The history of Christmas

The Bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus.  In the third century it was suggested that Jesus was conceived at the Spring equinox, 25 March, popularising the belief that he was born nine months later on 25 December.  John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, encouraged Christians worldwide to make Christmas a holy day in about 400.

In the early Middle Ages, Christians celebrated a series of midwinter holy days.  Epiphany (which recalls the visit to the infant Jesus of the wise men bearing gifts) was the climax of twelve days of Christmas, beginning on 25 December.  The Emperor Charlemagne chose 25 December for his coronation in 800, and the prominence of Christmas Day rose.  In England, William the Conqueror also chose 25 December for his coronation in 1066, and the date became a fixture both for religious observance and feasting.

Cooking a boar was a common feature of mediaeval Christmas feasts, and singing carols accompanied it.  Writers of the time lament the fact that the true significance of Christmas was being lost because of partying.  They condemn the rise of ‘misrule’ – drunken dancing and promiscuity.  The day was a public holiday, and traditions of bringing evergreen foliage into the house and the exchange of gifts (usually on Epiphany) date from this time.

In the 17th century the rise of new Protestant denominations led to a rejection of many celebrations that were associated with Catholic Christianity.  Christmas was one of them.  After the execution of Charles I, England’s Puritan rulers made the celebration of Christmas illegal for fourteen years.  The restoration of Charles II ended the ban, but religious leaders continued to discourage excess, especially in Scotland.  In Western Europe (but not worldwide) the day for exchanging gifts changed from Epiphany (6 January) to Christmas Day.

By the 1820s, there was a sense that the significance of Christmas was declining.  Charles Dickens was one of several writers who sought to restore it.  His novel A Christmas Carol was significant in reviving merriment during the festival.  He emphasised charity and family reunions, alongside religious observance.  Christmas trees, paper chains, cards and many well-known carols date from this time.  So did the tradition of Boxing Day, on 26 December, when tradesmen who had given reliable service during the year would collect ‘boxes’ of money or gifts from their customers.

In Europe Santa Claus is the imaginary figure associated with the bringing of gifts.  Santa Claus is a shortening of the name of Saint Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop in the fourth century in present-day Turkey.  He was particularly noted for his care for children and for his generosity to the poor.  By the Middle Ages his appearance, in red bishop’s robes and a mitre, was adored in the Netherlands and familiar across Europe.

Father Christmas dates from 17th century England, where he was a secular figure of good cheer (more associated with drunkenness than gifts).  The transformation of Santa Claus into today’s Father Christmas started in New York in the 1880s, where his red robes and white beard became potent advertising symbols.  In some countries (such as Latin America and Eastern Europe) the tradition attempts to hold together the secular and religious elements by imagining that Santa Claus makes children’s presents and then gives them to the baby Jesus to distribute.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Where to find it:

John 1:14

About these words:

Describing Jesus as ‘the Word of God’, John reflects on the significance of the first Christmas.

And they said…

Charles Dickens, novelist, 1812 – 1870:

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time.  The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys … I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.

P J O’Rourke, journalist:

Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

Wendy Cope, poet:
Bloody Christmas, here again,
Let us raise a loving cup,
Peace on earth, goodwill to men,
And make them do the washing up.

Benny Hill, British comedian, 1924 – 1992:

Roses are reddish,
Violets are bluish,
If it wasn’t for Christmas,
We’d all be Jewish.