The History of Christmas

The origins of the most cheerful time of the year

Ben Kageyama
Dec 3, 2020 · 4 min read
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Santa Claus with Christmas toys on a sled drawn by white turkeys (1909), Public Domain via the US Library of Congress

It’s Christmas time again, and despite the pandemic, people around my town have been exchanging gifts, decorating trees, and singing songs about Santa. The malls are less crowded, but the spirit of Christmas is still around.

Christians claim that the holiday hails from their religion. For believers, it is a special day to honor the birth of Christ. Yet, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was born on December 25. Neither are there accounts of decorated trees, kisses under the mistletoe, or Santa Claus coming to town.

So, if holy text can’t explain the traditions we have for Christmas, where did all the holiday cheer come from?

As it turns out, the popular Christian holiday seems to be an amalgamation of different pagan influences and commercial interests — much like Halloween.

Pagan origins

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Norse Yule Celebration (1880), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Most of us are familiar with the biblical origins of Christmas, but even before Jesus was born, some form of “Christmas” was already celebrated by different early civilizations.

For example, the ancient Norse had had a winter celebration known as Yule for centuries. Around the 21st of December, fathers and sons would bring home evergreens to remind themselves of the life that would return after harsh winters. During Yule, families would sit together in a fire both for warmth and as a ritual for good fortune come spring.

The ancient Romans also had their own festivities in December. A week before the winter solstice, Romans held the holiday of Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn. Saturn was the god of agriculture, so in hopes of a good harvest, the Romans held lavish feasts of food and drinks in his honor.

At the same time, another sect was composed of Roman soldiers and government officials who worshiped the sun god Mithra. They had a special celebration in honor of their god on the 25th of December, the day of Mithra’s birth. For them, the said date was the holiest day of the year — and it’s not a coincidence that we also celebrate Christmas on that day.

Christianity’s growing influence by the first century AD put into question the pagan traditions of the empire. While the Church wanted a way to celebrate the birth of Christ, they could not agree on its definitive date since the Bible makes no mention of it. Given this predicament, both historians and theologians theorize that the Church decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25 as a calculated move to bring in more followers.

Since Romans already celebrated Mithra's birth on the said date, it would be advantageous to coop the festivities in favor of the Christian faith. So, in the fourth century, the church officially declared December 25 as the day of Jesus's nativity.

As time went on, the church absorbed other pagan practices instead of outlawing them. For example, the Yule tradition of bringing in trees indoors was adopted into Christianity by placing apples on their branches to symbolize the Garden of Eden. Eventually, the apples were replaced with the Christmas ornaments we all know and love.

Christmas presents

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Santa Claus (1881), by Thomas Nast, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This winter holiday wouldn’t be what it is without gift-giving and Santa Claus.

Christmas presents can be traced back to the Roman custom of gift-giving on New Year’s Day. After the Church declared that Christ’s official date of birth was on December 25, the tradition of gift-giving became tied to how the three wise men presented gifts in the nativity. These traditions were tied in nicely with the legend of Saint Nicolas, a gift-giving bishop from Turkey.

After the death of Saint Nicholas in the 4th century, a cheerful gift-giving practice spread in Holland and across Europe to commemorate the anniversary of his death. On December 6, well-behaved children would wake up to a toy from the kind saint, while bad children sulked after receiving nothing. Some regions referred to the man as “Sinterklaas,” a way of saying, Saint Nicholas.

Fifteen centuries later, in America, a retelling of the Saint’s story was created by Clement Clark Moore. He was a seminary professor who wrote a poem called “The Night Before Christmas.” He described a cheerful man named Santa Claus and how he used reindeers and children to give gifts during Christmas Eve. And while the poem was popular, it left the exact image of Santa to the imagination of its readers.

However, in 1863, the image of Santa was immortalized by cartoonist Thomas Nast. The artist from Harper Weekly drew Santa round, tall, and jolly. He had a full white beard and carried a sack filled with toys to spread the holiday cheer.

Add all of these elements to the millions of dollars spent advertising gift-giving and the holiday spirit, and we’ve got Christmas.

This holiday is a celebration born from ancient traditions, religion, literature, and commercial interests. However, despite its capitalist overtones, I do hope your holidays are filled with love and cheer.

Merry Christmas!

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Ben Kageyama

Written by

📜. History, true crime, and the occasional personal story | ✉️. benkageyamawrites@gmail.com | 🎓. Help me finish law school? https://ko-fi.com/benkageyama

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Ben Kageyama

Written by

📜. History, true crime, and the occasional personal story | ✉️. benkageyamawrites@gmail.com | 🎓. Help me finish law school? https://ko-fi.com/benkageyama

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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