Christmas Through the Ages

Donald Trump says “Merry Christmas”

“Donald Trump says ‘Merry Christmas,’ Obama wishes ‘Happy Holidays’” the Washington Times headline announces. Christmas is once again in the spotlight. President-elect Donald Trump has been very intentional about saying “Merry Christmas” the past couple of weeks on his “Thank You” tour. Just speaking these two “politically incorrect” words draws cheers from thousands of his supporters at every event. Many of Mr. Trump’s supporters are professing Christians who feel that Christmas has been under attack, but did you know that some Christians do not even celebrate this holiday? Did you realize that Christmas was once banned in America? What is it about this famous holiday that has stirred up so much controversy through the ages?

The Origin of Christmas

The first record of a celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25 is found in the Philocalian Calendar, a Roman document dated 354 A.D. (Miles 20). Christmas in the 4th century was far different than it is today. In fact, many people link the origins of Christmas to a pagan holiday!

The history of Christmas is debatable, but many historians point to two major pagan holidays that were celebrated on December 25. Every year around the winter solstice, the ancient Romans held a festival to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. Celebrated on December 17-25, Saturnalia was a week of lawless and hedonistic activity marked by a disrupted social order, wild singing in the streets, rioting, feasting, widespread intoxication, and general merriment by all. Secondly, it also appears that the ancient Romans also celebrated December 25 as the birthday of Mithra, the Persian god of light.

With the rise of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the Catholic Church leaders likely adopted one of these holidays hoping to bring the pagans into the church with it. It’s easy to imagine how they “Christianized” this time by declaring December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, “Christmas” immediately became a very popular holiday with thousands of people celebrating Jesus’ birthday in very ungodly ways. For the most part, the church was successful in removing the more violent parts of the celebration (which may have even included human sacrifice), but the general lawlessness and indulgence stubbornly remained and even defined this holiday.

As the Roman Empire spread, it took its religion and practices with it as well. Soon Christmas was celebrated in nearly every area of the world and as the centuries rolled on, many nations adapted their own traditions and customs to this holiday.

Christmas in America

Fast forward several hundred years. With the Reformation sweeping across Europe, Christmas and its pagan practices began to come into question. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan movement took over England and cancelled Christmas in an effort to combat the rampant debauchery associated with this holiday. This set the backdrop for Christmas in America. Many of the Puritan pilgrims that braved the ocean and settled in the New England area held even more orthodox views than Cromwell. Celebrating Christmas was frowned upon and even banned in Boston from 1659 – 1681 with a 5 shilling fine for anybody caught showing Christmas spirit.

It’s worthy to note that not all early American settlers were opposed to Christmas. In fact, the some of the Anglican pilgrims that settled in the Jamestown area developed a reputation for festive, hospitable, and even lavishly decorated Christmas celebrations.

All bans on Christmas were lifted by 1682 but many colonists retained their animosity towards the holiday. After the Revolutionary War, many English traditions were cast aside and Christmas lost even more of its appeal. But America was a young country, and as more and more immigrants brought their customs and traditions with them across the ocean, Christmas began to make a comeback.

In 1819, famous author Washington Irving published a series of short stories about an English family and their celebration of Christmas called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. In these stories, Irving painted what he considered to be the ideal Christmas – a holiday of peace and joy that brought people of all social and economic backgrounds together. Several decades later, Charles Dickens published his classic A Christmas Carol which also helped to portray Christmas as a time of giving and hope. Americans began embracing these ideas and the American Christmas began to take form.

As the holiday began to be more widely celebrated, old traditions were remembered and came back into practice. Since so many different backgrounds were represented in this new country, traditions were diverse and included Santa Claus, decorating fir trees, singing carols in the streets, giving gifts to children, and many others.

In more recent years, mass advertising, media, and materialism have changed the American Christmas once again. The Christmas season now seems to be defined by a frenzy of shopping as Americans spend an estimated 465 billion dollars in their pursuit of the perfect gifts! (Made in America Christmas).

With this history in mind, it’s easy to see how Christmas has been the cause of dissension. The Scriptures highlight the birth of Christ but it was probably not on December 25. Jesus commanded us to remember and celebrate his death, but not his birth. Should a Christian take part in this commercially hijacked holiday that likely has pagan roots?

I believe that everyone will need to come to their own conclusion to this question. However, it’s likely that 99% of you who read this article will be celebrating Christmas today so here’s my advice. No matter how you choose to observe December 25…

Stop and reflect

What really happened in that small town of Bethlehem around two millennia ago? Jesus Christ was born on earth as a baby. The Almighty God chose to take on flesh and to come down to our broken, cursed world. He chose this, even though he knew he would be rejected, tortured, and killed. He chose this to offer us redemption from our sins. He chose this because of His incomprehensible love for us.

Celebrate that this year.

Troy Troy Stauffer’s home lies just outside of Hershey, PA (the sweetest place on earth) but he is currently living in Indiana, serving as the men’s resident adviser of Elnora Bible Institute. He is 22 years old, the eldest child with four brothers and one sister. Here are a few of his favorite things: sports, ice cream, gas below $2/gallon, being with friends, videography, strategy games, water scenery, electronics, math, a perfect trial balance, singing, playing piano, music in general, and most of all Jesus Christ.

Works Referenced

“Christmas History in America.” The History of Christmas. Web.
http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/ch/in_america.htm. Accessed Dec. 2016.

Keathley, J. Hampton. “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?” Bible.org, 5 Dec. 2004. Web.
https://bible.org/article/should-christians-celebrate-christmas. Accessed Dec. 2016.

Kelemen, Lawrence. “The History of Christmas.” SimpleToRemember.com. Judaism Online.
http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/Christmas_TheRealStory.htm Accessed Dec. 2016

“Made in America Christmas- Are you in?” ABC News. Web.
http://abcnews.go.com/WN/mailform?id=14998335 Accessed Dec. 2016.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance. Dover
Publications, New York, 2011.

9 thoughts on “Christmas Through the Ages

  1. I think this is one of those things that is a matter of one’s conscious, not really the theological matter some people and professing Christians want to raise it to. You are free to celebrate it in a way that honors God, or dishonors Him.

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  2. I have pondered this topic several times myself…. Just for curiosity sake, What would be an alternative if you did feel uncomfortable with it being of pagan roots or because it’s so commercialized? Just be a “Scrooge” in the world’s eyes and not have anything to do with Christmas? Or celebrate Christmas, but make it clear that you believe it is not a Christian holiday, with no “true meaning of Christmas”, just a harmless worldly celebration and not do all the mangers, carols& Jesus things? Or..?

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  3. Great article! We need to hear these things. Okay, so maybe there are more important matters than whether or not you celebrate ChristMass… like a focus on the holiness of our Shepherd. But when 99% of the sheep traditionally observe a feast of the wolves, someone needs to sound the alarm. “…not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…”

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  4. I am afraid that there has been an overreaction to the excesses of Christmas celebration and it seems to me that we are about to throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater (these excesses). Must we as deeply committed Christians be governed by a reaction to the commercialism and revelry of our non-christian culture?

    I have heard of some Christians that refuse to celebrate this important Christian holiday or even sing the joyous Christmas carols because of some imagined support that this would be of pagan revelry. Why can’t we set the pace for celebrating this day in the way that it should be? It seems to me that nothing could be more appropriate than to celebrate (with songs and worship) the fact that the Son of God was willing to take on human flesh as the first step in making our salvation possible!

    Paul Herr

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  5. I am impressed that you would cover such a controversial topic. And not only that, but to cover it so honestly and fairly.
    We MUST be honest with the issue. (As we should with all issues)

    We have no reason to believe that it is Christ’s birthday. The early church writings attest to this- they didn’t know his birth date. Actually there is strong evidence that this is NOT the right time of year.

    Secondly, almost all Christmas traditions have no connection to it being His birthday. People contrive connections to support what they want to do. Imagine celebrating your spouses birthday by buying your children presents, and you quickly get my point.

    Also, it shows how we have already “thrown the baby out”, if we can celebrate with extravagance, gluttony, and commerce. Things that fly in the face of the very one we say we adore.

    As for the connection to evil… I may be wrong, but I think if we are honest we must admit, that Christmas was started by the catholic church, during the same time as they were bringing in pagan practices and worship. I won’t go in to that, but it’s a very real part of church history… Christmas and Halloween have very similar histories-Began by catholics, is now celebrated by all, and has been overwhelmed by debauchery.

    I grew up celebrating Christmas, and still enjoy singing of Christ’s birth. But my question is this- Why do we hang on to this, when we secretly wonder inside about its “connections”, and what would we lose if we stopped celebrating His birth at Christmas? Maybe then, our neighbors would see us rejoicing in His birth when it isn’t “only expected”. Maybe then we could rejoice in His coming, with song and worship, year round.

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