A history of Christmas
Christmas is a wonderful time to celebrate with children. It can also be a good time to encourage an interest in history. Already excited at the prospect of presents and decorations, children will enjoy hearing more about how different Christmas was in the past.
So here’s our festive gift to you – a brief history of Christmas
Early Christmases (0-500AD)
Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, they had no idea when Jesus had been born. But scholars looked at what they knew about when Mary and used this to work out a date.
Other religions already celebrated the end of the year on or around 25 December, and so it was a natural time to have a celebration. Some people think that this date was chosen to take over existing winter festivals and spread Christianity. But the need all people feel to be cheered up in the darkness of winter was also important.
The Middle Ages (500-1500AD)
For a while, Epiphany was treated as a more important festival. This is 6 January, the day on which Christians celebrated Jesus being brought into the world and revealed to the wise men. But important people started to use Christmas for big events. Charlemagne, the powerful Emperor of the Franks, was crowned on Christmas day in the year 800, as was William the Conqueror of England in 1066.
Christmas turned into a time of celebration and feasting, with some people eating and drinking to excess. At King Richard II’s Christmas feast in 1377 the guests ate 28 oxen and 300 sheep. Christmas carollers became popular as entertainment at these feasts. Early carollers danced as well as sang, with a chorus dancing in a ring around the lead singer.
Holly and ivy became part of the Christmas decorations in the middle ages. With their bright leaves they reminded people that winter would pass and life would return from beneath the cold ground.
Reformation and Riot (1500-1800AD)
At the end of the Middle Ages there were big changes in the way some people thought about Christianity. These changes were called the Reformation, and they led to the rise of a group called the Puritans, who thought that religion should always be serious.
The Puritans were an important group and they disapproved of Christmas celebrations. Christmas was even banned in England from 1647 to 1660. But this was so unpopular that it led to riots. Pro-Christmas protestors took over the city of Canterbury for several weeks, and books were published talking about how important Christmas was.
Puritans tried to ban Christmas in other places too, such as in Boston from 1659 to 1681. But people loved Christmas, and in the end the Puritans lost the argument. The only dip in Christmas’s popularity came in America, where revolutionaries saw Christmas as a custom of their English enemies. George Washington even fought a battle on 26 December 1776, knowing that his opponents would be far less ready to fight than he was on the day after Christmas.
Victorian Revival (1800-1900AD)
The Victorians loved Christmas and turned it into the holiday it is today. Writers such as Charles Dickens made it about spending time with family. Christmas carols became popular again, and Christmas cards were produced.
Christmas trees were introduced to Britain from Germany by Charlotte, the wife of King George III, and they spread to America in the 1870s. Queen Victoria loved the brightly decorated tree with presents around it.
Washington Irving made Christmas popular in America again with stories he wrote in the 1820s. The festival spread slowly across the country, and was declared a federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870.
By 1900 Christmas was a hugely popular festival, a time of eating, drinking and presents. There were cards and carols, decorations and presents. Christmas as we know it had been born.
Father Christmas (270AD – modern day)
Father Christmas is a great example of the way that Christmas traditions have changed over time.
Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, was a third century Greek priest who was worshipped as a saint after he died. He gave away gifts to sailors and to poor girls, and legends grew about his generosity. He was a popular saint in the Mediterranean, with a feast day in December.
Father Christmas began in England in the 1400s as Sir Christmas or Lord Christmas, a man embodying the holiday spirit. By the 1600s he was often known as Father Christmas. Like many Christmas traditions, he was disliked by the Puritans, who tried to ban him. But this made him more popular with other people, who used him to defend the tradition of a jolly, fun filled Christmas.
In Victorian times people started to see Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas as the same person, because they both gave out gifts and were celebrated in December. The way we see him now is the Victorian image of a jolly bearded man with a red suit and a sack of goodies.