By Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.
The New Testament contains two Christmas stories, not one. They appear in Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2. They have some points in common. But there are many differences in their characters, plot, messages, and tone.
In the familiar version of the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Because there was no room in the inn, the baby Jesus is born in a stable and placed in a manger. His humble birth is celebrated by choirs of angels and shepherds, and he is given precious gifts by the mysterious Magi. This version freely blends material from the two biblical accounts. It has become enshrined in Christmas carols and stable scenes as well as the liturgical cycle of readings during the Christmas season.
My purpose here is not to criticize blending the two Christmas stories or to debate the historicity of the events they describe. What I do want to show is that by harmonizing the two stories we may be missing points that were especially important for Matthew and Luke, respectively. I want also to suggest that appreciating each biblical account separately might open up new perspectives on the infancy narratives for people today.
In The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, Marc Z. Brettler, Peter Enns, and I explore how each of our religious traditions—Jewish, Evangelical, and Catholic—tries to bring together the modern historical-critical reading of the Bible and contemporary religious faith and practice. There are, of course, many differences among us. But there are some principles we hold in common: the value of reading biblical texts in their original historical settings, the need for careful analysis of the literary dimensions of each text, and respect for what seems to have been the intentions of the original author. Applying these principles to the two Christmas stories in the New Testament will reveal more clearly their historical significance, distinctive literary character, and theological riches.
Matthew wrote his Gospel in the late first century CE, perhaps in Antioch of Syria. He was a Jewish Christian writing primarily for other Jewish Christians. He wanted to show that the legacy of biblical Israel was best fulfilled in the community formed around the memory of Jesus of Nazareth. Now that the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed and Roman control over Jews was even tighter, all Jews had to face the question: how is the heritage of Israel as God’s people to be carried on? Matthew’s answer lay in stressing the Jewishness of Jesus.
This setting helps to explain why Matthew told his Christmas story as he did. He begins with a genealogy that relates Jesus to Abraham and David, while including several women of dubious reputation who nonetheless highlight the new thing God was doing in Jesus. Next, he explains how the virginal conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14), and how Jesus the Son of God became the legal Son of David through Joseph. Besides Jesus, Joseph is the main character in Mathew’s Christmas story. Guided by dreams like his biblical namesake, he is the divinely designated protector of Mary and her child Jesus.
The Magi story in Matthew 2 is part of a larger sequence that involves danger for the newborn child and his parents. When King Herod hears about the child “King of the Jews” as a potential rival for his power, he seeks to have Jesus killed. As a result the family flees to Egypt, while Herod orders the execution of all boys under two years old in the area of Bethlehem. Only after Herod’s death does the family return to the Land of Israel, though to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. At each point in their itinerary, the family is guided by dreams and texts from the Jewish Scriptures.
In his Christmas story Matthew wants us to learn who Jesus is (Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God) and how he got from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Thus he establishes the Jewish identity of Jesus, while foreshadowing the mystery of the cross and the inclusion of non-Jews in the church. The tone is serious, somber, and foreboding.
Luke wrote his Gospel about the same time as Matthew did (but independently), in the late first century CE. He composed two volumes, one about Jesus’ life and death (Luke’s Gospel), and the other about the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts of the Apostles). The dynamic of the two books is captured by words now in Luke 2:32 taken from Isaiah (42:6; 46:13; 49:6): “a light for revelation to the Gentiles [Acts], and for glory to your people Israel [the Gospel].”
While in his prologue (1:1-4), Luke shows himself to be a master of classical Greek, in his infancy narrative he shifts into “Bible Greek,” in the style of the narrative books of the Old Testament in their Greek translations. Also there are many characters besides Jesus: Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, and Simeon and Anna, as well as various angels and shepherds. These figures represent the best in Jewish piety. Thus Luke creates an ideal picture of the Israel into which Jesus is born.
In the gross structure of his infancy narrative, Luke seems intent on comparing John the Baptist and Jesus. His point is that while John is great, Jesus is even greater. So the announcement of John’s birth as the forerunner of the Messiah is balanced by the announcement of Jesus’ birth as the Son of the Most High (1:5-25; 1:26-56). And so the account of John’s birth and naming is balanced by the birth and naming of Jesus as Savior, Messiah, and Lord (1:57-80; 2:1-40).
Luke portrays Jesus and his family as observant with regard to Jewish laws and customs. At the same time, there are subtle “digs” at the Roman emperor and his clams to divinity. The narratives are punctuated by triumphant songs of joy. They are well known by their traditional Latin titles: Magnificat (1:46-46), Benedictus (1:68-79), and Nunc dimittis (2:29-32). These are pastiches of words and phrases from Israel’s Scriptures, and they serve to praise the God of Israel for what he was doing in and through Jesus.
With his infancy narrative, Luke wants to root Jesus in the best of Israelite piety, while hinting at Jesus’ significance for all the peoples of the world. That is why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38) goes back beyond Abraham all the way to Adam. Luke’s infancy narrative has provided the framework for the traditional “Christian story.” Its tone is upbeat, celebratory, and even romantic.
I have shown one way to read the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke. It is a way that respects their historical contexts, literary skills, and intentions. It is not the only way. Indeed, during this Christmas season I will be celebrating (God willing) the traditional Christmas story in the two parishes in which I serve regularly as a Catholic priest. What I hope to have shown here is that there is more to the biblical Christmas stories than gets included in the traditional account.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and co-author (with Marc Z. Brettler and Peter Enns) of The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously.
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For other uses, see Christmas (disambiguation).
"Christmas Day" redirects here. For other uses, see Christmas Day (disambiguation).
For Christmas traditions worldwide, see Christmas traditions.
A depiction of the Nativity of Jesus with a Christmas tree backdrop
|Also called||Noël, Nativity, Xmas, Yule|
|Observed by||Christians, many non-Christians|
|Significance||Commemoration of the Nativity of Jesus|
|Celebrations||Gift-giving, family and other social gatherings, symbolic decoration, feasting etc.|
|Related to||Christmastide, Christmas Eve, Advent, Annunciation, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, Nativity Fast, Nativity of Christ, Yule, St. Stephen's Day, Boxing Day|
Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christianliturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world's nations, is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season centered around it.
The traditional Christmas narrative, the Nativity of Jesus, delineated in the New Testament says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in accordance with messianic prophecies. When Joseph and Mary arrived in the city, the inn had no room and so they were offered a stable where the Christ Child was soon born, with angels proclaiming this news to shepherds who then further disseminated the information.
Although the month and date of Jesus' birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid fourth century the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date that was later adopted in the East. Today, most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, some Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany. This is not a disagreement over the date of Christmas as such, but rather a preference of which calendar should be used to determine the day that is December 25. Moreover, for Christians, the belief that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than the exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.
The celebratory customs associated in various countries with Christmas have a mix of pre-Christian, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, viewing a Nativity play, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore. Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. The economic impact of Christmas has grown steadily over the past few centuries in many regions of the world.
"Christmas" is a shortened form of "Christ's mass". It is derived from the Middle EnglishCristemasse, which is from Old EnglishCrīstesmæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038 followed by the word Cristes-messe in 1131.Crīst (genitiveCrīstes) is from Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), a translation of HebrewMāšîaḥ (מָשִׁיחַ), "Messiah", meaning "anointed"; and mæsse is from Latin missa, the celebration of the Eucharist.
The form Christenmas was also historically used, but is now considered archaic and dialectal; it derives from Middle English Cristenmasse, literally "Christian mass".Xmas is an abbreviation of Christmas found particularly in print, based on the initial letter chi (Χ) in Greek Khrīstos (Χριστός), "Christ", though numerous style guides discourage its use; it has precedent in Middle English Χρ̄es masse (where "Χρ̄" is an abbreviation for Χριστός).
In addition to "Christmas", the holiday has been known by various other names throughout its history. The Anglo-Saxons referred to the feast as "midwinter", or, more rarely, as Nātiuiteð (from Latinnātīvitās below). "Nativity", meaning "birth", is from Latin nātīvitās. In Old English, Gēola (Yule) referred to the period corresponding to December and January, which was eventually equated with Christian Christmas. "Noel" (or "Nowel") entered English in the late 14th century and is from the Old French noël or naël, itself ultimately from the Latin nātālis (diēs) meaning "birth (day)".
Main article: Nativity of Jesus
The canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew both describe Jesus as being born in Bethlehem in Judea, to a virgin mother. In the Gospel of Luke account, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there and laid in a manger. It says that angels proclaimed him a savior for all people, and shepherds came to adore him.
In the Matthew account, magi follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the king of the Jews. King Herod orders the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, but the family flees to Egypt and later settles in Nazareth.
The Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke are prominent in the gospels and early Christian writers suggested various dates for the anniversary. The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336. Christmas played a role in the Arian controversy of the fourth century. In the early Middle Ages, it was overshadowed by Epiphany. The feast regained prominence after 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day.
Associating it with drunkenness and other misbehavior, the Puritans banned Christmas in the 17th century. It was restored as a legal holiday in 1660, but remained disreputable. In the early 19th century, Christmas was revived with the start of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church.
Charles Dickens and other writers reinvented the holiday by emphasizing Christmas as a time for family, religion, gift-giving, and social reconciliation as opposed to the revelry that had been common historically.
Choice of December 25 date
In the 3rd century, the date of birth of Jesus was the subject of both great interest and great uncertainty. Around AD 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote:
|“||There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] … Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].||”|
In other writing of this time, May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17, and November 20 are all suggested. Various factors contributed to the selection of December 25 as a date of celebration: it was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar; it was about nine months after March 25, the date of the vernal equinox and a date linked to the conception of Jesus.
December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Jesus chose to be born on the shortest day of the year for symbolic reasons, according to an early Christmas sermon by Augustine: "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."
Linking Jesus to the Sun was supported by various Biblical passages. Jesus was considered to be the "Sun of righteousness" prophesied by Malachi: "Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings." John describes Jesus as "the light of the world."
Such solar symbolism could support more than one date of birth. An anonymous work known as De Pascha Computus (243) linked the idea that creation began at the spring equinox, on March 25, with the conception or birth (the word nascor can mean either) of Jesus on March 28, the day of the creation of the sun in the Genesis account. One translation reads: "O the splendid and divine providence of the Lord, that on that day, the very day, on which the sun was made, March 28, a Wednesday, Christ should be born.
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the solstice.
According to Steven Hijmans of the University of Alberta, "It is cosmic symbolism ... which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the southern solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the northern solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception."
The Calculation hypothesis suggests that an earlier holiday held on March 25 became associated with the Incarnation. Modern scholars refer to this feast as the Quartodecimal. Christmas was then calculated as nine months later. The Calculation hypothesis was proposed by French writer Louis Duchesne in 1889. In modern times, March 25 is celebrated as Annunciation. This holiday was created in the seventh century and was assigned to a date that is nine months before Christmas, in addition to being the traditional date of the equinox. It is unrelated to the Quartodecimal, which had been forgotten by this time.
Early Christians celebrated the life of Jesus on a date considered equivalent to 14 Nisan (Passover) on the local calendar. Because Passover was held on the 14th of the month, this feast is referred to as the Quartodecimal. All the major events of Christ's life, especially the passion, were celebrated on this date. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions Passover, presumably celebrated according to the local calendar in Corinth. Tertullian (d. 220), who lived in Latin-speaking North Africa, gives the date of passion celebration as March 25. The date of the passion was moved to Good Friday in 165 when Pope Soter created Easter by reassigning the Resurrection to a Sunday. According to the Calculation hypothesis, celebration of the quartodecimal continued in some areas and the feast became associated with Incarnation.
The Calculation hypothesis is considered academically to be "a thoroughly viable hypothesis", though not certain. It was a traditional Jewish belief that great men lived a whole number of years, without fractions, so that Jesus was considered to have been conceived on March 25, as he died on March 25, which was calculated to have coincided with 14 Nisan. A passage in Commentary on the Prophet Daniel (204) by Hippolytus of Rome identifies December 25 as the date of the nativity. This passage is generally considered a late interpellation. But the manuscript includes another passage, one that is more likely to be authentic, that gives the passion as March 25.
In 221, Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160 – c. 240) gave March 25 as the day of creation and of the conception of Jesus in his universal history. This conclusion was based on solar symbolism, with March 25 the date of the equinox. As this implies a birth in December, it is sometimes claimed to be the earliest identification of December 25 as the nativity. However, Africanus was not such an influential writer that it is likely he determined the date of Christmas.
The tractate De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis Domini nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae, falsely attributed to John Chrysostom, also argued that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year and calculated this as March 25. This anonymous tract also states: "But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December ... the eight before the calends of January [25 December] ..., But they call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord...? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice."
History of religions hypothesis
The rival "History of Religions" hypothesis suggests that the Church selected December 25 date to appropriate festivities held by the Romans in honor of the Sun god Sol Invictus. This feast was established by Aurelian in 274. An explicit expression of this theory appears in an annotation of uncertain date added to a manuscript of a work by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi. The scribe who added it wrote:
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day." 
In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and was therefore a "paganization" that debased the true church. It has been argued that, on the contrary, the Emperor Aurelian, who in 274 instituted the holiday of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, did so partly as an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already important for Christians in Rome.
Hermann Usener and others proposed that the Christians chose this day because it was the Roman feast celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus. Modern scholar S. E. Hijmans, however, states that "While they were aware that pagans called this day the 'birthday' of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas." Moreover, Thomas J. Talley holds that the Roman Emperor Aurelian placed a festival of Sol Invictus on December 25 in order to compete with the growing rate of the Christian Church, which had already been celebrating Christmas on that date first. In the judgement of the Church of England Liturgical Commission, the History of Religions hypothesis has been challenged by a view based on an old tradition, according to which the date of Christmas was fixed at nine months after March 25, the date of the vernal equinox, on which the Annunciation was celebrated.
With regard to a December religious feast of the deified Sun (Sol), as distinct from a solstice feast of the birth (or rebirth) of the astronomical sun, one scholar has commented that, "while the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas". "Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian's dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius (C.E. 274) probably took place on the 'Birthday of the Invincible Sun' on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect." The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought remarks on the uncertainty about the order of precedence between the religious celebrations of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun and of the birthday of Jesus, stating that the hypothesis that December 25 was chosen for celebrating the birth of Jesus on the basis of the belief that his conception occurred on March 25 "potentially establishes 25 December as a Christian festival before Aurelian's decree, which, when promulgated, might have provided for the Christian feast both opportunity and challenge".
Introduction of feast
As Christmas was unknown to the early Christian writers, it must have been introduced sometime after 300. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts. In 245, Origen of Alexandria, writing about Leviticus 12:1–8, commented that Scripture mentions only sinners as celebrating their birthdays, namely Pharaoh, who then had his chief baker hanged (Genesis 40:20–22), and Herod, who then had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark 6:21–27), and mentions saints as cursing the day of their birth, namely Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14–15) and Job (Job 3:1–16). In 303, Arnobius still ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, a passage cited as evidence that Arnobius was unaware of any nativity celebration. But since Christmas does not celebrate Christ's birth "as God" but "as man", this does not necessarily show that Christmas was not a feast at this time.
The earliest known Christmas celebration is recorded in a fourth-century manuscript compiled in Rome. This manuscript is thought to record a celebration that occurred in 336. It was prepared privately for Furius Dionysius Filocalus, a Roman aristocrat, in 354. The reference in question states, "VIII kal. ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeæ" translated as "8 Kalends January[a] Birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea." This reference is in a section of the manuscript that was copied from earlier source material. The document also contains the earliest known reference to the feast of Sol Invictus. The fact the Donatists of North Africa celebrated Christmas suggests that the feast was established by the time that church was created in 311.
In Eastern Christianity the birth of Jesus was celebrated in connection with the Epiphany on January 6, which however emphasized celebration of the baptism of Jesus. Christmas was promoted in the Christian East as part of the revival of Nicene Christianity following the death of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The feast was introduced at Constantinople in 379, in Antioch by John Chrysostom towards the end of the fourth century, probably in 388, and in Alexandria only in the following century. The feast disappeared after Gregory of Nazianzus resigned as bishop in 381, although it was reintroduced by John Chrysostom in about 400. Even in the West, January 6 celebration of the nativity of Jesus seems to have continued until after 380.
Relation to concurrent celebrations
Many popular customs associated with Christmas developed independently of the commemoration of Jesus' birth, with certain elements having origins in pre-Christian festivals that were celebrated around the winter solstice by pagan populations who were later converted to Christianity. These elements, including the Yule log from Yule and gift giving from Saturnalia, became syncretized into Christmas over the centuries. The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has also continually evolved since the holiday's inception, ranging from a sometimes raucous, drunken, carnival-like state in the Middle Ages, to a tamer family-oriented and children-centered theme introduced in a 19th-century transformation. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was banned on more than one occasion within certain Protestant groups, such as the Puritans, due to concerns that it was too pagan or unbiblical.Jehovah's Witnesses also reject the celebration of Christmas.
Prior to and through the early Christian centuries, winter festivals—especially those centered on the winter solstice—were the most popular of the year in many European pagan cultures. Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needed to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached. Many modern Christmas customs have been directly influenced by such festivals, including:
- Gift-giving and merrymaking from the Roman Saturnalia,
- Greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year, and
- Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts.
The Egyptian deity Horus, son to goddess Isis, was celebrated at the winter solstice. Horus was often depicted being fed by his mother, which also influenced the symbolism of the Virgin Mary with baby Christ.
The pre-Christian Germanic peoples—including the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse—celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period, yielding modern English yule, today used as a synonym for Christmas. In Germanic language-speaking areas, numerous elements of modern Christmas folk custom and iconography stem from Yule, including the Yule log, Yule boar, and the Yule goat. Often leading a ghostly procession through the sky (the Wild Hunt), the long-bearded god Odin is referred to as "the Yule one" and "Yule father" in Old Norse texts, while other gods are referred to as "Yule beings".
In eastern Europe also, old pagan traditions were incorporated into Christmas celebrations, an example being the Koleda, which was incorporated into the Christmas carol.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in western Christianity focused on the visit of the magi. But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin" (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent. In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent. Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days.
The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.
By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemned caroling as lewd, indicating that the unruly traditions of Saturnalia and Yule may have continued in this form. "Misrule"—drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling—was also an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day, and there was special Christmas ale.
Christmas during the Middle Ages was a public festival that incorporated ivy, holly, and other evergreens. Christmas gift-giving during the Middle Ages was usually between people with legal relationships, such as tenant and landlord. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, and card playing escalated in England, and by the 17th century the Christmas season featured lavish dinners, elaborate masques, and pageants. In 1607, King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas night and that the court indulge in games. It was during the Reformation in 16th–17th-century Europe that many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve.
Reformation to the 18th century
Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, continued to celebrate Christmas. In 1629, the Anglican poet John Milton penned On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, a poem that has since been read by many during Christmastide. Donald Heinz, a professor at California State University, states that Martin Luther "inaugurated a period in which Germany would produce a unique culture of Christmas, much copied in North America." Among the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church, Christmas was celebrated as one of the principal evangelical feasts.
However, in 17th century England, some groups such as the Puritans, strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the "trappings of popery" or the "rags of the Beast". In contrast, the established Anglican Church "pressed for a more elaborate observance of feasts, penitential seasons, and saints' days. The calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party." The Catholic Church also responded, promoting the festival in a more religiously oriented form. King Charles I of England directed his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.
Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The book, The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652), argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions, dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with "plow-boys" and "maidservants", old Father Christmas and carol singing.
The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many Calvinist clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration. As such, in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the observance of Christmas, and though James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, attendance at church was scant. The Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, claiming that the church had been "purged of all superstitious observation of days". It was not until 1958 that Christmas again became a Scottish public holiday.
Following the Restoration of Charles II, Poor Robin's Almanack contained the lines: "Now thanks to God for Charles return, / Whose absence made old Christmas mourn. / For then we scarcely did it know, / Whether it Christmas were or no." The diary of James Woodforde, from the latter half of the 18th century, details the observance of Christmas and celebrations associated with the season over a number of years.
In Colonial America, the Pilgrims of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620 when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World working – thus demonstrating their complete contempt for the day. Non-Puritans in New England deplored the loss of the holidays enjoyed by the laboring classes in England. Christmas observance was outlawed in Boston in 1659. The ban by the Puritans was revoked in 1681 by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.
At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Pennsylvania German Settlers, pre-eminently the Moravian settlers of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Lititz in Pennsylvania and the Wachovia Settlements in North Carolina, were enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas. The Moravians in Bethlehem had the first Christmas trees in America as well as the first Nativity Scenes. Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom.George Washington attacked Hessian (German) mercenaries on the day after Christmas during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, Christmas being much more popular in Germany than in America at this time.
With the atheistic Cult of Reason in power during the era of Revolutionary France, Christian Christmas religious services were banned and the three kings cake was renamed the "equality cake" under anticlerical government policies.
In the UK, Christmas Day became a bank holiday in 1834, Boxing Day was added in 1871.
In the early-19th century, writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration. In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote the novel A Christmas Carol that helped revive the "spirit" of Christmas and seasonal merriment. Its instant popularity played a major role in portraying Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion.
Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, linking "worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation." Superimposing his humanitarian vision of the holiday, in what has been termed "Carol Philosophy", Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit. A prominent phrase from the tale, "Merry Christmas", was popularized following the appearance of the story. This coincided with the appearance of the Oxford Movement and the growth of Anglo-Catholicism, which led a revival in traditional rituals and religious observances.
The term Scrooge became a synonym for miser, with "Bah! Humbug!" dismissive of the festive spirit. In 1843, the first commercial Christmas card was produced by Sir Henry Cole. The revival of the Christmas Carol began with William Sandys's "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern" (1833), with the first appearance in print of "The First Noel", "I Saw Three Ships", "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", popularized in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced in the early 19th century following the personal union with the Kingdom of Hanover by Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III. In 1832, the future Queen Victoria wrote about her delight at having a Christmas tree, hung with lights, ornaments, and presents placed round it. After her marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became more widespread throughout Britain.
An image of the British royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle created a sensation when it was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848. A modified version of this image was published in the United States in 1850. By the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.
In America, interest in Christmas had been revived in the 1820s by several short stories by Washington Irving which appear in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. and "Old Christmas". Irving's stories depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham, England, that had largely been abandoned, and he used the tract Vindication of Christmas (1652) of Old English Christmas traditions, that he had transcribed into his journal as a format for his stories.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas). The poem helped popularize the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. This also started the cultural conflict between the holiday's spiritual significance and its associated commercialism that some see as corrupting the holiday. In her 1850 book The First Christmas in New England, Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree.
While the celebration of Christmas was not yet customary in some regions in the U.S., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected "a transition state about Christmas here in New England" in 1856. "The old puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so." In Reading, Pennsylvania, a newspaper remarked in 1861, "Even our presbyterian friends who have hitherto steadfastly ignored Christmas—threw open their church doors and assembled in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior's birth."
The First Congregational Church of Rockford, Illinois, "although of genuine Puritan stock", was 'preparing for a grand Christmas jubilee', a news correspondent reported in 1864. By 1860, fourteen states including several from New England had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. In 1875, Louis Prang introduced the Christmas card to Americans. He has been called the "father of the American Christmas card". On June 28, 1870, Christmas was formally declared a United States federal holiday.
Up to the 1950s, in the UK, many Christmas customs were restricted to the upper classes and better-off families. The mass of the population had not adopted many of the Christmas rituals that later became general. The Christmas tree was rare. Christmas dinner might be beef—certainly not turkey. In their stockings children might get an apple, orange and sweets. Full celebration of a family Christmas with all the trimmings only became widespread with increased prosperity from the 1950s. National papers were published on Christmas Day until 1912. Post was still delivered on Christmas Day until 1961. League football matches continued in Scotland until the 1970s while in England they ceased at the end of the 1950s.
Under the state atheism of the Soviet Union, after its foundation in 1917, Christmas celebrations—along with other Christian holidays—were prohibited in public. During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the League of Militant Atheists encouraged school pupils to campaign against Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, as well as other Christian holidays, including Easter; the League established an antireligious holiday to be the 31st of each month as a replacement. At the height of this persecution, in 1929, on Christmas Day, children in Moscow were encouraged to spit on crucifixes as a protest against the holiday. It was not until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the persecution ended and Orthodox Christmas became a state holiday again for the first time in Russia after seven decades.
European History Professor Joseph Perry wrote that likewise, in Nazi Germany, "because Nazi ideologues saw organized religion as an enemy of the totalitarian state, propagandists sought to deemphasize—or eliminate altogether—the Christian aspects of the holiday" and that "Propagandists tirelessly promoted numerous Nazified Christmas songs, which replaced Christian themes with the regime's racial ideologies."
As Christmas celebrations began to be held around the world even outside traditional Christian cultures in the 20th century, some Muslim-majority countries have banned the practice of Christmas, claiming it undermines Islam.
Customs and traditions
Main article: Christmas traditions
Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and public holiday in countries around the world, including many whose populations are mostly non-Christian. In some non-Christian areas, periods of former colonial rule introduced the celebration (e.g. Hong Kong); in others, Christian minorities or foreign cultural influences have led populations to observe the holiday. Countries such as Japan, where Christmas is popular despite there being only a small number of Christians, have adopted many of the secular aspects of Christmas, such as gift-giving, decorations, and Christmas trees.
Countries in which Christmas is not a formal public holiday include Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bhutan, Cambodia, China (excepting Hong Kong and Macau), the Comoros, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Libya, the Maldives, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, the Sahrawi Republic, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen. Christmas celebrations around the world can vary markedly in form, reflecting differing cultural and national traditions.