top of page

Art & Culture

The History of Christmas

By Leah Ally

Volume 3 Issue 2

December 23, 2022

The History of Christmas

Christmas, observed on December 25th, is a holy religious event as well as a cultural and economic phenomenon. The public has been celebrating it with customs and rituals both religious and secular in nature for two millennia now. Christmas Day is marked by Christians as the anniversary of the birth of the spiritual figure, known as Jesus, whose teachings serve the foundation of their faith.  

Around the world, the middle of winter has traditionally been a festive period. It began with early Europeans as they celebrated light and birth in the deepest winter days centuries before the arrival of the man known as Jesus. When the worst of winter was over and longer days and more sunlight could be looked forward to, the winter solstice was celebrated. In most of Europe, the end of December was the ideal period for festivities. Most cattle were killed at that time of year so they would not need to be fed throughout the winter. Many people only had access to fresh meat during that time of year. Also, much of the wine and beer produced over the year had finally fermented and was ready for consumption. As a result, people began to see the winter season as a rewarding time of year fit for celebration.  The main holiday on the early years of Christianity was Easter as opposed to honoring the birth of Jesus. Church leaders made the decision to make the birth of Jesus a holiday in the fourth century. Church leaders boosted the likelihood that Christmas would be widely accepted by timing it to coincide with traditional winter solstice holidays, but they also relinquished control over how it was observed. Christianity had largely displaced pagan religion by the Middle Ages. On Christmas, believers went to church before having a wild celebration in a drunken carnival-like setting much like Mardi Gras today. Throughout the centuries, Christmas was considered one of the most joyous times of year, yet it did not become a national holiday until June 26th, 1870. The United States did not widely celebrate Christmas until the 19th century, yet it was America that had reinvented Christmas and its traditions. It was turned from a boisterous carnival festival into a day focusing on families, serenity, and nostalgia. Why was this transition made? Early in the 19th century, there was turbulence and class struggle. Unemployment was prevalent at the time, and the disenfranchised classes frequently rioted around the Christmas season. In reaction to a Christmas riot, the New York City Council established the first police force in the city in 1828. This inspired some upper-class citizens to start changing how Christmas was observed in America.  Christmas has faced numerous reforms throughout its history, yet the basic idea of the holiday has remained: a time for family and friends to be with each other and celebrate the winter season.  

bottom of page