History Christmas as a holiday most likely began sometime around the 4th century. But let’s back up a bit. According to the History Channel, winter has always been a time of celebration—even before the arrival of Jesus. “Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight,” according to the History Channel. The Norse celebrated Yule, and Germans honored the god Oden. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture, and the holiday Juvenalia was held on December 25 for the infant god, Mithra (this was the most sacred holiday for some Romans at the time).
But when Christianity first began, Jesus’s birth wasn’t celebrated—Easter was the main holiday. The Bible doesn’t even mention a specific birth date for Jesus, but it was thought to have taken place on January 6, not December 25. That date still belonged to the Juvenalia holiday.
All of that changed in the 4th century when Pope Julius I selected December 25 as the official date when Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus. Why the change? The reasons are still debated, but the generally accepted belief is that December 25 was chosen to increase the likelihood that the celebration would be embraced by Christians around the world over pagan traditions that were already celebrated at the time.
By 432, Christmas had spread to Egypt, and by the Middle Ages, the practice of celebrating Christmas had spread around the globe and replaced pagan festivities, and it would continue to spread in the following centuries, too. Christ’s birth was celebrated on December 25, and January 6 became the date that people marked the Feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem and found Jesus in the manger. The period of time between both dates would become known as the 12 days of Christmas.
By the 17th century, religious reforms were gaining speed, and they also impacted how Christmas was celebrated. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans cancelled Christmas, and it did not return until Charles II returned to the throne. When the Pilgrims came to North America in 1620, they did not bring Christmas with them, and it was actually outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Not wanting to embrace anything British, Americans declined to celebrate Christmas after the American Revolution, so Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday in the U.S. until June 26, 1870.
Americans would go on to embrace and update the Christmas traditions brought to the United States by immigrants, such as the Dutch families who honored the now-very-well-known Saint Nicholas, and welcome new traditions from abroad, such as the Christmas tree, molding the holiday’s traditions into what we know today.