A short history of Christmas

24 December 2014

By Pan Macmillan

Since we're feeling festive, this month’s primer considers some the history behind the holidays.

A day to celebrate

Christmas was seemingly not one of the festivals of the early church. Since devotees of this new faith were, not unreasonably, more concerned with their saviour’s (recent-ish) death, resurrection and potential return, Easter enjoys a greater seniority in the Christian calendar. References to the Jewish festival of Passover in Gospel accounts of the crucifixion also made it easier for theologians to situate it in the year too. When it came to the time of Jesus’ birth, however, the Gospel writers proved less forthcoming, leaving religious leaders, having sifted the evidence, to posit dates in March and April, before in about 300 AD coming down to two specific dates: one in late December, the other in early January.

To this day, the Armenian Church celebrates Jesus’s birthday on 6 January, the date favoured by the Eastern Church, while those to the west plumped for 25 December. In The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton cites the calendar of Philocalus, produced in Rome in 354 AD, as the first historically verifiable record of this day as Christ’s birthday. This date is close to the winter solstice (from the Latin for 'sun stands still’), which normally falls around 21 December and, in many traditions is a celebration of the birth of the sun, since the days grower longer and brighter after the passing of the shortest day.

When Christmas was banned

After the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, the celebration of Christmas was banned in England by Oliver Cromwell.

The Puritans who made up and advised Cromwell’s parliament argued that since the date of Jesus’s birth was not given in the Bible, Nativity feasts were not part of God-given scripture. As such, Christmas could only be a later, man-made tradition and one that, to their minds, combined the worst elements of ungodly heathen revelry and pre-Protestant Reformation: Catholic idolatry.

In November 1644, they therefore moved to pass legislation abolishing Christmas. Two years later, its celebration was made an offence and seasonal revels and church services were suppressed, often by military force. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the law was overturned and Christmas resumed in England as before.

However, the Puritans who sailed to the New World during this period took their distaste for Christmas with them. Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas was forbidden in Massachusetts and even after the ban was revoked, many American colonists prided themselves on not observing it.

The Christmas tree

Prince Albert is normally credited with introducing the Christmas tree to England when, in 1840, he had a tree, imported from either Norway or his native Germany, installed in Windsor Castle.

However, it’s probable that it was actually a picture of the Queen, Albert and their offspring around a heavily decorated spruce, first published in the Illustrated London News in December 1848 and widely circulated elsewhere, that did most to popularise Christmas trees in Britain in the Victorian period.

In any case, one of Albert’s predecessors, Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, got there first. For she is known to have brought a tree for Christmas to the royal household at Windsor in 1800.

The use of evergreen shrubs as decorative items in winter can be traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. But according to legend, it was another German, Martin Luther, who invented the Christmas tree; the Protestant Reformer was allegedly inspired to bring a tree into his home and adorn it with candles, seeing it as a symbol of the light of salvation, after walking through a starlit forest near Wittenberg.

From St Nicholas to Santa Claus

St Nicholas was a fourth century bishop who lived in Myra, a town in southern Turkey. Acclaimed for giving silver coins to young girls without dowries, saving ship-wrecked sailors and bringing forth grain in times of bitter harvests, he became revered in Italy and stories of his good deeds spread to Russia, and across Scandinavia. By the fourteenth century, he was known as a bringer of presents to the needy and his saint day, 6 December, observed in many north European countries.

As Jeremy Seal records in his excellent Santa: A Life, it was Dutch settlers who took the cult of St Nicholas to America. It was there that their ‘Sinterklaas’, like many an immigrant to any new country, had his name mangled, and was duly transformed into Santa Claus.

By the early nineteenth century, Santa or St Nicholas’s Christmas Eve sleigh-ride gift run had become a well-established part of the festive mythology and was further propagated by Clement Moore's 1823 poem ’Twas the night before Christmas, which contains the lines:

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.


And while festive adverts by the Coca-Cola drinks company, which began to appear in the 1930s, may have gone some way to solidifying Santa as the fat jolly chap in a red and white suit in the popular imagination, the roots of his colourful outfit go right back the first St Nicholas, who as a bishop would have worn crimson and ermine ecclesiastical robes.