A Christmas Timeline

By Paul R. Huard

September 5, 2008 5 min read


The joyous noel has come a long way since ancient times

Paul R. Huard

Creators News Service

Established on the day of a pagan festival in ancient Rome, banned by Puritans because it was just too fun and transformed by the department store craze born after the U.S. Civil War, Christmas is a holiday that has changed with the times in surprising ways.

Despite the story of Christ's birth in two Gospels, the earliest Christians probably did not celebrate Jesus' birth in any way. Easter, which commemorates his death and resurrection, was considered the central event in the Christian calendar.

Even the day that marks Christmas developed over time. For centuries, most Christians in the United States and Europe have celebrated the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25.

However, there is no way of knowing exactly when the man who more than two billion humans call the Son of God was born. There is no historical record of his birth, an event that took place in one of the most obscure regions of the ancient Roman Empire in a family that was among the poorest of the poor.

The traditional Christmas story gives one hint: In the Gospel according to St. Luke, the Bible states that "there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" when they received an angelic announcement of Christ's birth. Many historians say that shepherds would have been in sleeping in the fields during the spring, not the winter.

More specifically, historians do know that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity early in the fourth century, Lynn Ross-Bryant, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said. Constantine legalized Christianity and then designated Dec. 25 -- the time for the Roman celebration of the unconquered sun god Apollo -- in A.D. 336 as the day to celebrate Christ's birth.

The choice was no coincidence. "It's common in many religious traditions that when a new religious tradition comes into a culture it takes on some of the customs that are already there," Ross-Bryant said. "It's a way of making change make sense to the people. They know that this is a time to celebrate, and gradually what is celebrated becomes Christianized."

Although many European cultures in the Middle Ages celebrated Christmas with yule logs, the 12 Days of Christmas and Christmas trees, the holiday's transfer to America was as tough as a stale fruitcake.

Although it was a popular holiday with many of their fellow countrymen, some of the more strict Christians of the 17th and 18th century thought the celebration flirted with sin. During the colonial period, many Americans in New England did not celebrate Christmas because of fears that they would commit idolatry (worshipping objects instead of God).

Scandinavian and German immigrants were not as worried about Christmas' wild side. Lutheran immigrants to America first brought many of the traditions we associate with Christmas such as the Christmas tree, Christmas ornaments and many of the traditional foods.

Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870 -- nearly five years after the end of fighting in the U.S. Civil War. By then, Macy's department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve. By 1874, the first window displays with a Christmas theme appeared at Macy's, which led the way in marketing the holiday to customers enjoying a post-war industrial economic boom.

Despite its obvious religious origins, Christmas took on a commercial importance that remains to this day. Christmas cards, wrapped presents, even Christmas characters such as Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer and the modern concept of Santa Claus were all part of marketing campaigns that led to Christmas becoming a financial event that transcends the religion of its participants.

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