A Brief History of Christmas

I. Introduction
II. Centuries Before Christ and Christmas
III. History of Christmas
IV. Christmas Is A Natural Response for Believers
V. The Christmas Reformation
VI. Key Players in the Reformation
VII. Conclusion

Romans 14:5-6 KJV

Alternative/Supplemental Text Readings:

Romans 14:5-6 NIV
(5) One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
(6) He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Colossians 2:16-17 NIV
(16) Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
(17) These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Christmas is and has been a struggle. No age or period of time is free of debate about this subject. In reality, Christmas has been a struggle to allow Christian traditions and practices to shine brightly in worldly society. I want to discuss what Christmas has been and what Christmas has been becoming.

Centuries Before Christ and Christmas:

People have been celebrating life and rebirth during the winter months. This was and is a human infatuation with things that can endure and thrive during the cold winter months.

Before 600 B.C. Mithra was established. It was a celebration that ended up evolving into Indian, Roman and Islamic traditions. They all worshipped Mithra in unique ways. Mithra supposedly sacrificed himself for world peace.

Norse (early Scandinavian Vikings) Yule Log on Dec. 21 Winter Solstice. Set on fire largest log they could find. Each spark represented new life to be born in the spring. Evergreens. Only tree that could live through the bitter Norse winter.

Germans – Odin. Germans were terrified of him because he rode during the night deciding who would prosper and perish.

In 1652 Christmas outlawed by Oliver Cromwell in order to remove influence of the Church/State. 1656. The English signed a petition that if they could not have Christmas then they wanted to restore the monarchy. This happened with King Charles II came to the throne that year. 1659 in Boston, Puritans/Protestants had Christmas outlawed. The Jamestown Colony and even New Yorkers however continued the tradition with fervor. (they even drank eggnog)

History of Christmas:

Christmas has been and will always be an integral part of our Christian lives. It is the time of year that most of the world pauses to celebrate and commemorate the birth and incarnation of Jesus Christ. The man who orients our common calendar system of BC and AD. (“before Christ”; “anno domini – year of our Lord”)

Historian Phillip Schaff stated, “In the first place, no corresponding festival was presented by the Old Testament, as in the case of Easter and Pentecost. In the second place, the day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the gospel history, and cannot be certainly determined.”(Schaff's History of the Church)

The Scriptures do not reveal the exact date of Christ's birth, and the earliest Christians had no fixed time for observing it. It was not until the late fourth century that Christmas was generally celebrated in churches. Even then they differed on dates in different locations. It was typically called the Feast of the Nativity. Some abhorred the practice still.

Various methods were used in an attempt to compute the day of Christ's birth; among dates suggested by early church leaders were January 2, April 18, April 19, May 20, and December 25.

December 25 eventually became the officially recognized date for Christmas because it coincided with the pagan festivals celebrating Saturnalia and the winter solstice—a time when the sun is the farthest from the equator. The early church thereby offered Christmas on December 25 as a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities that were active simultaneous in their society.

Many in the church eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to the Christian faith and practice. Not all are pagan in origin or practice.

For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2) therefore replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus.

Christians introduced Holly to symbolize the crown of thorns that were placed upon Christ’s brow. Christians also introduced singing of carols and the nativity crib being used in Christmas traditions. Poinsettia. This flower was introduced in 1828 to the USA by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to Mexico. It has been adapted into our Christmas traditions.

Christmas Cards: invented in England in 1843 by the J.C. Horsley Company.

Santa Claus: American invention really. He is a figure created mainly by the work of Clement C. Moore—an Episcopal minister. In 1822 he wrote a poem called, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. In the poem he introduced the idea of St. Nick coming down the chimney and gave gifts to all the children.

Moore possibly hid his authorship at first possibly because his poem actually integrated Christian and non-Christian customs. From this emerged who we call Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas – was a bishop in the Greek Orth. Church. On December 6th he would give gifts to all the children. Hollanders and the Dutch who migrated to North America called him Sinterklass. He wore a red cape, white cloths underneath, had a long white beard and would come to give gifts. The Norse and later German mythical figure called Odin who would ride on a white horse during the night place bad children in his red bag and giving presents to the good ones only.

Christmas Trees: a Norse or German invention as mentioned earlier. Besides bringing in the Yule Log they would bring in and decorate an Evergreen tree. For centuries, the Evergreen has symbolized life and rebirth because of its endurance of the hard winter cold.

Christians placed apples on the Evergreen Trees to convert the symbol to Christian meaning. The apples have since evolved into ornaments. Christmas Trees really hit English and American traditions when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert from Germany in 1839.

The royal families first Christmas included a Christmas Tree. It was actually noised all over England and soon became an English and American tradition.
Christmas Is A Natural Response for Believers:

It is my opinion, that regardless of Christmas history—as it relates to paganism or church history—Christmas is and still should be a time that we celebrate.

This is due to the overwhelming fact that as Christians, we would and should naturally select a time to celebrate the birth of the icon of our worship—Jesus Christ. It is a natural response from the followers of Christ to celebrate His birth, His resurrection, and His soon return.

The birth of Christ is compelling and demands recognition. The birth of Christ was from the womb of the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ was God’s gift of eternal life to humanity…we should continue the spirit of giving of our time, our willingness, our affections, our love, and ourselves to Him and others.

The Christmas Reformation:

For the most part Christmas has resembled a carnival and a celebration. The ideas about Christmas that we enjoy today are recent in comparison to its overall celebration. The pagans found in the Norse, Germans, English have long celebrated during winter months. It was a hazardous time in some places.

In 1828 New York established its Police force because of the riotous celebrations that took place in years past.

In the early 19th Century, around December of each year, the streets of London would be flooded with celebrations and partying. Drunkenness and orgies were common. Typically a beggar or peasant was crowned King of Misrule. He would have his way as the lower class would bully the middle and higher classes.

Mankind was celebrating life and rebirth but had ignored that “the life” had come and had offered them “new birth”!

Key Players in the Reformation:

In the 19th Century were Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore and Charles Dickens profoundly impacted Christmas celebration in North America and parts of the world. America literally invented its own Christmas and possibly reinvented it for the rest of the world.

Many felt that Christmas was dying because of its rejection by Protestants and a general rejection of it because “nobody wanted to be like the British” anymore.

Charles Dickens's (explain nature of Dicken’s childhood and life) book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion as opposed to community celebration and excess of vice like drinking.

In his book, Dicken’s writes about Ebenezer Scrooge (explain nature of Scrooge) who is eventually convinced to help others by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. They succeed in showing Ebenezer, a middle class business owner, that helping others, being kind, and giving of yourself to others is what Christmas is all about.

In 1820’s several short stories by Washington Irving which appear in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and "Old Christmas", and by Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas). Irving's stories depicted harmony, warm-hearted holiday traditions he claimed to have observed in England. Although some argue that Irving invented the traditions he describes, they were widely imitated by his American readers.

The poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas popularized the tradition of exchanging gifts and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. In her 1850 book "The First Christmas in New England", Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree.

Christmas was declared a United States Federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. Since that time it has become a marketing ploy. Even Santa became a ploy to sell toys. For years Macy’s and F.A.O. Schwartz have been using Santa in their stores to peddle their goods. Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations.


L.O. Baird said this, “May no gift be too small to give, nor too simple to receive, which is wrapped in thoughtfulness, and tied in love.”

Christmas today is generally carried out without pause or understanding that many of the traditions we participate in are not permanent, but are more of a recent invention. Commercialism and inventive marketing has created a unique Christmas culture in North America if nowhere else.

Christmas can serve to be a distraction. A distraction or a deflection by culture and the unregenerate of what Christmas should actually be about--Jesus Christ. Texts of Scripture such as Matthew 1:18 – 2:12, which contain the account of the Nativity and the virgin birth of our Lord, should be read at any of our traditionally Christmas celebrations. If not, we are overlooking and even neglecting the real reason for the season..

John 3:16 tells us that God gave the greatest gift because of His love. Not because of his greed or vice but because He loves those whom He has created and seeks intimacy with those who have believed upon Him. This is the message we must declare this to the world. God loved us so much that He entered our dimension, He became the uniquely born Son of God, so that our sins might be forgiven. So that we can live with Him in peace very soon.

1 comment:

Ryan Gustason said...

Cool article. I did a mini collage of Christmas tradition history myself. You can read it here.

Love your blog! Keep up the good work!


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