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Christmas History

A Brief History of Christmas Celebrations around the World

Although commercial activities during Christmas today are often blamed for making the season too materialistic, let's not forget that it's this very commercialization that makes Christmas so popular.

Comments that the religius aspect of Christmas is so overlooked and overshadowed that its celebration seems purely pagan are actually not far from the thruth. There has always been some link between Christmas and pagan celebrations.

Small town church
Celebrations of Christmas during winter time has its roots in pagan end of year celebrations.

Church leaders instituted Christmas as a religious holiday during winter because that time of the year was popular for the celebrations of many pagan festivals. The hope was that Christmas would also become a holiday that would gain much popularity.

Winter Solstice

Long before the birth of Jesus Christ, people in various parts of Europe would
celebrate light and birth in the darkest days of winter. The winter solstice (the longest night of the year), when the harshest part of winter was over, was a time of celebration for many peoples because they would look forward to more hours of sunlight during the longer days ahead.

The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated Yule from the winter solstice on December 21 through to January. Men brought home logs that were lighted and a feast would take place until the log was completely burned. Each spark from the fire was believed to represent a new pig or calf to be born in the coming new year.

The pagan god Oden was honored by Germans during the mid-winter holiday. Oden inspired great fear in the Germans who believed that Oden traveled at nights through the sky, to observe people and make a decision about who would perish or prosper in life. This belief caused most people to stay inside during the period.

Christmas feast
Organizing a Christmas feast is part of Christmas history and origins that goes back to its early beginnings.

Saturnalia Holiday

In Rome it was the god of agriculture, Saturn, who was honored in a holiday called Saturnalia. It was a holiday that started during the week that led up to the winter solstice and continued for a month with hedonistic celebrations. There was plenty of food and drink and the normal social class rules of who had privilege and power in Roman society were totally disregarded as everyone participated in the festivities. Some Romans also had a feast called Juvenalia to honor children and the birthday of the sun god Mithra was sometimes celebrated by the upper classes.

The Feast of the Nativity

In the early years of the start of Christianity Christmas was not celebrated. The main Christian holiday in those years was Easter. It was in the 4th Century that church officials made a decision to have the birth of Jesus celebrated as a holiday and Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the day of Jesus' birth. The holiday, which was first called the Feast of the Nativity, spread to England by the end of the 6th Century and to Scandinavia by the end of the 8th Century.

Christmas Pagan Celebrations

Church leaders achieved the goal of having Christmas celebrations, including attendance at church, become popular during the winter solstice. But they were unable to control other pagan-like celebrations during Christmas. Believers would attend church on Christmas and then participate later in raucous and drunken celebrations. But by the Middle Ages, from around the 5th to the 16th Century, Christianity had outgrown paganism as a religion.

House and street decorations at Christmas
Modern Christmas celebrations have their roots in the past, but have been modified to keep in step with the modern times and technology.

Christmas celebrations in England

The celebration of Christmas in Europe changed in the early 17th Century, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans gained power in England in 1645. To remove decadent behavior from the society, Cromwell cancelled Christmas as the Puritans noted that the Bible doesn't mention any date for Jesus' birth. The lack of this information and specific Biblical references to Christmas is also cited by religious groups like Jehovah Witnesses as the reason they don't observe or participate in Christmas. Christmas celebrations returned in England around 1649 when Charles II was restored to the throne.

Christmas celebrations in America

Christmas wasn't a holiday in early America because the Pilgrims who came to America had even stricter beliefs than Cromwell and the Puritans. Christmas celebrations were even forbidden in Boston from 1659 to 1681. During the same time however, settlers in Jamestown in Virginia were reported to have enjoyed Christmas.

After the American Revolution, Christmas again lost popularity and it wasn't until June 26, 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday. Christmas in the United States gained popularity as a holiday period during the 19th Century. Christmas celebrations also changed at that time to be more family-centered rather than being carnival-like.

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