Most people think of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but in reality the origins of what we now call Christmas stretch back to centuries before Christ was born. Here is a brief history of the origins of Christmas.
The earliest versions of Christmas were ancient pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. People were rejoicing that the worst of the winter months were behind them and that they could look forward to longer days.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated the return of the sun with immense feasts. Fathers and sons would bring home large logs, set them on fire and feast until the logs burned out. They believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born in the coming year.
The end of December in ancient Europe was a time when cattle were slaughtered and the people would have a hearty supply of fresh meat. This was also the time when most wine and beer that had been made during the year had finally fermented and was ready for drinking.
In ancient Rome, solstice festivals were called Saturnalias and were held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. It was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful, but also a time of reversed social order. For one month, slaves would become masters, peasants had control of the city and schools and businesses were closed to allow everyone ample opportunity to take part in the reverie.
By the 17th century, Christmas had been firmly established as a Christian holiday throughout Europe. But when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took control of England in 1649, they cancelled Christmas as part of their vow to rid Europe of decadence. It wasn’t until 1660, when Charles II would regain power that Christmas, by popular demand, would be brought back to England.
While Christmas first became popular in America during the Revolutionary War, it fell out of favor in the years that followed. In fact, it wasn’t until June 26, 1870 (nearly 100 years after the Revolutionary War ended) that Christmas was declared a federal holiday in America.