There is a long history of Christmas, and the holiday as Christians practice today actually came about through an evolutionary process. While gift-giving, singing carols, and Santa Claus are long-time Christmas symbols and traditions, they have not always been a part of the holiday celebration. In fact, there was a period when Christmas celebrations were banned by the church. So, how did the Christmas we know today come to be?
The Winter Solstice
The Druids held their winter celebration on the shortest day of the year (Dec. 21) when they move on from the worst of the winter months and start looking forward to longer daytime hours. Celtic priests would cut mistletoe and bless it. The fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of the life in dark winter months.
The Roman winter solstice, also called Saturnalia, involved men dressing as women and masters dressing as servants. Parades, decorating houses with greenery, candle-lighting, and present giving occurred. They celebrated Saturn, the god of agriculture for over a month. During the same period they would celebrate Juvenalia, which honored the children. On December 25, the Romans would honor Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, who was believed to be born of a rock.
The term Yule came from the word "houl," or the wheel that changed the seasons, according to the Norsemen of Northern Europe. During their celebration, the men would bring home large logs, from which they would create a fire. They would feast and celebrate until the fire burned out - sometimes taking up to 12 days. Each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born in the new year.
The Pope's Intervention
In the 4th Century AD, Pope Julius I dictated that December 25th should be the date of Christmas, but it would be known as the Feast of the Nativity. Prior to this declaration, Easter was the primary Christian holiday. His declaration was an attempt by the Church to Christianize otherwise Pagan celebrations like Saturnalia.
Medieval Period (400AD-1400AD)
It is from this period that we get the 12 days of Christmas, as the holiday was celebrated from December 25th to January 6th (the Epiphany). People took the pagan traditions such as decorating houses with greenery and having parties and made them part of the Christmas tradition by giving them Christian meaning.
By 529 AD, December 25th was declared a civil holiday, and the 12 days of Christmas were also declared public holidays starting in 567 AD. This practice resulted in the term "Twelfth Night," which any Christian Teen should know well from their school studies of Shakespeare. This twelfth night is celebrated on January 6th, and was as big a holiday as Christmas itself until the late 1800s.
17th - 18th Century
Christmas celebrations were muted during this period, as Puritanical moral codes became emphasized. A strict adherence to prayer and New Testament scripture was emphasized. By 1644, Christmas activities were banned in England due to the belief that Christmas celebrations were too closely linked to those of Saturnalia. However, soon after the American Revolution, English customs were not as embraced by American's. Even Christmas was not celebrated much, as Congress met on December 25, 1789.
The Victorian Era (1837-1901)
We can thank the people of this era for bringing us the Christmas we know today. The middle class in England and America began to celebrate and idealized Christmas we see in novels of the era from Irving to Dickens. The holiday no longer represented a wild carnival of a holiday, but rather at time of peace, family, and nostalgia.
It was during this era that people used the Valentines' Day practice of giving cards to one another and decorating the Christmas tree. Most of the new practices came from America. By 1870 Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States.
Modern Day Christmas
Today Christmas is celebrated around the world. While there was a point when the Church worried that the celebration of Christmas was too tied to Pagan practices, now it worries about it's over-commercialization and secularization. Still, with good balance, it is easy to remember that this is a day to celebrate the savior's birth while also celebrating what Jesus would want us to - love for one another.