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'Tis The Season! How Christmas came to be the festival of joy!

'Tis The Season! How Christmas came to be the festival of joy!

Every year, as December rolls around, large swathes of the world suddenly turn cheerful. The "holiday spirit" as it has come to be called, already buoyed up by Halloween (and in the United States, Thanksgiving) completely comes into its own as the sounds and sights of Christmas start coming into view, even as Halloween can still be seen in the rearview mirror. It is hard to overstate just how popular Christmas is, or its universal appeal for that matter. It is, by some margin, the most universal of religious holidays, celebrated widely by Christians and non-Christians alike. So just what is it that gives Christmas its immense popularity all over the world?



In data: The sheer popularity of Christmas (The countries shaded in dark are the only ones in the world where Christmas is not a public holiday)


To start with, for a long time Christmas was, in fact, restricted to the Christian world. But as Western cultural values began to be exported across the world, Christmas became one of its key cultural products. It is oddly fitting that Christmas has come to be so popular even outside the Christian world, considering its now ancient origins and long and controversial history. In recent times in particular, the debate over Christmas seems to be particularly loud, especially regarding its possibly pagan origins and increased secularization in recent years. Part of the reason behind this is the early history of the festival, and the notoriously complicated historical record behind it. Christianity, for the first couple of hundred years of its existence, was often practiced in secret because of distrust from Roman authorities, a distrust that was known to degenerate into outright violent persecution, particularly in the reigns of emperors such as Diocletian (284–305; ironically, it was almost right after Diocletian's reign that Emperor Constantine himself converted to Christianity and laid the foundation for the Empire's conversion as a whole).


Neil Armstrong Christmas Ornament
Ready to start decorating for Christmas? Check out the Culture Kraze collection that includes this felt ornament of Neil Armstrong!



Even among Christians, however, Christmas has hardly been a universally celebrated festival. Early Christian writers do not make mention of the holiday and, in fact, writers such as Origen and Arnobius, the latter writing after the year 297 CE, even criticize pagans for celebrating birthdays, suggesting that Christmas was not widely celebrated during their time. In the Eastern Roman Empire, where Christianity originated, the birth of Christ was initially celebrated only in connection with the Epiphany (the revelation of the divine nature of Jesus Christ) on January 6. This celebration was not about the nativity of Christ and was nor primarily concerned with his birth. However, we do know that a Christmas celebration took place in Rome in 336, and that it had been introduced to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Antioch before 400, and Alexandria in the 5th Century. Festivities surrounding Christmas and its date of celebration, however, have been the focus of intense academic debate, largely because of the sheer number of possible inspirations that had been available to early Christians.



Celebrate the nativity of Christ with this felted nativity 12 piece set.


 December 25th had already been celebrated by the Romans as the winter solstice, and in the short but deeply influential reign of Aurelian (270-275), had also come to celebrate the Roman God Sol Invictus. Almost a millennium later, a 12th century Syrian bishop explicitly wrote that Christians too participated in these festivities and decided that the Nativity should be celebrated on that day. Early Christians also associated Jesus with the Sun and it was common for them to refer to him with phrases such as the "Sun of righteousness". On the other hand, several commentators have also observed that it is likely that Roman celebrations on the 25th of December may have taken place in an attempt for pagans to co-opt a date that was already significant to Christians.



This tree ornament came straight from Haiti to join your Christmas decorations!

At any rate, once the celebration of Christmas was established, many of the traditions associated it came independently of the commemoration of the birth of Christ. In the early middle ages, Christmas was often seen as a wild, rowdy, drunken carnival whereas by the 19th century, it had become the family holiday we recognize today. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas today had their origins in pre-Christian cultures of peoples that later converted. For one thing, winter is usually a time of reduced agricultural work, and tended to have celebrations in anticipation of spring across pre-Christian cultures. Celtic winter herbs such as mistletoe and ivy, and customs associated with them, often found their way in Christian celebrations once these people had converted. Yule, now a byword for Christmas, was originally a Norse winter festival from which much Christian imagery was ultimately derived. Eastern Europe similarly witnessed the assimilation of the pre-Christian festival of Koleda into the Christmas carol.


This felt DIY tree is the perfect way to bring the Christmas cheer to your toddler!

For a long time, Christmas Day was overshadowed by the more prominent festival of Epiphany. However, the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day in 800, which kicked off the Holy Roman Empire, put the spotlight on the festival. In the High Middle Ages, Christmas had become such a popular festival that chroniclers of the time frequently made note of where nobles and prominent persons celebrated Christmas, a kind of medieval pre-cursor to modern day celebrity gossip columns. Medieval Europeans really let their hair down during Christmas, to the extent that the puritans had the festival banned in the 17th century! Although it was soon legally allowed again, Christmas celebrations continued to be looked down upon for their raucousness for a long time. It was not until the 19th century that Christmas was re-invented, through a conscious and concerted effort on part of the Church community, politicians, and writers such as Charles Dickens, taking on its modern, and hugely popular, form as a day for heartfelt celebration. The influence of Dickens on the festival was immense, imbuing it with a humanitarian spirit that is perhaps the reason for its enduring popularity all across the world, even among non-Christians. It seems almost poetic that a festival that has gone through so many iterations, and borrowed and grew through the contributions of so many cultures, is now giving back to them all! Merry Christmas indeed!




  1. http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/entertainment/scripts/multifaith_christmas.pdf
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20121116192524/http://www.gallup.com/poll/113566/US-Christmas-Not-Just-Christians.aspx
  3. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=6MXPEMbpjoAC&pg=PA133&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/
  5. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna16329025
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20090407051524/http://www.crivoice.org/cyxmas.html
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