In the earliest years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was originally not celebrated as a holiday. It wasn’t until the fourth century when church officials instituted the birth of Jesus as a holiday, celebrated on the 25th of December. However, the Bible never mentions a true date for his birth, rendering the legitimacy of the holiday to be ambiguous.
The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration across the world. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated the fascinations of birth and light in a time of omnipresent darkness. For many people, it was the only time of year were fresh meat was available to them; also, it was the time of year where beers and wines were finally fermented and ready for drinking. In a time of pure celebration, why not have another occasion to celebrate?
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated was in the year 336 during the time of Roman Emperor Constantine, who was Rome’s first Christian emperor. At the time, the festival was not an official Roman state festival. Why would a celebration take place if there was nothing to celebrate? Well, around that season, there were celebratory occasions for winter solstice and the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festivals called “Saturnalia” and “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.”
The pagans believed that on the shortest day of the year, December 21, winter was soon ending and spring was shortly arriving. In Rome, Saturnalia took place between December 17 to 23, honoring the Roman god Saturn, the god of agriculture. Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, where food and drinks were plentiful, and slaves for the time would be masters; the normal social culture in Rome would be completely flipped upside-down. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was interpreted by Romans as the “birthday of the unconquered sun,” the birthday of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. The holiday was celebrated on December 25, hinting a slight uncertainty regarding the official day of the winter solstice.
Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the day of Christmas, even though the date of his true birth was never classified. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date to give another reason to celebrate during the chilly days at the end of the year. Because Christmas was held at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders manipulated the increase of the holiday being celebrated with popular embrace. However, there would be serious religious reform in Europe in the early 17th century.
As Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of their decadence and stripped away Christmas. The holiday would not only be outlawed in Europe. In America, the pilgrims felt strong in not even considering Christmas a holiday. In Boston if you were caught celebrating the holiday between 1659 and 1681, you were fined five shillings. Christmas wouldn;t even be considered a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
The early 19th century was a period chock full with class conflict and turmoil. During the Christmas season, gang violence was high and many people were unemployed. The New York city council first implemented a police force in response to a riot taking place around the holidays. The riot allowed people to seriously think about their actions around the time of year, and how each person is impacted by them.
Authors Washington Irving and Charles Dickens wrote stories in the 1800’s centuring on how close ones celebrate with one another while dealing with life’s hardships. The themes in both novels - goodwill, acceptance, thoughtfulness of others - struck cords with Americans across the nation. Christmas began to be recognized as a holiday where family and friends can come together and prove that love and care is always apparent in some form, even when hardship and deprivation are all that is on one’s mind.