Jingling Bells, Twinkling Lights, and the Fascinating History of Christmas


Photo courtesy of WSU Insider

As the 2019 holiday season rolls into town, many of us are gearing up for another year of gift giving, carol singing, and all around merriment. Here in America, there are three major holidays recognized among the majority of the general public: Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. We all know that Christmas is a holiday for gift-giving and tree-decorating, but how did Christmas come to be, and where did those traditions come from?


According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Christmas originated as a Christian tradition, though it emerged among secular families in the early nineteenth century. Originally, Christmas was celebrated as the day Jesus Christ was born. In 221, Sextus Juluis Africanus assigned this day as December 25, and ever since it’s been universally accepted as Jesus’ birthday. It’s been theorized that this date stems from a holiday called “dies solis invicti nati,” or “day of the unconquered sun.” This holiday comes from the Roman Empire, and was celebrated the winter solstice as the return of the sun. After December 25 was accepted as the date of Jesus’ birth, Christian writers began to draw connections between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son.


Many of the contemporary traditions we observe today during Christmas didn’t actually stem from the holiday’s original story. Though it’s unclear where or when the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree began, fir trees with apples hanging from their branches date back to 1605, and place fir branches inside one’s house during this holiday has been dated back to 1494. The first use of candles to decorate a tree has been traced to 1611.


The practice of gift-giving didn’t become truly prevalent until the end of the 18th century, though it’s been traced all the way back to the 15th century. At the time, it was widely viewed that Christmas was a secular holiday, gift-giving a part of that, which is partly why Puritans in New England banned its observance. Sending Christmas cards didn’t become tradition until the 19th century in England.


Santa Claus stems from a European tradition, wherein St. Nicholas would appear prior to Christmas, brining candy and gifts to children. In America, this tradition twisted thanks to the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas (Twas the Night Before Christmas).” St. Nicholas became Santa Claus, the entity known for bringing gifts to families on Christmas Eve. Despite his name and attire, which emulates a traditional bishop, Santa Claus is known as a secular holiday tradition and is known all over the world. In fact, in Australia, Santa Claus has been seen wearing red swim trunks, instead of his usual, fur-lined garb. 


Christmas traditions stem from many different places throughout history, and still inspire new ones to this day. Whether or not you’re into the holly-jolly spirit of this holiday, Christmas plays a huge part in media all around the world, especially in America. Even though the origins of this December day tend to get lost in the frenzy of gift-giving and decorating, it’s always important to know where the roots lie. Happy holidays, and to all a good night!