Holden Lombardo, '23
Over the last century, Christmas—the most fundamental and essential Christian holiday—has expanded into the secular sphere. Yet, the holiday has never been a purely Christian celebration. Most people trace the origins of Christmas to the birth of Jesus. However, many Christmas traditions appeared hundreds of years before the Nativity story, exposing the non-Christian roots of the holiday. From as early as 3,000 B.C during the Bronze Age, humans have observed the winter solstice, the day in late December with the least daylight hours. In certain regions, people of the Bronze Age celebrated the solstice with one last feast before the harsh winter months that often led to famine and death. In other areas of the world, the solstice symbolized the end of the coldest winter days and a cause for celebration. Additionally, many civilizations marked the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, as a new birth of the sun gods in the coming months. Therefore, themes of birth and light, essential to modern-day Christmas, predated Christianity and originated with solstice traditions.
Multiple other non-Christian traditions inspired and influenced Christmas. In Europe, late December offered the freshest meat, since many farmers slaughtered their cattle, so they would not need to feed the animals in the brutal winter. Furthermore, wine and beer finally finished fermentation during late December in time for the feasts. In other regions of Europe, the Germanic festival of Yule extended from the winter solstice to the end of December. Celebrated in central Europe and Scandinavia, Yule commemorated the Norse god Odin. With the spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages, many Pagan traditions from Yule later transferred onto Christmas. For instance, during Yule, the Germanic people believed Odin flew over their houses at night to decide if they should be rewarded or punished. Not only Santa Claus, but also the Yule log and Yule singing are now central elements of modern Christmas, or—another name for the Christian holiday—Yuletide. In Ancient Rome, late December included many festivities and holidays: Saturnalia honored the god of Agriculture, Juvenalia celebrated the children of Rome, and December 25 marked the birth of the sun-god Mithra. However, Christianity soon spread throughout the Roman Empire.
In the beginning years of Christianity, Easter was the predominant holiday of the new religion. The Bible pointed to no exact date for the birth of Christ, and the text suggests that the nativity most likely took place in spring, but Pope Julius I chose December 25 to be Christmas Day. He chose late December because the date aligned with many other Pagan holidays, including Saturnalia and the winter solstice celebrations. Christmas gained popularity as Christianity spread, since church services, feasts, and celebrations already occurred in late December. However, the coexistence of Christmas and other holidays during the same time caused the major influence of Pagan traditions on the Christian holiday.
Due to Puritan beliefs against festivities, Christmas was not a significant holiday in early America and did not gain prominence until the 19th century, when, in 1819, the author Washington Irving wrote The Sketch Book, a collection of stories about Christmas. The stories centered more on customs of kindness, sharing, and compassion rather than religious ideas. Of course, the moral values of Christmas originated with Christian ideals. However, in America, a nation dedicated to religious freedom, Christmas increasingly separated from its Christian origins and gained a greater association with secular moral values.
Throughout the 20th century, Christmas rapidly spread to non-Christian and non-religious communities as a celebration of family and life. Today, anyone can celebrate Christmas. Anyone can put a tree in their house. Anyone can hang ornaments from their tree. Anyone can wear Christmas clothes. Anyone can eat Christmas dinner. Anyone can listen to Christmas music. Anyone can give Christmas presents to those they love. Because Christmas is a menagerie, a fusion of traditions and cultures, an amalgamation of ideas, a story, a day, a season, a feeling that brings everyone together. Because for thousands of years, humans have celebrated the last cold, dark days of December with warmth and light, and so we will, for thousands more.