We often assume Christmas has been celebrated since the birth of Christ. However, Christmas as a festival or holiday did not start until some years after Christ's birth and death. Even the actual date of Christ's birth is in question because of reference to multiple calendars over the years.
How Did Christmas Celebrations Start?
Some theorists have surmised that the celebration of Christmas is related to the Jewish Festival of Lights, during which Jesus was born. Others associate it with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was a celebration of the births of several Roman gods.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia online, Christmas (or "Mass of Christ") was not one of the earliest celebrations of the Catholic Church. However, in various places around the Holy Land, starting in about 200 AD, masses celebrating Christ's birth became annual events. In the fourth century, the date of December 25 was settled on by most churches as the annual celebration.
These masses started in various locations around and near the Holy Land. Some of the early masses included dramatic representations of the Nativity. As early as the fourth century, hymns and carols became part of these dramatic events. It was not until 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi presented the nativity in the form of the crib or crèche that we now know.
How Did the Celebration Change?
Elements of various pagan celebrations that took place around the month of January gradually worked themselves into Christmas celebrations. Among these elements were gift giving, greeting cards, and the Yule log, which was based on a practice of a landlord providing a tenant with wood on the birth of a child. Various other elements, such as the Christmas tree and visits from Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, were based on other holidays and practices.
Over time, Christmas became a major feast day with special foods, such as minced meat, goose, and hot mulled spirits, not eaten the rest of the year. Other saints' days, such as Saint Lucia's Day in Sweden, also became associated with the Christmas holidays.
The Christmas tree, which was probably based on pagan symbols, became a symbol of everlasting life and hope, especially in Europe and North America. Adorned in lights (initially candles) and smelling of the outdoors, it became an important part of the Christmas celebration. Gifts were originally hung on the tree, and they now take a place of honor under the tree. The holy leaf is also an evergreen symbol of everlasting life and is also associated with the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he was crucified.
Santa Claus has been around in one form or another since the fourth century. Santa Claus, Old St. Nick, and all of the other incarnations of Father Christmas are based on St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors.
Commercialization of Christmas
So how did Christmas start? As the history explains, it began as a religious festival. Over the years, elements of pagan festivals were integrated into the Christmas celebration. Christmas was, nonetheless, consistently a time for families to come together for celebrate the birth of Jesus and to worship together. The religious activities were enhanced by food, drink, decorations, and an appreciation of the winter season as a doorway to the renewal of spring.
Christmas continues to be celebrated around the world. It has even been adopted in countries like Japan, where the population is not predominantly Christian. Christmas has also been commercialized with merchants counting on the Christmas season to bring in the lion's share of their profits each year. Children have come to expect not just a gift or two from Santa Claus, but to receive a large number of expensive gifts each year. Adults feel pressure not only financially, but also to create an outstanding celebration with perfect food, drink and decoration for their families. Because of the prevailing culture, it is often difficult to simplify Christmas and to focus on its origins.