Christmas is the world’s best known and globally widespread holiday. It is a religious holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (hence Christ-mass.) Still, today it is celebrated not only by believers but by non-believers, atheists, and secularists as well. Strangely enough, it is celebrated even in non-Christian nations, such as Japan, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and South Korea among others. That’s why over the past few decades democratic societies were filled with debates on whether to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and “Holiday Tree” instead of “Christmas Tree” to be more respectful and inclusive to non-Christians who celebrate the day. That sparked an angry response from Christian believers who claimed that the holiday should not be secularized, regardless of its worldwide popularity. But if we take a look at the holiday’s history, we might find that it had little to do with Christianity in the first place.

Is Christmas a Christian holiday?

The main Christian holiday is Easter. It commemorates the essential event in Jesus’ life – his resurrection. The fact that he died and resurrected carries the most important message of the religion – Jesus died as part of a divine plan to save humanity. On the other hand, Christmas has practically no symbolic meaning. What’s even more intriguing is that in the first 400 years of Christianity it wasn’t a religious holiday at all. The first recorded celebration of the day was in Rome on 25 December 336. Christmas had a short rise in popularity in those times, although the mass observance of the holiday was established as late as the 19th century. The reasons for this are linked to the specific date of December 25th.

Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25th?

Jesus’ nativity wasn’t an issue in early Christianity. Some scholars from that time, including Origen and Amobius, strongly opposed celebrating birthdays, considering it a pagan tradition. More interesting, historians who looked for the historical facts about the man Jesus, came to different conclusions but none was pointing to winter as the season for his birth. Around AD 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote: ”There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] … Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].” So why was December 25th proclaimed as Jesus Christ’s birthday?

Romans marked December 25th as the date of the winter solstice. Solstices and equinoxes are astronomical phenomena connected to the seasons. All four of them are meaningful in human history and celebrated in one form or another. The most important of all was the winter solstice – it symbolized the victory of light over darkness. It is the day when the night stops growing and the day begins to rise. Almost all civilizations throughout history had festivals around this date. It was especially important in sedentary, agricultural societies, for which the Sun meant life and fertility. During the spread of Christianity in ancient Rome, these pagan celebrations were very hard to suppress. The festival of the god Janus and the midwinter festivals called ‘Saturnalia’ were way too important for the common people to suspend that easily. The church had to find a way to turn these events to their advantage, so they literally invented the birth of Jesus as a Holy Day. Later, religious scholars gave different interpretations to justify the “new holiday.” For example, Augustine wrote the following: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”

The solar symbolism wasn’t unusual in early Christianity. Various Biblical passages contained such comparison, describing Jesus as the “Sun of righteousness.” This was helpful in turning the winter solstice into a Christian holiday. Still, the mass popularity of Christmas had to wait for another 15 centuries, with turmoil happening every now and then.

The ambiguous history of Christmas

The history of Christmas is ambiguous, not only for its rise and fall in popularity but because it was banned by the church several times throughout the centuries. After the holiday’s short popularity in the 4th century, it fell back in obscurity in the Early Middle Ages when Epiphany, another Christian holy day, came to prominence. Christmas had a rise in popularity when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. Shortly after, two other kings followed his steps – King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.

Charlemagne is crowned emperor – December 25, 800

Generally, throughout the Middle Ages Christmas was celebrated by everyone. It was a public holiday for common people and nobility alike. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. Although it differed from today’s traditions, some practices were established back then, such as gift-giving and Christmas carols.

Christmas had a setback in the 17th century when the English Puritans banned the holiday in 1647. When Charles II was restored to the throne, Christmas was restored but to little or no interest. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the celebration of Christmas and the Parliament of Scotland abolished Christmas in 1640, stating that the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days.”

When English pilgrims went to America, they brought their rigid puritan attitudes with them. As a result, Christmas was outlawed In Boston in 1659 and even after the ban was revoked in 1681 the holiday didn’t enjoy popularity until the late 19th century.

Boston ban on Christmas

In the 18th century, Christmas had another setback in America, when it fell out of favor after the American Revolution, because it was considered an English custom. In France, during the era of the Revolution, Christmas religious services were banned and the three kings cake was renamed the “equality cake.” In the 20th century, Christmas celebrations were prohibited in the Soviet Union, while In Nazi Germany, organized religion as a whole was attacked as an enemy of the state.

How did Christmas become what it is today?

Two movements were crucial in shaping Christmas in today’s form and two writers helped the holiday to become what it is today. In early 19th century America, Christmas was a day on which groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food. That changed when authorities decided to transform the celebration into a family-oriented one. Several short stories by Washington Irving which appear in his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. helped a great deal in this mission. Irving proposed a vision of Christmas as a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday that brings together people across lines of wealth or social status. The most interesting thing about his ideas is that they weren’t based on any real traditions but rather invented a “tradition” by himself.

In England, the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church brought a mid-Victorian revival of traditional rituals and religious observances, including Christmas. Around the same time, Charles Dickens published his novel “A Christmas Carol” that proved pivotal in reviving the “spirit” of Christmas. Its instant popularity played a crucial role in portraying Christmas as a family holiday emphasizing goodwill, generosity, and compassion. Dickens’ humanitarian vision of the holiday defined many aspects of the holiday we know and celebrate today, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, songs, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. Even the greeting “Merry Christmas” was popularized through the novel.

Why should we celebrate Christmas?

From a controversial religious observance, Christmas became the most popular holiday worldwide in the 20th and 21st centuries. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is the only religious holiday in the world that is celebrated by both Christians and non-Christians including atheists, secularists, etc. The controversies around this day didn’t cease to exist. The modern “war on Christmas” still sparks some angry debates on whether it should remain religious (thus exclusively Christian) or it should be an inclusive, family-oriented global holiday.

What’s most important is that Christmas is a day when life is celebrated. Whether we tend to think of it as the birthday of Jesus Christ or as the day when the Sun prevails over darkness, it is a celebration of life, of love, and generosity. It is the time when parents have more time to spend with their kids, a time when family and friends come together and remember the good things they have. Christmas is a time to reach out to everyone and to express goodwill to others. It is a holiday that promotes values that transcend religion and tradition, values that lie in the very essence of humanity.

The bottom line is that Christmas is whatever you feel matters to you the most. There shouldn’t be a war on Christmas. It shouldn’t matter if you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. There’s absolutely nothing offensive about either of the greetings. Say whatever you feel is more appropriate to you. Christmas is a joyous season of happiness for everyone. The important thing is to open your heart, share some love, give away some food, and try not to be a Scrooge!