Christmas day, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is so cherished in American culture today it’s hard to believe Americans once outlawed it.
The celebration of Christmas is relatively new in terms of Christian holy days, but has become so central to the church that it has survived over a thousand years of persecution from Pagans, Christians, and secularists alike. So chug your eggnog, hang your stockings, and strap yourselves in for a bullet train ride through 1,813 years of Christmas history to find out how this holy day became integral not only to the Christian church, but also to the American way of life.
The First Christmas
Christmas has not always been part of the Christian tradition. The early church did not place much emphasis on the birth of Christ for the first couple hundred years after its inception. It instead focused on his death and resurrection, making celebrations of such events the primary religious feasts and holidays for early Christians. The first record assigning December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth comes from St. Hippolytus of Rome’s ‘Commentary on Daniel,’ written in 204 A.D.
“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years,” Hippolytus wrote, according to Inside The Vatican.
Hippolytus wrote those words 150 years before any recorded celebrations of the Roman religious feast Natalis Invicti, held in honor of the sun god Sol Invictus, which also took place on December 25, indicating that the Christian use of the date developed separately from the pagan use.
The earliest recorded actual celebration of Christmas, however, comes from a fourth century document in a book compiled by bishops that mentions the celebration taking place on Dec. 25. Pope Julius I officially declared Dec. 25 to be Christmas day, originally called the Feast of the Nativity, 24 years later in A.D. 350.
So why did the leaders of the Christian church decide to begin honoring Christ’s birth more than 300 years after his death, and why did early Christians choose Dec. 25 to do so when many scholars argue that the birth of Christ most likely took place in either the fall or the spring?
Of Birth And Death
Ancient Christian tradition held that the death of saints and of Christ aligned with the anniversary of the inception of their mission, or in other words, the day they were conceived. Tertullian, a prominent third century Berber Christian author known as the founder of Western theology, wrote that Christ died on March 25. St. Augustine confirmed the early Christian belief that Christ’s death aligned with his conception, writing in his work ‘On The Trinity‘ that Jesus was conceived on March 25, “on which day he also suffered.”
December 25 falls exactly nine months after March 25. Whether Mary actually conceived Jesus on March 25 remains a matter of debate among scholars to this day, but the early church’s belief in that date explains the choice of Dec. 25 for the day of Jesus’ birth.
As for why Julius I declared Christ’s birth to be a church feast day, competition with ancient Roman paganism may have had something to do with that decision.
The Christianization of Rome
The Roman pagan celebration of Saturnalia and of Natalis Invicti, which happened during Saturnalia, posed a problem for early church leaders, as Christians at that time often took part in the festivities. A Syriac manuscript dated to the 1100s says the leaders of the church decided that the solution was not to ban their revelry but instead to “baptize” it by urging them to dedicate their celebrations to honor the birth of Christ, which the church already established as Dec. 25, according to Ramsay MacMullen’s “Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries.”
“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same December 25 the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day,” the manuscript reads.
Thus the Feast of the Nativity, later called the Christ Mass, spread throughout the Roman empire, gaining popularity especially after the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., which made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Celebration of the feast spread to Egypt by 432 A.D. and then as far west as England by the 500s, according to History.
Rowdy English And The First War On Christmas
Medieval celebrations of Christmas in the west bore more resemblance to modern day Mardi Gras than they did to the family oriented celebration of divine peace and holiness seen today. The English faithful would attend mass, then celebrate in drunken revelry. A beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and those who participated in the festivities would obey his commands, whatever they were, according to History. The poor would demand fine food and drink from the houses of the rich and would terrorize those who refused to serve them.
Such celebrations went on in England until the first English Civil War in the mid 17th century. The army of the English parliament had routed the forces of King Charles I in 1645. Parliament, largely made up of Puritans under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, canceled Christmas in an attempt to cleanse England of ungodly, sensual, sinful practices. Pro-Christmas riots broke out in 1647, which in part paved the way for the second English Civil War, followed by the third English Civil War, which saw the return of the monarchy in 1660 under the rule King Charles II. Charles II reinstated Christmas celebration in England thereafter.
Christmas Comes To America
Christmas did not become an official, federal holiday in America until June 26, 1870. Before then, whether Christmas was celebrated at all depended largely on the region. The Puritan pilgrims shunned celebrations of Christmas where they settled, whereas the settlers of Jamestown celebrated Christ’s birth freely, according to History. Boston actually outlawed Christmas from 1659 to 1681, and authorities fined any citizen perceived to celebrate it. Rejection of Christmas became more widespread after the American Revolution, as Christmas was seen as an English practice.
Christmas became popular in America in the early 19th century, however, largely due to the influence of authors Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Irving and Dickens reinvented Christmas celebrations in their works, beginning with Irving’s “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent,” and followed by Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Irving’s work, published in 1819, presented a series of Christmas celebration activities, all of them almost utterly fictitious, which portrayed Christmas as a peaceful time in which different groups of people joined together in harmony. Dickens’ work, published in 1843, furthered that perception with the message that Christmas was about having and displaying generosity and good will toward all and love toward one’s family.
Both works struck a chord with American audiences who were battling unemployment and riots during the early- and mid-19th century, according to History. As Americans re-embraced Christmas, their reinvention of the holiday continued to develop over the next several decades as immigrant Christmas traditions like Christmas trees and cards from various denominations grew into common observance throughout the country.
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