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The History of Christmas
Why do we Celebrate Christmas ?
Why is Christmaon the 25th of December?

Christmas is celebrated to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God.

The name ‘Christmas’ comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service (which is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died and then came back to life. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so people had it at Midnight! So we get the name Christ-Mass, shortened to Christmas.

Christmas is now celebrated by people around the world, whether they are Christians or not. It’s a time when family and friends come together and remember the good things they have. People, and especially children, also like Christmas as it’s a time when you give and receive presents!

The Date of Christmas

No one knows the real birthday of Jesus! No date is given in the Bible, so why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? The early Christians certainly had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated! Also, the birth of Jesus probably didn’t happen in the year 1 but slightly earlier, somewhere between 2 BCE/BC and 7 BCE/BC, possibly in 4 BCE/BC (there isn’t a 0 – the years go from 1 BC/BCE to 1!).

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). But it was not an official Roman state festival at this time.

However, there are many different traditions and theories as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th.

A very early Christian tradition said that the day when Mary was told that she would have a very special baby, Jesus (called the Annunciation) was on March 25th – and it’s still celebrated today on the 25th March. Nine months after the 25th March is the 25th December!

March 25th was also the day some early Christians thought the world had been made, and also the day that Jesus died on when he was an adult and they thought that Jesus was conceived and had died on the same day of the year. The date was chosen as it was near the March/Vernal Equinox (when the date and night are of equal length in March).

Jesus died on Nisan 14 in the Jewish calendar – the date of the Jewish festival of Passover. The Jewish calendar is lunar (based on the moon, rather than fixed dates) and so it moves around with dates on the Gregorian calendar. Saint Ephrem the Syrian (306 – 373) taught that Jesus was conceived on Nisan 10! So March 25th became a ‘fixed’ date on the Gregorian calendar to mark these ‘moveable’ dates on the Jewish calendar.

Christ is born!

Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ, few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which he was born. The oldest existing record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the church of Rome in 336 A.D. The precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains obscure, but most researchers believe that Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.

To early Christians (and to many Christians today), the most important holiday on the Christian calendar was Easter, which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, as Christianity began to take hold in the Roman world, in the early fourth century, church leaders had to contend with a popular Roman pagan holiday commemorating the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti)–the Roman name for the winter solstice.

Every winter, Romans honored the pagan god Saturn, the god of agriculture, with Saturnalia, a festival that began on December 17 and usually ended on or around December 25 with a winter-solstice celebration in honor of the beginning of the new solar cycle. This festival was a time of merrymaking, and families and friends would exchange gifts. At the same time, Mithraism—worship of the ancient Persian god of light—was popular in the Roman army, and the cult held some of its most important rituals on the winter solstice.

Who Was St. Nicholas? AKA Santa Claus?

Behind the jolly, red-suited, shopping mall Santa of today lies a real person—St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian monk who lived in the third century A.D., in what is now Turkey.

We know very few historical details about St. Nicholas’s life. Even the year of his death is uncertain, although both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have celebrated December 6—the date of his passing—for more than 1,000 years. Within a century of his death, the much-admired Nicholas had become the center of a series of folk legends. He was credited with stopping a violent storm to save doomed sailors, donating money to a father forced to sell his daughters into prostitution, and even restoring to life a trio of boys who had been dismembered by an unscrupulous butcher. Today, Nicholas is considered the patron saint of sailors, children, wolves and pawnbrokers, among others—as well as the inspiration for the figure of Santa Claus.

By the Middle Ages, Nicholas’ fame had spread to much of Europe, thanks in large part to the dissemination of parts of his skeleton to churches in Italy, where they were venerated as relics. St. Nicholas’ popularity eventually spread to northern Europe, where stories of the monk mingled with Teutonic folktales of elves and sky-chariots. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas took on the Dutch-friendly spelling Sinterklaas. He was depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in red clerical robes who arrived every December 6 on a boat to leave gifts or coal-lumps at children’s homes.

Stories of Sinterklaas were likely brought to the New World by Dutch settlers in the Hudson River valley. In his satirical 1809 “History of New-York,” Washington Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a portly Dutchman who flew the skies in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys. In 1823 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which traded the wagon for a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer.” Beginning during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast published the first of a series of popular depictions of a rotund and jolly St. Nicholas. In 1879 Nast was the first to suggest that St. Nicholas lived not in Turkey, Spain or Holland but at the North Pole.

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How 25 Christmas Traditions Got Their Start

Christmas Trees – Decorated trees date back to Germany in the Middle Ages, with German and other European settlers popularizing Christmas trees in America by the early 19th century. A New York woodsman named Mark Carr is credited with opening the first U.S. Christmas tree lot in 1851. A 2019 survey by the American Christmas Tree Association, predicted that 77 percent of U.S. households displayed a Christmas tree in their home. Among the trees on display, an estimated 81 percent were artificial and 19 percent were real.

From its Puritan roots to complaints of rampant commercialism (“What is it you want?” Charlie Brown asks Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Real Estate.”), Christmas in America has been filled with traditions, old and new. Some date back to 16th-century Germany or even ancient Greek times, while others have caught on in modern times.

Here’s a look at 25 ways Americans have celebrated the Christmas season, from singing songs and reciting poems to decorating trees and swapping cookies to drinking eggnog and wearing ugly sweaters.

Watch Christmas documentaries on HISTORY Vault

Christmas Traditions: Christmas Trees

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Christmas Trees – Decorated trees date back to Germany in the Middle Ages, with German and other European settlers popularizing Christmas trees in America by the early 19th century. A New York woodsman named Mark Carr is credited with opening the first U.S. Christmas tree lot in 1851. A 2019 survey by the American Christmas Tree Association, predicted that 77 percent of U.S. households displayed a Christmas tree in their home. Among the trees on display, an estimated 81 percent were artificial and 19 percent were real.

Christmas Traditions: The Rockettes

The Rockettes perform their annual Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

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The Rockettes – Since 1925, first known as the Missouri Rockets, this iconic dance troupe has been kicking up its heels, officially becoming the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in 1934. From performing at movie openings to entertaining troops to making TV appearances, they’re perhaps best-known for their annual Christmas Spectacular.

Christmas Traditions: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Charlie Brown’s tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

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A Charlie Brown Christmas – Decades later, it may be hard to imagine that this beloved TV special inspired by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip was first rejected by CBS executives. But when it finally aired on December 9, 1965, almost half of all U.S. TV sets were tuned to the broadcast, and the show went on to win an Emmy, a Peabody, an enduring following and even a trend of “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” Linus says in the special. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Christmas Traditions: Christmas Pickle

The Christmas pickle is designed to be hard to find.

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Christmas Pickles – If there’s a pickle among your snowman, angel and reindeer ornaments, you’re likely taking part in the American tradition of hiding the green ornament on the tree, so that the first child to find it wins a gift, or gets to open the first present Christmas morning. The practice’s origins are a bit murky (or should that be briny?), but, it’s likely it grew from a Woolworths marketing gimmick from the late 1800s, when the retailer received imported German ornaments shaped like a pickle and needed a sales pitch.

Elf on the Shelf – Love it or loathe it, since 2005, moms and dads have either joyously or begrudgingly been hiding a toy elf each night from Thanksgiving to Christmas. More than 13 million elves have been “adopted” since 2005 when Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, published the book Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition that comes with the toy. Social media has even inspired some parents to set up elaborate scenarios for their elves—as in: He TP’d the tree! She filled the sink with marshmallows!

Christmas Traditions: Yule Log

Yule logs date back to ancient winter solstice.

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Yule Log – Yule logs were part of ancient winter solstice celebrations, but it was Americans who turned the wood burning into must-see TV. Back in 1966, WPIX-TV in New York City aired a continuous 17-second loop of a fireplace for three hours along with holiday music. That led to an eventual better production and nearly 20 years of annual viewing. Today, you can view the yule log on demand and on the web. (In fact, HISTORY offers its own yule log themed to the series Forged in Fire.)

Christmas Traditions: Advent Calendar

Advent calendars count down the days.

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Advent Calendars – Early versions of this tradition, started in Germany in 1903 by publisher Gerhard Land, offered a way for children to count down to Christmas by opening one “door” or “window” a day to reveal a Bible passage, poem or small gift. Since gaining mass popularity by 1920, the calendars have evolved to secular calendars that include daily gifts from mini bottles of wine to nail polish to chocolates to action figures.

Christmas Traditions: Gingerbread Houses

Edible gingerbread house.

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Gingerbread Houses – Although Queen Elizabeth I gets credit for the early decorating of gingerbread cookies, once again, it’s the Germans who lay claim to starting the gingerbread house tradition. And when the German Brothers Grimm wrote “Hansel and Gretel” a new holiday tradition was born. Today, the edible decorations are available in a slew of pre-packed kits.

Christmas Traditions: The Nutcracker

In “The Nutcracker,” Clara falls for a nutcracker who comes to life.

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The Nutcracker – For many, the holiday season is not complete without a trip to watch this ballet. With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, the romantic tale of the young Clara’s Christmas Eve premiered Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was performed for the first time outside of Russia in 1934 in England, and made its way to the United States in 1944 when it was performed by the San Francisco Ballet. It became a must-see event in America in the 1960s, as performances spread across the nation.

Christmas Traditions: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

The uglier the better.

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Ugly Christmas Sweaters – You can blame our neighbors to the north for this silly, ironic tradition that really gained steam in the 1980s. According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the sweaters became a party trend in Vancouver, Canada in 2001. And the trend is seemingly here to stay. According to Fox Business, the ugly sweater industry is a multi-million business, with websites such as Tipsy Elves, retailers including Macy’s, Kohl’s and Target, and even food chains jumping on the ugly bandwagon.

Christmas Traditions: Cookies for Santa

Leaving something for Santa.

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Cookies and Milk for Santa – While leaving treats for Santa and his reindeer dates back to ancient Norse mythology, Americans began to sweeten up to the tradition during the Great Depression in the 1930s, as a sign of showing gratitude during a time of struggle.

READ MORE: Santa Claus

Christmas Traditions: Candy Canes

Candy canes date back to the 17th century.

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Candy Canes – Whether devoured as a treat or hung on the tree as decoration, candy canes are the No. 1-selling non-chocolate candy during December, and date back to 1670 Germany. The red and white peppermint sticks arrived stateside in 1847, when a German-Swedish immigrant in Wooster, Ohio placed them on a tree. By the 1950s, an automated candy cane-making machine was invented, cementing their mass appeal.

Christmas Traditions: Eggnog

American colonist devised some of the first eggnog recipes.

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Boozy Eggnog  Nothing makes the holidays happier more quickly than a glass of spiked eggnog. Although the yuletide cocktail stems from posset, a drink made with hot curdled milk and ale or wine from medieval England, American colonists get credit for making it popular and adding rum. Even George Washington had a special recipe.

Christmas Traditions: Wreaths

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Door Wreaths – Wreaths have been around since the ancient Greek and Roman times, but the evergreen Christmas wreath, often adorned with boughs of holly, eventually took on Christian meaning, with the circular shape representing eternal life and the holly leaves and berries symbolic of Christ’s crown of thorns and blood, according to the New York Times. Today’s wreaths, which come in all varieties, from flowers and fruit to glass balls and ribbon to artificial and themed, are most often seen as a secular winter tradition.

A Christmas card from the 1800s.

A Christmas card from the 1800s.

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Christmas Cards – The first official Christmas card debuted in 1843 England with the simple message, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The idea of a mailed winter holiday greeting gradually caught on in both Britain and the U.S., with the Kansas City-based Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) creating a folded card sold with an envelope in 1915. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, more than 1.6 billion holiday cards are sold annually.

READ MORE: Some of the Earliest Christmas Cards Were Morbid and Creepy

Christmas Traditions: It's a Wonderful Life

“It’s a Wonderful Life” debuted in 1946.

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It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film debuted in 1946, with Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey, a suicidal man who is shown what life would be like without him by an angel. But before becoming an annual TV-viewing tradition, the movie was a bit of a flop at the box office when it premiered, although it did receive five Oscar nominations (but no wins). A lapsed copyright in the 1970s allowed TV stations to air the movie for free. It has aired exclusively on NBC and USA since 1994.

Christmas Lights – Thomas Edison may be famous for the light bulb, but it was his partner and friend, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who had the bright idea of stringing bulbs around a Christmas tree in New York in 1882. By 1914, the lights were being mass produced and now some 150 million sets of lights are sold in the U.S. each year.

Christmas Traditions: Mall Santa

Santa has helped stores sell since at least 1890.

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Department Store Santa  Lining up at the mall to snap a photo of the kids on Santa’s lap may seem like a modern Christmas tradition, but it dates back to 1890, when James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts had a Santa suit made for him and dressed as the jolly fellow at his dry goods store. The gimmick caught on and a year later Santas could be found in many stores. While many point to Edgar as the original store Santa, Macy’s in New York claims it has been hosting Santa since 1862.

WATCH: Mall Shopping in the 1950s

Christmas Traditions: Fruitcake

Fruit cake can be eaten—or tossed.

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Making Fun of Fruitcake  A favorite of the Brits (both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served it at their weddings), fruitcake—that much-maligned mix of dried fruit, nuts and brandy—has been the subject of long-running American holiday jokes. Truman Capote wrote a short story about “fruitcake weather” in 1956, the small town of Manitou Springs, Colorado holds an annual Fruitcake Toss Day on January 3, and the dessert has become fodder for many a comedian. For example, in 1985 Johnny Carson cracked, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

Christmas Traditions: Cookie Swap

Cookie swaps help add variety.

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Cookie Swaps – For more than 100 years, Americans have spent time baking up a storm to exchange cookies at one of these events where participants bring a dozen of their favorite cookies, then guests trade and head home with an array of goodies. In her book, The Cookie Party Cookbook, Robin Olson writes that she found references to “cookie parties” dating back to the late 1800s, and that they began to be called “cookie exchanges” by the 1930s, and “cookie swaps” in the ’50s. “Historically, cookie exchange parties have been a ladies-only event. Exchanges were hosted by friends, relatives, neighbors, social groups, clubs, office co-workers, teams, schools and churches,” she writes. Now, they often include children and men and are frequently used as fund-raisers.

Christmas Traditions: The Night Before Christmas

Old St. Nick.

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A Visit from Saint Nicholas – Best known as The Night Before Christmas, the reading of this classic by poet Clement Moore is an American holiday tradition. Believed to have been written on Christmas Eve of 1822, the New Yorker is said to have been inspired by his sleigh ride home. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, Clement, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, was “embarrassed by the work, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823. Moore did not publish it under his name until 1844.”

READ MORE: Who Was St. Nicholas?


Christmas Traditions: Luminarias

Luminarias decorate an entranceway.

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Luminarias – Simple, folded brown bags filled with sand and lit by votive candles are particularly popular in the Southwest. Dating back more than 300 years, they line sidewalks and churches in places such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Phoenix, the annual Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden features more than 8,000 luminaria bags.

Christmas Traditions: The 12 Days of Christmas

The Christian 12 days of Christmas actually take place December 25 to January 6.

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Twelve Days of Christmas – Even though most hear the song between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, the Christian 12 days of Christmas, which span the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi, actually take place December 25 to January 6. The earliest version of the poem-turned-song is thought to have been published in Mirth With-out Mischief, a children’s book from 1780, with the modern version credited to English composer Frederic Austin who set the poem to music. Each year the PNC Christmas Price Index totals up the total cost of the 12 gifts named in the song based on current markets. For 2019, everything from a partridge in a pear tree to 12 drummers drumming would run up a bill of $38,993.59.

Christmas Traditions: Poinsettias

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Poinsettias – America’s Christmas flower, these plants native to Central America were brought to the United States (and given their name) by the country’s first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett, in the 1820s. It was a California horticulturist named Paul Ecke who brought the traditionally red and green plants to the masses 100 years later. He donated the plants to TV shows, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, the poinsettia became the best-selling potted plant in the nation by 1986.

Christmas Traditions: Salvation Army Bell Ringers

Salvation Army bell-ringers accept cash—and Apple Pay.

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Salvation Army Bell-Ringers – Come December, bell-ringers span out to accept donations in their iconic red kettles. Collecting money for the needy since 1891, the tradition started with San Francisco Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee who wanted to raise money to offer a free Christmas dinner to 1,000 of the city’s most destitute. Inspired by a kettle he had seen in England in which people tossed in coins for the poor, he set up his own version, and the idea quickly spread across the country and the world. Today, the Salvation Army helps more than 4.5 million people during the holiday season and they don’t only accept cash—donations can be made via smart phones.