The History and Traditions of the Christmas Holiday

Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25 and is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. December 25 has been a federal holiday in the U.S. since 1870. Christmas traditions include gift exchanges, decorating Christmas trees, attending church services, sharing meals with family and friends, and waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. 

Gift giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the early 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements. The tradition of a ‘live’ Santa Claus greeting children on his lap and asking what they want for Christmas was just around the corner. 

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born in Turkey around A.D. 280. St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled around helping the poor and sick. He became known as the protector of children and sailors. 

St. Nicholas entered American culture in the late 18th century, when Dutch families gathered to honor the death of ‘Sint Nikolaas,’ which is Dutch for Saint Nicholas. A Christmas poem in 1822 depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys. The modern-day version of Santa Claus in red with a white beard and sack of toys can be traced back to 1881 with the work of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. In the U.S., the annual storyline of Santa Claus revolves around him flying on a magic sleigh led by nine reindeer and traveling from home to home on Christmas Eve delivering gifts while children are asleep. 

There are nine reindeer flying Santa’s sleigh, and the most famous, Rudolph, was born over 100 years after the others. The red-nosed reindeer was the creation of a department store copywriter, Robert L. May. In 1939, May wrote about the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased because of his large, glowing nose. But it was that glowing nose that saved Christmas one year on a foggy night, as Santa was able to lead the sleigh with the light of the nose and deliver gifts. The story led to millions of books being sold and a television movie narrated by Burl Ives. The tradition of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer lives on as strong as ever today. 

According to early Roman history, the first time the birth of Jesus Christ was attributed to the December 25 date was in the 4th century. Early celebrations of Christmas are thought to have come from Roman and other European festivals that marked the end of the harvest, along with the winter solstice. The holiday developed further with the legend of St. Nicholas. In his honor, the Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on December 6 and gifts were given the night before. The tradition was well established in many European countries by the 12th century. It is widely believed because St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Day were so close together on the calendar, eventually their traditions were combined. 

Christmas traditions are not complete without lights and decorations, and those decorations center around a Christmas tree. Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as it is known now back in the 16th century, led by Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Christmas trees were slow to gain in popularity in the U.S. until 1846, when Queen Victoria of England was sketched standing with her children around a Christmas tree. Popularity continued to increase as ornaments arrived from Germany by the 1890s. The advent of electricity brought forth lights for Christmas trees, and they began appearing in town squares across the country. Christmas trees are a staple in American homes, as they provide the glowing setting where wrapped presents sit waiting to be opened on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 

Christmas Day and the traditions that center around it involve more than families reuniting together every year and exchanging gifts. Christmas is more than a time when many in the workforce receive a week or two off work, or college kids come home for a month-long break. Christmas is also more than just a one-day holiday; rather, it is a holiday season unto itself that wraps up a calendar year and ushers in a brand-new year. The Christmas season represents a time for togetherness, wonderment, and celebration. It is also a time for thankfulness, reflection, and looking ahead to the future.