close up of christmas decoration hanging on treePhoto by Gary Spears

In tracing the intriguing evolution of Christmas, we journey back to the origins of this holiday. Rooted somewhere in the fourth century CE within the Roman Empire, the first historical mention of Christmas appears in a calendar dated 354 CE, linked to a wealthy Roman Christian named Philocalus. It’s fascinating how December 25, the chosen date for Jesus’ birth, aligns with the birth celebration of Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun,” during a time intertwined with the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Scholars debate why December 25 was selected as Jesus’ birthday, especially since biblical hints imply a warmer season for the birth. Early Christians symbolically associated Jesus with the sun, a connection possibly influencing the holiday’s timing.

The journey continues with the Germanic tribes adopting Christianity and blending their pagan Yule traditions, such as evergreen veneration and a wild hunt led by Odin, into Christmas customs. The Middle Ages depict a holiday scene centered on heavy drinking, a far cry from today’s festivities.

Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop, morphed into Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, known for gifting children on December 6. The Reformation shifted gift-giving to Christmas, while in parts of the English-speaking world, the holiday faced outright bans.

The narrative takes a turn toward the 18th and 19th centuries, when Christmas trees and family-centered celebrations gained traction. Influential works like Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and “A Visit From St. Nicholas” helped shape the modern perception of Christmas and the merging of Sinterklaas with the English figure of Father Christmas.

Commercialization led to critiques about the holiday losing its essence, while President Ulysses S. Grant officially recognized Christmas as a federal holiday in 1870. Interestingly, the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants led to the Jewish-American tradition of dining at Chinese restaurants on Christmas, a unique cultural phenomenon.

The 19th century witnessed the composition of beloved Christmas carols, many by Jewish composers, and the emergence of Christmas broadcasts in the 20th century. In recent times, debates around the separation of church and state and claims of a “War on Christmas” persist, showcasing the enduring, complex nature of this celebrated holiday.


By Donovan Adkisson

Editor in Chief of Tifton Talks | Managing Director of Tifton Media Works, LLC

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6 months ago

Whatever the holidays mean to you, it’s always interesting to see where our celebrations come from, especially when they have morphed so significantly from their origins.

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