For the last few years, we’ve all heard the clammoring from those who have endeavored to create a national crisis in their faux War on Christmas. For some, it seems that the defense of the Christian holiday is paramount to salvation. To hear them proclaim that the day is under secular assault and in danger of being hijacked from the realm of true Christianity, one may think that life as we know it is about to end if one more variation of the common holiday greeting, “Merry Christmas,” gets uttered aloud. Their attempts to create a mountain out of a true molehill would be comical at best, were it not for the fact that the holiday as celebrated today bears little resemblance to Christmas celebrations of eras past. Yet more amusing is the fact that Christmas itself (aside from the unsubstantiated claims upon which it is based) is little more than an amalgam of ancient celebrations, usurped from native populations and incorporated into the Christian religion as it spread through the world courtesy of the Roman Empire.

Despite all your Sunday school lessons, popular mythology, and even your secular Santa’s, the fact about Christmas is this-the holiday now celebrated as Christmas in much of the western world began life centuries before the purported birth of Jesus as a pagan celebration of life, rebirth, and rejoicing.

With a little help from my friends at The History Channel (yes- I know they are an entertainment medium, but they are also quite factual in many of their presentations, and at least as un-Hollywood as one can be and still get sponsors), here are some things you may never have known about the origins of Christmas.


-The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.

-In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days.

-The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.

-In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down.

-Around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.


-In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday.Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention date for his birth. Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.

-By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated.

– By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. As a result of ceding celebratory control on Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras.


-When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas.

-The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.

-After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution. Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.


-The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

-It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia.

-Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message-the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.

-In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving.


-Santa Clause is most likely based on the Turkish monk St. Nicholas.

-Christmas trees predate Chsirtianity by thousands of years. Ancient peoples would celebrate the evergreen trees during the winter to remind them of life and rebirth.

(The previous information was taken from the History Channel. Link provided above.)

SO- there you have it. Not only is Christmas just a big jumble of ancient traditions co-opted by a particular religion, there is no one defining Christian identity regarding the holiday at all. So the next time you encounter a someone babbling like a fool about the demise of Christmas or bemoaning the notion that the ‘spirit’ of Christmas is fading, remember that their idealized notion of December 25th is neither that pure or that old.

In my house, we begin celebrating at the beginning of December, and since we aren’t religious or Christian, it’s more of winter celebration. But, taking our cues from the Christians of yesteryear, we’ve co-opted our own favorite parts of the holiday, the ones we grew up with and the ones we make anew, and that’s Christmas for us. And we don’t care if you are Jewish or Muslim or Martian in my house. We’ll wish you a Merry Christmas if we feel like it. No offense intended, for to us, it’s a pretty generic seasonal exchange. Besides, Christmas is what it is, and it won’t be the same for me as it is for you. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be.

So while I understand that the commonly accepted name is Christmas, and while I myself say Christmas and wish a good Christmas to others, and sing Christmas songs with religious undertones, I don’t buy the whole “War on Christmas” bullshit. And quite frankly you shouldn’t either. After all, if you’re spending all your time bemoaning the demise of ‘your’ holiday, you surely aren’t enjoying or observing it in any meaningful way. Give it a rest…and Merry Christmas.

(cross posted at Bring It On! )