at the same time removing the imps and evil-doers associated with his “naughty” side, came only in the early 1900s — within the lifetimes of some of our own elders. Famously, American brands like Coca-Cola “mainstreamed” this new-age Santa Claus for a new generation, complete with the round belly and the bright red suit now so iconic and unique to his image. This process began in the 1930s, and the new image of “Santa Claus” became widely accepted soon after. By the 1940s, then — only 80 years ago, give or take — we now have the modern American idea of Christmas.

While the pagan associations have been removed, their icons have not — and nor has the original meaning of Christmas faded. It was always, and remains today, more of a season than any one day. It was — and is — a season of humility and thanksgiving, of charity and compassion, of love and of enduring hope. A season to rebel against death with all the symbols of unconquered life, to rebel against darkness with radiant light (Americans today still famously decorate their homes and entire towns with “Christmas lights”).

Above all, it is a season to celebrate togetherness, and a recognition that although our future is never promised through the bleak midwinter, we are together here and now. In this dark and cold midwinter, together we have light, and together we have life.

These are the constant themes we find in Christmas-style celebrations, present in Yule, in Saturnalia, and even in the nameless prehistoric celebrations of our animistic Stone Age ancestors. They have endured throughout thousands and thousands of years of shifting religious and political powers, from prehistory to modernity. And when in some distant future Christmas is rebranded as something else, it’s a safe bet that these are the same ageless themes that will continue to endure the test of time.

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Matthew R. Bishop

Matt is an author, journalist, international affairs writer, and a federal civilian crisis responder for the United States.