Though many Christians who observe Christmas may consider this one of the main festivals of the year, it wasn’t always the case. In the early Christian church, Easter was much more prominent, focusing on the promise of redemption from Christ’s death and resurrection.
Since Easter also falls during Passover, the celebration was also very well entrenched in society. It was easy to interpret the Passover celebration in terms of Christ’s death. In early church writings, there is much about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but little about his birth.
Determining Jesus’ Birthday
The first interest in determining Jesus’ origins and birth became more prevalent in the second century C.E. There was much debate in the Western and Eastern churches about which dates to use for the Nativity, with both churches coming up with different, though similar, dates. Also of debate is the idea that the Church decided to place the date of Jesus’ birth near the day of Sol Invictus, the Roman holiday honoring the “Unconquered Sun”.
Another theory about how the early Church came up with December 25th as the day of Jesus’ birth is that it was calculated according to the date of his death. The idea sprung from the notion that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. December 25th is precisely 9 months after the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25th, and so it was thought that Jesus also died on March 25th, as well.
The Eastern Church came up with many of the same ideas, though they placed the Crucifixion, Annunciation, and Christmas on later dates. Christmas in the Eastern Church subsequently falls on January 6th.
Early celebrations of Christmas began with a church service, and afterwards, celebrations in much the same tone as the former drunken and raucous pagan celebrations. Peasants and common folk often went to the houses of rich folk to demand food and drink, and if it were not given, they would perform acts of mischief in retaliation.
Not Always a Favored Holiday
Christmas was not always an accepted tradition among religious people. In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans came into power in England. Since they wished to purify the land and rid England of “decadence,” one of the first things to go was Christmas celebrations. When King Charles II returned to the throne of England, the holiday celebrations were reinstated.
When Puritans journeyed to America in 1620, they brought their dislike of Christmas with them. For many years, the holiday was even outlawed in Boston, and did not get declared as a federal holiday until 1870.
With the Victorian Era came a different sort of celebration. It began to be framed as more of a family holiday, and recent immigrants were looked to, to see how this celebration should be done. The Americans new and old created their own holiday out of many other traditions, which included Christmas trees, Christmas cards,Christmas lights and gift giving.