When Was Christmas First Celebrated? The Holiday Is Newer Than You Think
Guess what? Christmas is coming. Had you noticed? Surprisingly, though, this cultural behemoth of the Western world has had rather a long road to prominence, and a more complicated history of celebration than you might think. It's had various manifestations over the centuries, from confusing and contradictory festivals in Roman times to a fall out of prominence in the 17th century to some really upset American pilgrims. Christmas didn't just come into existence on 25 December in 1 AD, complete with trees and carols and Christmas crackers with poor jokes inside. When Christmas was first celebrated is slightly puzzling and its evolution since has been, well, more of the same.
As religious (or religion-based) traditions go, Christmas's malleability is actually kind of unconventional. Hannukah, for instance, has remained static in its celebrations and details for centuries, as has Eid. Christmas has, however, been an intriguing "moveable feast" as people of the Christian faith moved countries, endured societal shifts, and developed and discarded ideas about the value of feasting and the precise value of a celebration of a holy figure's birth. It's much more modern than it appears, and the "story of the first Christmas" is less picture book, more historical guesswork and a heavy dose of confusion.
Here's when the first celebrations of Christmas happened — and how the holiday has evolved since.
"Celebrating" Christmas Isn't As Ancient As It Seems
It took quite a long time for the dating of Christmas itself to settle down; it's not until 354 AD that the modern Christmas date, December 25, appears in a list of Roman bishops, of all things, and it's debatable whether the birth of Jesus was regarded as all that important in the early Church, where conception and death were seen as the really important matters.
In reality, a lot of Christmas-like things have been happening in December for centuries, but many of them had little or nothing to do with Christian tradition. As the History Channel notes, many cultures in both hemispheres had celebrations around the end or middle of December to mark a solstice or the end of planting season, and to celebrate or honor the "turn" of the year, hoping that the sun would return; Norse, Celtic, Roman, and Germanic holidays are all recorded around the same principle, as are festivals around the sun in Egypt and Syria.
It seems that we can most accurately date the celebration of Christ's birth to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the 300s; but they usually celebrated it on January 6, what we now know as the Feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the two "manifestations of Christ's divinity" in Christian tradition. The birth of Jesus didn't really seem to figure as particularly important in comparison. They were clearly celebrating it by the 400s, because Emperor Theodisius the Younger, a Christian, made an edict banning gladiatorial contests on Christmas Day in 425 AD.
The big date for Christmas itself, at least in official terms, is the 567 AD Council of Tours, a giant meeting of cardinals, bishops and other important members of the Catholic church to discuss rules. They were the ones who established that the 12 days of Christmas, the period between Christmas and Epiphany, should all be a feast time of celebration. After that, it was set in stone.
How Christmas As We Know It Began
When we think of "Christmas celebrations," what we actually bring to mind is largely a modern combination of a lot of different traditions into one. Consequently, the earliest celebrations of Christmas may have looked really, really different. For one thing, we're not entirely sure how much Christmas in its earliest forms in Rome was inspired by or derived from pagan festivities like Saturnalia and celebrations of the sun. Various Roman authors record that new Christian converts were actually actively discouraged from using any of their old pagan celebratory ways in the "new" Christmas celebrations.
A few sources indicate that early Roman celebrations of Christmas were actually pretty conservative: Roman authorities wanted to distinguish it from the more madcap, bonkers Saturnalia festival, so they banned gambling, drinking, and raucous parties. Over the years, though, those traditions crept back into the 12-day celebration, so that by medieval times it was completely normal for the entire 12 days of Christmas to be a substantial festival that involved dancing, singing, chaos and the celebratory eating of lucky mince pies. Gift-giving, though, was banned as being excessive for a few centuries.
Christmas was by no means a formal part of the European calendar in the period following the Middle Ages, though. The Puritans had tried to ban it (we'll get to that in a minute), and a lot of the traditions of the 12 days deteriorated as feudal lords and their servants and serfs stopped being the main social structure of Europe. It wasn't even an official holiday until the 19th century. The idea of Christmas as a one-day, important holiday only came back into fashion seriously in Victorian times, largely because of the influence of Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert, but also because of new technological innovations: the Victorian period brought the first Christmas mass-produced ornaments, Christmas crackers, and Christmas cards. If we're dating the birth of the modern Christmas, the Victorian period is where it's at.
American-Style Christmas Is Very New Indeed
The pilgrims were, in many cases, giant Scrooges. For all that we associate a lot of modern Christmas traditions with Americana like the Coke Santa, its first few years on American shores were rocky: some settlements banned it entirely, with Christmas celebrations being entirely outlawed in Boston between 1659 and 1681. The Victoriana that had taken over Britain began to filter over and make people enthusiastic about it only in the 1830s, though it snowballed from there.
One of the biggest architects of the "traditional Christmas" was actually the author Washington Irving, who published a series of stories in 1820 romanticizing the holiday and providing a mixture of old and invented "traditions" that defined it. He amalgamated St. Nicholas, the gift-giving Greek saint, and a bunch of scenes he'd seen in England, from carol singing to hanging mistletoe (which was entirely foreign to American readers), into what most of us would recognize as the ultimate in Christmas norms.
So let's recap: Christmas celebrations aren't all that old, what we think of as Christmas is newer still, and American-style Christmas is the newest of all.