As religious church leaders
instituted Christmas during winter, because that time of year was
popular for celebrations of many pagan festivals.The hope was, that Christmas would also
become a holiday that would gain much popularity.
Long before the birth
of Jesus Christ, people in various parts of Europe
would celebrate light and birth in the darkest days
of winter. The winter solstice, when the harshest
part of winter was over, was a time of celebration
for many peoples because they could look forward to
more hours of sunlight during the longer days ahead.
The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated Yule from the
winter solstice on December 21 through to January.
Men brought home logs that were lighted and a feast
would take place until the log was completely burned.
Each spark from the fire was believed to represent a
new pig or calf to be born in the coming new year.
The pagan god Oden was honored by Germans during the
winterholiday. Oden inspired great fear in the
Germans, who believed that Oden traveled at nights
through the sky to observe people and make a decision
about who would perish or prosper in life. This
belief caused most people to stay inside during that
In Rome it was the god of agriculture, Saturn, who
was honored in a holiday called Saturnalia. It was a
holiday that started during the week that led up to
the winter solstice and continued for a month with
hedonistic celebrations. There was plenty of food and
drink and the normal social class rules of who had
privilege and power in Roman society, were totally
disregarded as everyone participated in the
festivities. Some Romans also had a feast called
Juvenalia to honor children and the birthday of the
sun god Mithra was sometimes
celebrated by the upper class.
In the early years of the start of Christianity the
main holiday was Easter. It was in the 4th Century
that church officials made a decision to have the
birth of Jesus celebrated as a holiday and Pope
Julius I chose December 25 as the day of Jesus'
The holiday, which was first called the Feast of the
Nativity, spread to England by the end of the 6th
Century and to Scandinavia by the end of the 8th
Church leaders achieved the goal of having Christmas
celebrations, including attendance at church, become
popular during the winter solstice, but they were
unable to control other pagan-like celebrations
during Christmas. Believers would attend church on
Christmas and then participate later in drunken
celebrations. But by the Middle Ages, from around the
5th to the 16th Century, Christianity had outgrown
paganism as a religion.
The celebration of Christmas in Europe changed in the
early 17th Century when Oliver Cromwell and the
puritans gained power in England in 1645. To remove
decadent behavior from society, Cromwell cancelled
Christmas as the Puritans noted that the Bible
doesn't mention any date for Jesus' birth. The lack
of this information and specific biblical reference
to Christmas, is also cited by religious groups like
Jehovah Witnesses as the reason they don't observe or
participate in Christmas. Christmas celebrations
returned in England around 1649 when Charles II was
restored to the throne.
Christmas wasn't a holiday in early America because
the pilgrims who came to America had even stricter
beliefs than Cromwell and the puritans. Christmas
celebrations were even forbidden in Boston from 1659
to 1681. During the same time however, settlers in
James- town in Virginia were reported to have enjoyed
After the American Revolution Christmas again lost
popularity, and it wasn't until June 26, 1870 that
Christmas was declared a federal holiday. Christmas
in the United States gained popularity as a holiday
period during the 19th Century. Christmas
celebrations also changed at that time to be more
family-centered rather than being carnival-like.