The Origin and Practices of Christmas: Christian or Pagan ?
RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS AND CALENDARS - AN ENCYCLOPAEDIC HANDBOOK, 1993
Christmas is the day on which Christians celebrate the birth of
Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic Church designates it as a day
of holy obligation on which members of the Church must attend
Originally, the birth of Jesus was commemorated in the East on the
Feast of Epiphany (January 6) but by 354, the Christmas Feast had
taken hold in the West and was observed on December 25. Since the
fifth century, most Eastern Orthodox Churches have celebrated the
Nativity on December 25; however, some Eastern congregations,
called "Old Calendarists," still use the Julian calendar and honor
the birth of Christ thirteen days later, on January 7. The Armenian
Church continues to celebrate "Old Christmas" on January 6.
As with many traditions surrounding Christmas, the selection of
December 25 as a commemoration of Jesus' birthday may be an example
of the blending of Christian ideas and the pagan traditions they
replaced. December 25 was the date of the Mithric observance of
the "Birthday of the Invincible Sun." This also coincided with
Saturnalia and the Winter solstice during the period when Mithraism
was practiced in Rome. Since the day was already being kept as a
holiday, Christians may have adjusted the symbolism of the day,
declaring it the birthday of their "Invincible Son." According to
events in the Gospel of Matthew, the date of Jesus' birth may
actually have taken place much earlier in the year.
The word "Christmas" means "the mass of Christ," and originated in
the 11th century as a name for this feast. It was one of the most
popular and universally celebrated holidays in Europe during the
Middle Ages. During the Reformation, however, the celebration of
Christmas began to decline in importance. Reformers engaged in
complex doctrinal arguments in an attempt to prove the celebration
of Christmas was unscriptural.
In some countries, the Protestant reforms brought about a ban of
Christmas celebrations. By the time of the Restoration in 1660,
however, the celebration of Christmas as a much more secular holiday
was revived in these countries. In New England, Christmas remained
outlawed until the mid-nineteenth century, and in Boston classes
were held in the public schools on Christmas Day until 1870, with
pupils who missed school that day being punished or dismissed. The
mass immigration of Irish Catholics to New England brought about the
reinstitution of Christmas celebrations.
"Christmas.", DICTIONARY OF CHRISTIANITY IN AMERICA, 1990
Both the northern European and North American custom of exchanging
gifts at Christmas... are possibly related to pre-Christian celebrations
at the close of the year. The celebration of Christmas has sometimes
been opposed as pagan by religious leaders. New England Puritans*
considered Christmas "popish" idolatry, and the Massachusetts General
Court in 1659 passed an act against its celebration, though the law
was repealed in 1681."
"Christmas", THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA, Vol. 3, "C-Ch", 1997
"The first mention of December 25 as the birth date of Jesus occurred
in A.D. 336 in an early Roman calendar. The celebration of this day
as Jesus' birth date was probably influenced by pagan [unchristian]
festivals held at that time. The ancient Romans held year-end
celebrations to honor Saturn, their harvest god; and Mithras, the [sic]
god of light... As part of all these celebrations, the people prepared
special foods, decorated their homes with greenery, and joined in
singing and gift giving. These customs gradually became part of the
"In the late 300's, Christianity became the official religion of the
Roman Empire... The popularity of Christmas grew until the Reformation,
a religious movement of the 1500's. This movement gave birth to
Protestantism. During the Reformation, many Christians began to
consider Christmas a pagan celebration because it included nonreligious
customs. During the 1600's, because of these feelings, Christmas was
outlawed in England and in parts of the English colonies in America."
"Christmas", COLLIER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA, Vol. 6, 1992
"... The suppression of the Mass during the Reformation led to a sharp
change in the observance of Christmas in some countries. In England,
the Puritans condemned the celebration and, from 1642 to 1652, issued
a series of ordinances forbidding all church services and festivities.
This feeling was carried over to America by the Pilgrims and it was not
until the nineteenth-century wave of Irish and German immigration that
enthusiasm for the feast began to spread throughout the country.
Objections were swept aside and the old traditions revived among
Protestants as well as Catholics."
"Christmas," COMPTON'S INTERACTIVE ENCYCLOPEDIA, 1997
THE CHRISTMAS WREATH
The use of evergreens and wreaths as symbols of life was an ancient
custom of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews, among other peoples.
Tree worship was a common feature of religion among the Teutonic and
Scandinavian peoples of northern Europe before their conversion to
Christianity. They decorated houses and barns with evergreens at the new
year to scare away demons, and they often set up trees for the birds in
winter. For these northern Europeans, this winter celebration was the
happiest time of the year because it signified that the shortest day of
the year--about December 21--had passed. They knew the days would start
to get longer and brighter. The month during which this festival took
place was named Jol, from which the word yule is derived. Yule has come
to mean Christmas in some countries.
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Trees and decorations. Ancient, pre-Christian winter festivals used
greenery, lights, and fires to symbolize life and warmth in the midst of
cold and darkness. These usages, like gift giving, have also persisted.
CHRISTMAS GIFT GIVING
Gift giving is one of the oldest customs associated with Christmas: it is
actually older than the holiday itself. When the date of Christmas was
set to fall in December, it was done at least in part to compete with
ancient pagan festivals that occurred about the same time. The Romans,
for example, celebrated the Saturnalia on December 17. It was a winter
feast of merrymaking and gift exchanging. And two weeks later, on the
Roman New Year--January 1, houses were decorated with greenery and
lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. As the Germanic
tribes of Europe accepted Christianity and began to celebrate Christmas,
they also gave gifts.
Excerpted from Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia
Copyright © 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 The Learning Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
"Christmas," THE WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA, 1966 Edition
THE CHRISTMAS TREE
There are several stories about the origin of the Christmas tree. People
in Scandinavia once worshipped trees. When they became Christians, they
made evergreen trees part of Christian festivals.
The Custom of decorating homes and churches with evergreens began in
ancient times. The Romans exchanged green tree branches for good luck
on the Calends (first day) of January. The English took this custom over
THE YULE LOG
The custom of burning the Juul (pronounced yool) came from the Norse and
Anglo-Saxons. They burned a huge oak log once a year to honor Thor, the
god of thunder. After the Norse became Christians, they made the yule
log an important part of their Christmas ceremonies. The Scandinavians
adopted the word yule to mean Christmas. In Lithuania, the word for
Christmas actually means log evening. The yule log became equally
important in England. The English considered it good luck to keep an
unburned part of the log to light next year's yule log.
Mistletoe decorates many homes in the United States, Canada, and Europe
at Christmastime. No one knows exactly how mistletoe became connected
with Christmas. Ancient Celtic priests, called Druids, used to give
people sprigs of the plant as a charm. Hundreds of years ago, some
people in Europe used it at religious gatherings.
In A.D. 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome ordered the people to celebrate on
December 25. He probably chose this date because the people of Rome
already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of
EXTERNALS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, 1917, page 134,
authored by John F. Sullivan
SOME CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS
"When we give or receive Christmas gifts, and hang green wreaths in our
homes and churches, how many of us know that we are probably observing
pagan customs? We do not wish to assert that they are not good customs;
but they undoubtedly prevailed long before Christian times. The Romans
gave presents on New Year's Day, and our bestowing of gifts at Christmas
is a survival of that practice, as well as a commemoration of the
offerings of the Magi at Bethlehem. The Yule-log, a feature of Christmas
in old England, goes back to the days of the pirate Norsemen. Holly and
mistletoe and wreaths of evergreen have been handed down to us by the
Druids. And even our friend Santa Claus, that mysterious benefactor of
our childhood days, existed in one form or another long before
Christianity had attributed his virtues to St. Nicholas; for the god
Woden, in Norse mythology, descended upon the earth yearly between
December 25 and January 6 to bless mankind.
But, pagan though they be, they are beautiful customs. They help to
inspire us with the spirit of "good will" even as the sublime services of
our Church remind us of the "peace on earth" which the Babe of Bethlehem
came to bestow. May that spirit fill the heart of each of us on every