A History of Christmas

Christmastime. The Season of joy. Of hope. Of traditions. Of celebrations. But how was Christmas celebrated throughout the ages?

Today we’ll be looking at how Christmas festivities took place, from the earliest Christmases in the first century, right up to the twenty-first century. To make things easier, I have divided it up into chronological categories, which are outlined below.

Merry Christmas – and enjoy!

1. ‘Christmas’ before Christ? (c. 5000 BC/BCE – 750 BC/BCE)

A snowy Stonehenge at Christmastime. Accessed via Viator.

Although Christmas celebrations as we know them originate from celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ (commonly known as the year 0 AD/CE), celebrations around the Winter Solstice period have always existed.

For instance, archaeologists discovered that Neolithic (New Stone Age) people near Stonehenge celebrated the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) with festivities, around 2500 BC/CE. Even the Stonehenge monument is erected in such a way that the tallest stone lines up with sunrise on that day.

In addition to celebrating the shortest day meaning that longer days were soon coming, archaeologists also discovered how the Neolithic people held huge feasts within their communities, and ate meats including beef and pork, as well as cheese. On top of this, they also drank mead – a fermented wine made with honey – and barley beer.

In Scandinavia (Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland), the Norse people celebrated the festival of Yule, from 21 December (Winter Solstice) through to January. To commemorate these long nights (sometimes up to 23 hours of darkness a day in the far north), the men would bring home huge logs to burn, and the festivities would last until the log had burned out – which could often take up to two weeks. The Norse people believed that each spark from the Yule log marked the birth of a piglet or a calf for the forthcoming year.

Yet it wasn’t just these early ‘Christmas’ dinners that bare similarity to our modern celebrations: gifts were also exchanged. The wealthier members of the community exchanged bronze weaponry (imported from Europe – not quite the next-day delivery we’re used to) and gold necklaces and buttons to make clothes with.

It is also highly likely that these Neolithic communities also celebrated with music, using instruments such as harps made from gold or flutes constructed with bones.

2. The Romans and Pre-Christian Origins of Christmas (c. 750 BC/BCE – 0 AD/CE)

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet (1783).

The Romans also held winter celebrations, before and after the birth of Christ. The original Roman celebration was in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture and wealth, and was called Saturnalia. This celebration began on 17December and lasted for approximately five days.

Similarly to the Neolithic people, the Romans celebrated with feasts but interestingly, all social rules were overturned. This meant that not only were slaves allowed to eat with their masters, but their masters actually served them! In order to celebrate this, both slaves and masters wore a pileus, a ‘cap of liberty’, which was presented to slaves when they were freed.

On top of all social norms being removed, some usually illegal activities were also allowed in Saturnalia, including gambling with dice. People also wore colourful clothing, rather than the usual white togas. People also celebrated at home after public feasting, and again exchanged gifts with each other. An example of a typical Roman gift would have been a Sigillaria: a small wax or pottery figure. Sometimes Romans gave each other satirical presents in the form of jokes or songs. In addition, slaves could even criticise their masters with little to no repercussions, and it was the one time in the year that they were given time off.

3. The Birth of Jesus and the Early Christmases (c. 0 AD/CE – 1000 AD/CE)

Pope Julius I, accessed via Italy on this Day.

In the earliest years of the Christian faith, Christmas was not really considered a holiday – the primary celebration was Easter, which celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. However, in the mid-fourth century, the Church decided to mark the birth of Jesus as a celebratory holiday. The Bible itself does not actually mention a birth date for Jesus, but Pope Julius I (r. 337-52) ultimately decided on 25 December, and that is still the date that we celebrate Christmas on today.

But why did Pope Julius I decide on this date? It is commonly believed that he chose this date based around Saturnalia – the Pagan festival mentioned earlier. But it was not originally called Christmas either – it was referred to as the Feast of the Nativity (again, food was a major part of celebrations). This custom spread, and accounts record this celebration in Egypt by 432, and in England by the sixth century. Another reason for choosing this date is that by embracing the traditional Pagan festivals based around the Winter Solstice, the Church hoped that people would embrace the festivities and thus Christianity.

4. A Medieval Christmas: Eat, Drink and be (Very, Very) Merry (c. 1000 – c. 1500)

A Medieval Christmas. Accessed via History Today.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had largely replaced Pagan celebrations in Europe. After a period of fasting, medieval Christians celebrated from 24 December to 6 January (Twelfth Night), upon which they would exchange gifts with each other.

These festivities involved a lot of alcohol. On Christmas Day, Christians would attend Church and then celebrate in a raucous, booze-fuelled festivity, often with whole villages celebrating together.

It is also in England during the Middle Ages that the term ‘Christmas’ is first recorded. It was found in a Saxon Book written in 1038 and was written as Cristes Mæsse, literally meaning “Christ’s Mass”.

Although celebrating the birth of Jesus, medieval Christmases also involved many of the Pagan traditions, mainly those from Saturnalia, including the slaves-as-masters antics and the gift-giving. The medieval people also looked back to their Norse forebearers, and re-introduced the tradition of the Yule Log.

The wealthier people also decorated their houses with evergreens during the festive period, and ate and drank very well. An idea of the food they ate included boars head and mulled braggot: a strong ale with honey and cinnamon, with brandy added into it for good measure.

Medieval people also enjoyed games at Christmas: the ‘Lord of Misrule’ was a medieval tradition where a beggar or peasant would be crowned as this Lord of Misrule, and go to the richer peoples’ houses and demand their best food and drink for his subjects. If the richer person failed to comply, they would often be targeted with pranks. The idea of the ‘Lord of Misrule’ was so that the richer upper classes could repay their ‘debts’ to society by proving and entertaining the poor.

Early Modern Christmases: From Celebration to Cancellation (c. 1500 – c. 1800)

A snowy Kenilworth Castle. Accessed via Warwick Blogs.

In the Tudor era (1485-1603), England underwent numerous religious reforms, from Henry VIII breaking with Rome and establishing the Protestant Church, to Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary bringing back Catholicism, only for Elizabeth I to bring back Protestantism again. However, Christmas celebrations were generally not too affected.

An example of an early Tudor Christmas involved plenty of drinking and games. Once again, celebrations often went onto Twelfth Night (6 January). On Twelfth Night a bean was baked into a cake, and whoever got the bean was crowned King of the Bean, or if a woman got it, she chose her ‘King’. Everyone had to imitate the ‘King’ – such as drinking when he drank or coughing when he coughed.

Dressing up, plays and music were also popular in the Tudor era, and these antics inspired Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’. Henry VIII (r. 1509-48) himself was a talented musician and wrote the Christmas song ‘Green Groweth the Holly’. Many of Henry VIII’s friends and courtiers would also dress up as Robin Hood’s men or Moors and pretended not to recognise each other.

Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) was into dancing at Christmas, and even had her own ‘Dancing Chamber’ at Kenilworth Castle. With the introduction of more global trade, particularly after Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas in 1492, more spices and seasonings were available for the food. Elizabeth is known to have hosted ‘sugar banquets’ (with refined sugar likely imported from the Caribbean), with elaborate sugar models of castles, holly, dragons and goblets – all of which were edible. It is little wonder that Elizabeth’s teeth turned black and rotted! Elizabeth also expected lavish gifts, and was known to open them on New Year’s Day and list their exact value.

However, in the mid-seventeenth century when Oliver Cromwell took leadership of England from 1649-60, his Puritan government banned Christmas and made it illegal under their strict rules as part of the vow to rid England of decadence and sin. However, everyone’s favourite Horrible Histories monarch (or, mine at least) Charles II (r. 1660-85) was restored to the English throne in 1660 and restored much of what the Puritans had banned, including Christmas. Interestingly, this decision has still never been through Parliament, so technically Christmas is still illegal in England. Let’s ignore that though! However, in America, the pilgrims who had arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were even more puritan than Cromwell, and they outlawed Christmas from 1659-81 in Boston. Anyone who was seen to be celebrating Christmas was fined five shillings. In contrast, in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, Christmas was still celebrated. Although, after the American Revolution, many English traditions fell out of favour and Christmas was not declared a federal holiday in the United States until 26 June 1870.

6. The Quintessential Christmas: Festivities in the Victorian Era (c. 1800 – c. 1900)

The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech. Taken from the original edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1843.

It is fair to say that Christmas as we know it today is largely thanks to the Victorian period. The drunken rowdy celebrations from the Middle Ages and Early Modern years were toned down and Christmas more family orientated.

In the US, the man often credited to changing Christmas is the author Washington Irving, who wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house, including the tale of a squire who invites peasants into his home to celebrate Christmas with him. The idea of this story was that Christmas should be a time of bringing people together, regardless of background or social status. However, even Irving’s book mentions a return to the Middle Ages, with a Lord of Misrule mentioned on more than one occasion.

Across the Atlantic in England, another author was hugely influential in shaping Christmas as we know it. In 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, which has been developed into plays and numerous film adaptations over the years. Again, it tells a tale of charity, morality and the importance of bringing people together at Christmas.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s (r. 1837-1901) German husband also brought over a tradition from his native homeland: the Christmas tree. This caught on quickly, as did decorating them with lights, candles (no health and safety protocols back then!) and presents.

As the family became a more central part of Christmas, children were often given presents, although these tended to be quite modest, such as oranges, sweets, and nuts, although some wealthier children could be given a toy train.

Boxing Day (26 December) also originated in this period, with ‘Christmas Box’ tips to servants and tradesmen being saved until 26 December – hence being called ‘Boxing Day’.

A multitude of other Christmas traditions also emerged in the nineteenth century, including Christmas cards, Christmas crackers and eating turkey rather than the traditional goose. And love it or loathe it, Christmas pudding was even invented during this period.

And one of Christmas’ most famous characters can be credited to the nineteenth century: Santa Claus! He is based off Saint Nicholas, a Turkish monk born in around 280 AD/CE who gave gifts to the poor. In 1822, the American minister Clement Clark Moor penned a Christmas poem entitled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, which is more commonly known today by its opening line, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The poem depicts St. Nicholas as a jolly man who rides a sleigh pulled through the sky by flying reindeer to deliver toys to children all over the world.

The iconic red and white version of Santa Claus as we know him today can be traced to 1881, where political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the image of Santa that we know today.

Many Christmas carols were also written in the Victorian era, including Once In Royal David’s City (1849), Good King Wenceslas (1853) and Deck the Halls (1862).

7. Modern Interpretations of Christmas (c. 1900 – Present [no pun intended!])

A beautiful display of Christmas lights brighten a dark, snowy evening. Accessed via iStock.

Christmas in the modern era is largely inspired by the Victorian Christmas, with the usual Christmas cards being exchanged, stockings being filled, presents sent to one another and Christmas crackers being pulled at the dinner table.

However, the main aspect of Christmas in the modern era is its commercialisation: by the early twentieth century, many shops had caught on to the Christmas bug and advertised – unsurprisingly – toys for children, such as teddy bears, dolls and trains.

Even during the Great Depression throughout the 1930s and both World Wars (1914-18; 1939-45) when people were struggling, they still ensured that they celebrated Christmas as well as they could, given the circumstances.

Another argument for the representation of Santa as we know him today can be thanks to Coca-Cola, where artist Haddon Sundblom was commissioned to create the image of Santa as we know him today: ‘the big fat man in the red suit’.

While the post-World War Two era saw a boom in family size, and with many of the parents having grown up in the Great Depression, they saw it as an opportunity to give their children gifts which they never had the chance to have as children.

Although Christmas carols were hugely popular in the Victorian era (and still are today), contemporary (and secular) Christmas songs also became much more popular from the 1970s onwards, with numerous classics being released, including:

Slade: Merry Xmas Everybody (1973)
Wizzard: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day (1973)
Band Aid: Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984)
Wham!: Last Christmas (1984)
Shakin’ Stevens: Merry Christmas Everyone (1985)
The Pogues & Kirsty McCall: Fairytale of New York (1988)
Mariah Carey: All I Want for Christmas Is You (1994)

And my favourite one…

The Darkness: Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) (2003)

I hope you enjoyed this – and I hope that you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

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