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 reformation. Additionally,
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.
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 needs 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.
Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in the late December to early January period.
As northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas there,
an example being the Koleda (see picture top right), which was incorporated into the Christmas carol. Scandinavians
still call Christmas Jul. In English, the word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900.
In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England
shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban
by the Pilgrims was revoked in 1681 by English governor Sir Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th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
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. Superimposing his
secular vision of the holiday, 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.
In 1843, the first commercial Christmas card was
produced by Sir Henry Cole.
In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced in
the early 19th century. 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 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.
The modern popular image of Santa Claus was created
in the United States, and in particular in New York. The transformation was accomplished with the aid of notable
contributors including Washington Irving and the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840 - 1902).
Nast drew a new image of "Santa Claus"
annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the robed, fur clad, form we now recognize,
perhaps based on the English figure of Father Christmas. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s
and continues through the present day.
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". In 1885, 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
Current tradition in several Latin American countries (such as Venezuela and Colombia) holds that while Santa makes
the toys, he then gives them to the Baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children's homes,
a reconciliation between traditional religious beliefs and the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United
In South Tyrol (Italy), Austria, Czech Republic,
Southern Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Slovakia, and Switzerland, the Christkind brings the presents. Greek
children get their presents from Saint Basil on New Year's Eve, the eve of that saint's liturgical feast. The German
St. Nikolaus is not identical with the Weihnachtsmann (who is the German version of Santa Claus / Father Christmas).
St. Nikolaus wears a bishop's dress and still brings small gifts (usually candies, nuts, and fruits) on December
6 and is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht.