Before the Christianization of the West, Christmas was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and corresponded to the birth day of Sol Invictus. The date of 25 December has been set as the great feast of the undefeated Sun (Sol Invictus) by the Roman emperor Aurelian who thus chooses as date the day after the end of the Saturnalia but which also corresponds to the day of birth of the solar deity Mithra. Aurélien wishes indeed to unify religiously the empire, by choosing this date he satisfies the followers of Sol Invictus and the cult of Mithra while placing the party in the continuity of the traditional Roman festivities.
The celebration of Christmas as the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth led to the gradual Christianization of this “pagan Christmas”. The first mention of a Christian celebration on the 25th of December takes place in Rome in 336. Christianity thus adds to the list of religions making a cult at Christmas. Following the Thessalonian edict prohibiting pagan cults, the Christmas feast becomes even exclusively Christian. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Yule’s feast was replaced in the same way during the Christianization of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Christmas becomes one of the most important Christian holidays during the medieval period and is broadcast in the rest of the world during colonization and contemporary Westernization. Nevertheless, as its celebration is not required by Biblical sources and still retains many pagan elements, it is rejected by the most radical Christian groups.
Today, the Christmas party has become strongly secularized and is no longer necessarily celebrated as a religious holiday. Christmas is a holiday in many countries, which allows family reunion around a festive meal and the exchange of gifts. The second day of Christmas (December 26) is also a public holiday in several northern European countries (Poland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Scandinavian countries). It also allows participation in Christmas Masses for those celebrating the feast in its religious form. After Easter, Christmas is indeed the second most important holiday of the Christian liturgical calendar. Christmas is one of the three Nativities celebrated by the Catholic Church, the other two being that of John the Baptist on June 24 and that of Mary on September 8.
The Christmas period is known as “holiday season” in Europe when New Year celebrations are included. Since the mid-twentieth century, this period has lost its Christian aspect while keeping alive the tradition of celebration. In this spirit, Christmas takes on a folkloric connotation, preserving the grouping of family cells around a meal and the exchange of gifts around the traditional Christmas tree. Out of the homes it gives rise to the illumination of the streets, houses and shops and the organization of Christmas markets. It is also an important commercial period.
From the Renaissance
The first nurseries resembling those we know (occasional and transient staging of the Nativity no longer on paintings, frescoes, mosaics or bas-reliefs but with “independent” statues) appear in the churches and convents at 16th century, first in Italy. They spread in aristocratic homes in the seventeenth century, at which time Christmas became not only a religious holiday celebrated in the church but also a more intimate family celebration.
In Reformed countries, Christmas celebrations, a festival considered too pagan or too Catholic, are limited. Forbidden in England from 1647, they were reestablished in 1660 but remain poorly viewed by the majority of the English clergy. In North America in Boston, early settlers banned Christmas celebrations. The ban will be lifted in 1681.
It was not until the eighteenth century that the aristocracy, the burghers and artisans made Christmas a sacred family day. During the first industrial revolution, a process is put in place that combines gifts, commerce and moments of generosity towards children. Contrary to popular belief, it is not Victorian England but Roosevelt’s America that we owe the contemporary form of the Christmas family celebration with its fir tree and wrapped gifts. This ritual appeared in Germany in the early nineteenth century, under the influence of the German pastor Friedrich Schleiermacher at the origin of the theology of sentiment and advocating a new child-centered Christmas sensibility. According to the German theologian, the joy of the child “should be expressed not in the churches around controversial and arranged elements of the life of Christ, but within the family through the sensible experience of the divine presence.”
In 1893, the Catholic Church enriched the Christmas season by introducing the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. With the gradual improvement of the standard of living, the party centered around children and gifts spread at this time in the popular layers.
With the globalization of cultural exchanges and the secularization of society, the festivities related to Christmas are gradually becoming secular and family-oriented and are increasingly disconnected from religious interpretation. Christmas is nevertheless a public holiday in some countries and sometimes gives rise to school holidays allowing the gathering of families.
Nowadays, it is forbidden to celebrate Christmas in Somalia and the Sultanate of Brunei.