Christmas: The Origins and Traditions

By Jeff Ayers — / Death Wish Coffee Blog

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, we all know the basics of the holiday: the celebrated birthday of Jesus Christ is the religious origin, while Santa Claus traveling the world to deliver presents is the more folklore, albeit commercial, tradition. But where does the holiday really come from in history, and what are the true origins of some of the most famous traditions surrounding the season?

Macro shot of a Christmas tree with ornaments

(Photo by Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash)

We broke this down on our Fueled By Death Show a few years back and you can watch that whole episode at the bottom of this blog!

In ancient times, many people celebrated this time of year as the Winter Solstice and regarded this season as a time of rebirth.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule, which started on December 21 and ran through January. Cattle were slaughtered so they wouldn't have to be fed during the harsh winter, and that meant many were able to enjoy fresh meat, possibly the only time all year long. Also, the wine and mead that had been fermenting all year was ready to drink in earnest during this time too.

Another Norse tradition during Yule was for the men to bring home large logs to be set ablaze. These fires would signal the beginning of the feast and would last as long as the logs would burn, sometimes up to 12 days. This is where we get the notion of the "yule log" today.

In ancient Rome, people celebrated the pagan holiday Saturnalia, which happened to fall upon December 25. While there was no mention of the date of the birth of Jesus in early Christianity or the Bible, Pope Julius I declared his birthday to be December 25 in the 4th century, as a way to absorb the pagan holiday into Christianity. 

During the Middle Ages, Christmas was a celebration of drinking in the streets, with a carnival much like a Mardi Gras-type celebration.

By the 17th century, the Puritans banned Christmas in England and continued to keep it banned in the new colonies of Americathe holiday was outlawed in Boston until 1681.

It wasn't until the 19th century that Christmas was widely celebrated again. This was due in large part to the success of Charles Dickens classic holiday tale, "A Christmas Carol."

The most iconic figure associated with the holiday, Santa Claus, actually has origins in ancient times as well. The earliest mention of Saint Nicolas, the monk, dates back to 280 A.D.

Santa's popularity grew many centuries later thanks to Washington Irving, who declared "Sinter Klaas"the Dutch way of saying Santa Clausthe true patron saint of New York.

Coca-Cola and their timeless depictions of Santa in the 1930s cemented the version of him that we know todaybelly like a bowl full of jelly, big, white beard, rosy cheeks, red and white suit, etc.

One early tradition of the Christmas season that has been lost to time is the telling of ghost stories around the fireplacelet's bring that one back!

Watch the full episode of Fueled By Death Show with more information on the origins and traditions of Christmas right here:

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