Origins of the Christmas Holiday

Updated November 18, 2021 | David Johnson and Logan Chamberlain

World's biggest festival has varied roots

Illustration of a Victorian Christmas Celebration

More on the traditions of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and candy canes.

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From its modest beginnings, Christmas has evolved into the biggest celebration in the world.

Christmas is the fourth most important Christian date after EasterPentecost, and Epiphany, a feast held January 6 to commemorate the manifestation of the divinity of JesusRoman Catholics and Protestants celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. Many Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar, which places Christmas around January 6.

The celebration of Christmas was not common among early Christians. There was disagreement about when Jesus was born and some early Christians opposed celebrating his birthday. In the fourth century Christmas was added to the Church calendar as a feast day.

A Common Date

December 25 was a significant date for various early cultures. The ancient Babylonians believed the son of the queen of heaven was born on December 25. In Ancient Egypt they celebrated the birth of the son of the fertility goddess Isis on the same date, while ancient Arabs contended that the moon was born on December 24.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast named for Saturn, near the the winter solstice (which they celebrated on December 25th). Later on, they added another holiday in honor of the god Sol Invictus, or the unconquered sun. The exact relationship between the early church and this popular sun god isn't always clear. The Roman emperor Constantine was a member of the sun-cult before converting to Christianity in 312.

Some scholars suspect that Christians chose to celebrate Christ's birth on December 25 to make it easier to convert the pagan tribes. Referring to Jesus as the "light of the world" also fit with existing pagan beliefs about the birth of the sun. The ancient "return of the sun" philosophy had been replaced by the "coming of the son" message of Christianity.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, in his Sermon 192, writes "Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase."

A note on Christmas Eve: days in the Hebrew and Hijri calendars begin at sunset, rather than sunrise like in the Gregorian calendar. The Christian church calendar, or liturgical calendar, follows the Jewish tradition. So Christmas Eve, the evening "before Christmas", is actually the beginning of Christmas Day as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. 

Joyful and Religious

Gradually, Christmas celebrations began to adopt the joyful, often boisterous, holiday traditions of pagan cultures. Gift-giving, which was already common in the Roman Empire for Saturnalia, was co-opted for Christmas. The story of the nativity was told through music, art, and dance. 

Some of the most famous pagan traditions are taken from the ancient German holiday of Yule. German pagans rung in the midwinter with some familiar traditions like yule logs and caroling. Admittedly, we don't have a lot of detail about how they celebrated in pagan Germany, but we know that Germanic and Norse pagans placed religious significance on other common Christmas symbols like mistletoe. 

Some Medieval Christians objected, however, maintaining that Christmas should be a somber religious day, not a secular festival. After the Reformation, certain Protestant groups opposed Christmas celebrations. Oliver Cromwell banned them in England. King Charles II restored Christmas when he ascended the throne.

In the American colonies, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians opposed the festivities, while Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians), Dutch Reformed, and Lutherans approved.

Christmas celebrations became more common in United States during the 19th century. The introduction of Christmas services in Sunday schools reduced religious opposition, while the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol popularized the holiday as a family event.


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