It comes as a surprise to many to learn that the traditions of Christmas holiday evolved over time and were not part of the original celebration in their original form. The holiday is both a religious event and a cultural tradition that today has many commercial aspects. The holiday has been celebrated in some manner for more than 2,000 years, since Christians observed the holiday as the birth of their savior, Jesus of Nazareth. Families with mixed religions and the commercialization of the holiday has resulted in the celebration of the day worldwide by Christians and those of other faiths. In the United States, December 25 has been a federal holiday since 1870.
The date was chosen primarily because of the season. The Norse Yule is celebrated from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. The tradition of the “twelve days of Christmas” celebration comes from the Norse practice of lighting a yule log that typically took 12 days to burn. The date also corresponds with the timing of the slaughter in many European countries. This was the time of year when families would have access to fresh meat, which coincided with the end of the fermentation process for wine and beer, providing a timely opportunity to indulge and celebrate.
Christmas is also related to the Roman holiday Saturnalia. Saturn was the god of agriculture and he was honored during the week leading to the
winter solstice until the next full moon. Saturnalia was celebrated with food and drink, and reversed social practices including slaves becoming masters. During this time businesses and schools were closed so everyone could participate. The practice of reaching out to others and being charitable during the holidays comes from the Middle Ages. The poor would visit the houses of the rich and ask for food and drink to be shared. This gave the rich an opportunity to share their fortune with society. Today, traditions such as the Salvation Army bell ringers, requesting loose change for the poor, mimics this tradition of giving.
There are some religions, including Greek Orthodox, that do not celebrate Christmas on December 25. In general, though, all Christian faiths celebrate Christmas close to the winter solstice. This is because church leaders believed the timing was the best way to encourage participation in the celebration. In many ways, the date is still an appropriate time to celebrate the holiday because the year is winding to a close.
Today, Christmas includes a variety of different traditions that come from all over the world. Many are Christian in nature, but others are pagan or taken from other religions. Items associated with Christmas include pine trees, wreaths, candles or lights, caroling, gift giving, feasting, eggnog, poinsettia plants, reindeer, Santa, and bells. Christians typically attend a church service on the evening of December 24, known as Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning beginning sometime after midnight. Christmas is also a busy travel holiday, as families around the world attempt to spend time together during the time between Christmas and the start of the new year.