While rocking around the Christmas tree or walking in a winter wonderland, one can’t help but wonder how the cherished holiday came to be. Beginning two millennia ago with traditions tracing back to the Romans and the Norse of Scandinavia, Christmas has been a time of celebration for all of human history.
Christians celebrate Christmas as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual leader who formed the basis of the Christian religion. Though the bible never mentions his exact day of birth, Pope Julius I chose December 25 to celebrate it and it is commonly believed that this day was chosen to integrate the pagan traditions of the Saturnalia festival.
Saturnalia was a holiday established by Romans to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture; Romans celebrated the birthday of Mithra, god of the sun, on December 25 as well. The time of the winter solstice, December 21, was also revered for some time in Europe for it signified the return or warmer weather and birth.
While Christmas originated from the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth and took on rowdy festival customs of the Romans, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that Americans began to reshape the holiday into a day centered on family and peace.
During the time of socio-economic class conflict, Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, which outlined Irving’s idea of Christmas being about a peaceful and loving holiday all classes can enjoy. Historians say Irving wrote about such a holiday but never experienced—he “invented” the idea of a true Christmas as it is known now.
Charles Dickens reinforced the ideas of charity and good will to humankind in his well known story A Christmas Carol. The United States and England increasingly accepted the emotional concepts of Christmas being forged by these authors, as well creating their own traditions that have been passed down through the years.
Today, pine trees are more commonly know as Christmas trees and 30-35 million are sold each holiday season, good samaritans continue the tradition, started in the 1890’s, of sending donations to the Salvation Army through Santa Clauses, and the Rockefeller Christmas Tree in Manhattan stands taller every year since 1931, the year construction workers began the tradition.