The History of Christmas

By Beth Dodd:



The original heart of Christmas is, of course, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, but our modern American Christmas involves many different layers of traditions from around the world. The New Testament of the Bible describes Jesus’ birth and the events that accompanied it; Jesus’ birth in a stable, the Star of David, and the three wise men. But traditions like Santa Claus and Christmas trees are not from the Bible. Where did they come from? How did the modern celebration of Christmas begin?

Christians first celebrated Jesus’ birth around 98 A.D. These early Christians disapproved of traditional pagan winter solstice celebrations. When simply forbidding people to take part in them did not work, the Christians began to incorporate parts of the pagan festivals in their Christmas celebrations. Decorating with evergreens, holiday feasting and drinking, gift giving, parades, and caroling were all part of winter festivities in ancient Rome and Mesopotamia. These customs were practiced for hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

The Bible does not specify the date of Jesus’ birth. In 350 A.D., the Roman Pope Julius I selected December 25th for the celebration of Christmas. At that time, December 25th was a date that was sacred in both the Roman and Persian religions. Both the Roman winter festivals and early European Christmas festivals could be very rowdy.

In early America, boisterous Christmas celebrations were not tolerated by the Puritan settlers of New England. Christmas was more widely accepted in the Southern colonies. This regional difference continued until after the Civil War. Following the war, many people moved to the western frontier and shared their Christmas traditions. Christmas customs from many different cultures were blended as immigrants from around the world joined the American melting pot.

During the 19th century, Christmas took on a new character. It changed from a rowdy festival to a family holiday promoting goodwill. Two books, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving in 1819, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickins in 1822, were influential in this change. Both stories portrayed Christmas as a time when barriers of social status and wealth were crossed for the sake of peace and charity. These ideals took hold in America and England because people were starting to consider human rights at this time. By 1870, Christmas had been declared a national holiday in the United States.

What about Santa? The original Saint Nicolas was a Turkish monk born around 280 A.D. He was well known for his kindness and his piety. He gave away all of his wealth, and traveled the country helping the sick and the poor. He was especially popular in Holland where he was known as Sinter Klaas. During the 1700’s and 1800’s, Dutch settlers in New York celebrated his feast day in early December.

Popular literature created our American concept of Santa Claus from the Dutch Sinter Klaas. In 1822, Clement Moore wrote the beloved poem, A Visit From Saint Nicolas a.k.a. The Night Before Christmas. Illustrator Thomas Nast created illustrations of Santa for Harper’s Magazine from 1863 until the 1890’s that are now recognized as some of the first portrayals of our modern Santa. In 1897, Francis Church of the New York Sun, replied to a child’s letter saying, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” By the 1920’s, Santa was firmly established as we know him today.

The tradition of evergreens for winter décor goes back centuries. The Romans, the Egyptians, the Druids, and the Vikings all decorated buildings with evergreen boughs during the winter solstice long before Christianity. In Germany during the 16th century, Christians began to place decorated evergreen trees in their homes at Christmas. German immigrants to Pennsylvania first brought the practice to America. However, most Americans considered it a strange custom until it became popular in the 1840’s.

In 1846, the Illustrated London News printed a drawing of Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert standing with their children in front of a Christmas tree. After that many people in England and America began to imitate the royal family. Early Christmas tree decorations included apples, nuts, marzipan cookies, strings of dyed popcorn and berries, hand made ornaments, and candles.

Here at home in Colorado, the American population grew dramatically after the “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush in 1858, and following the Homestead Acts of the 1860’s. Americans from back east and immigrants from around the world traveled through Ute Pass to reach mining camps like Leadville, Breckenridge, and Cripple Creek. During this same period, Christmas was being rediscovered and recreated by Americans. By the time that the first Christian churches were built in Ute Pass in 1888 and 1889, Christmas had been established as a national holiday for almost twenty years. Christmas customs from around the world were surely included in Ute Pass holiday celebrations from the very beginning and continue to be enjoyed here today.