What is Christmas? A Brief Guide to its History and Meaning

What Does “Christmas” Mean?

The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English phrase Cristes mæsse which means “Christ’s Mass.” It refers to the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas is on December 25 every year, though some denominations celebrate it on January 7.

The History of Christmas

The history of Christmas—a simple time of joy and celebration—is actually very long and complicated.

Though Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, which biblical scholars believe to be around 4 or 6 BC according to Britannica, the first Christmas was not celebrated until years later. Historians believe Christmas was originally celebrated in Rome around 336 BC. It did not even become a major Christian holiday until the 9th century.

However, just because Christmas was better known does not mean it was always popular. According to History, Puritans viewed Christmas celebrations as anti-Christian and indulgent. Because Puritans were a major group in America, Christmas was not a popular holiday in early American history. The government of Massachusetts even banned Christmas celebrations in 1659. The Congressional Research Service states that it wasn’t even recognized as a federal holiday until 1870, when the holiday was more widely celebrated.

Christmas’ popularity in America can be traced to writer Washington Irving, perhaps best known for writing the classic Halloween short story “Sleepy Hollow.” Irving wrote extensively about Christmas and the character of Saint Nicholas (the basis of Santa Claus). He helped reshape the holiday to be one of family time, community, and giving. As he wrote in 1819 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, “Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.”

This sentiment inspired people throughout America and Europe to embrace the holiday. One of them was writer Charles Dickens, who wrote the classic novel, A Christmas Carol. Another was poet Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known by its opening line, “’Twas the night before Christmas…”

Whatever its history, Christmas is affixed in many people’s minds and calendars as one of the happiest and holiest times of year.

Why is Christmas on December 25?

The reason Christmas is now traditionally celebrated on December 25th is just as complicated as its history. While this holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus, there are conflicting opinions on if this is truly Jesus’ date of birth. The Bible does not state a specific date. There were no, or very scant, birth records during that time. For centuries, no one was certain when Jesus’ birthday fell.

In 221 CE, Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian historian, created the first known Christian calendar of major events. According to Britannica, he used the Bible as his basis and placed Jesus’ birth at the end of December. Christian Roman emperor Constantine decreed in 336 CE that Jesus’ birth would be celebrated on December 25. And thus, Christmas’ date was decided.

Some historians also believe that Christians picked the date to coincide with Saturnalia, a Roman holiday, and by placing the festivities together, the celebration may have been used to convert many Romans to Christianity.

What is the True Meaning of Christmas?

To go deeper into what the Christmas season means, we can turn to the words of American clergyman and author, Norman Vincent Peale:

“The gifts you receive—modest or elaborate—are important only to the degree they help you experience something of what Christmas really is. Which is what? It is a spiritual observance of the birth of Jesus Christ into the stream of history and into the soul of man.”

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