What is the origin of Christmas?

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For those of you wondering ‘what is the origin of Christmas?’ we have put together a few quick pointers to share all about where one of the most celebrated festivals of the year comes from. 

At this time of year, people all over the world are buying gifts, cooking amazing food, throwing beautiful parties, spreading kindness, and of course, remembering the story of Christianity. 

But have you ever wondered about where the Christmas celebration began? Why do we celebrate Christmas the way we do? What is the history of Christmas?

Christmas tree at Sandringham
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Who invented Christmas?

For Christians

The term Christmas has its root in Christianity, one of the largest religions in the world. For Christians, this is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is believed to be the son of God.

Meaning of the word Christmas

The word ‘Christmas’ is an English term for ‘mass on Christ’s day’. Mass either means celebration or memorial or messiah.

Christmas in the Roman times

It was around 3rd century A.D. that Christmas began to be celebrated as a Christian holiday (possibly) thanks to Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian historian of the time.

Pagan festival

However, before then the midwinter solstice was celebrated in Europe as a pagan festival. In fact, some of the practices and traditions we celebrate at Christmas stem from the pagan traditions practiced at the winter solstice. 

Winter solstice – festival of the sun

It is thought that the origin of the date of 25th of December for Christmas was the “Christianizing of the dies Solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”)”. This was a festival during the Roman Empire that celebrated “the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer.” 

Therefore it could be argued that the origin of Christmas goes back thousands of years as a mid-winter festival, before it become widely celebrated as a Christian holiday.

Other words for Christmas


Yule is the from the old Germanic word for the feast of the winter solstice.

Navidad, Natale, Noël

Navidad in Spanish, Natale in Italian, and Noël in French, all refer to the Nativity. 


Christmastide refers to the period of celebrations and days of observance around Christmas.

Christmastide days of celebration

In Christian practices Christmastide includes:

  • 24th December: Christmas Eve
  • 25th December: Christmas Day
  • 26th December: St. Stephens Day
  • 27th December: Feast of the Apostles
  • 28th December: Feast of the Holy Innocents
  • 29th December: Feast of the St. Thomas Beckett
  • 31st December: St. Sylvester’s Day/ New Year’s Eve
  • 1st January: Feast of the Circumcision of Christ / Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • 5th January: Twelfth Night

What is the history of Christmas?

Yule traditions in Northern Europe

Before Christmas, people celebrated the winter solstice as part of the holiday known as Yule. Yule runs from December 21 into January and was widely celebrated across Northern Europe. It was a time of feasting, drinking, and sacrifice. Traditions such as yule singing (wassailing), the yule log, the yule goat, and the yule boar as still seen in Christmas celebrations across Europe today. Many of our modern Christmas customs such a the Christmas tree, advent calendar, and the advent wreath are German Christmas traditions.

Roman festival of Saturnalia

Previous to that, in ancient Roman times, the festival of Saturnalia was held in honour of the god Saturn on the 17th December. The festival was later expanded to last until 23rd December. Saturnalia featured sacrifice, public banquets, gambling, gift-giving, and a general carnival-like atmosphere. 

Christmas in Ancient Roman period

Around the 3rd or 4th century Christmas began to be celebrated as a festival and observance of Jesus Christ’s birth.

Why is Christmas in December?

Some believe that the choice to have Christmas at the same time as the pagan celebrations as part of the effort to encourage people to convert to Christianity. Others however believe that the date coincides with the 25th March being the spring equinox and a time of creation, therefore Christ would have been conceived at that date and the 25th December is 9 months later.

coca cola santa
(C) The Coca-Cola Company

What is Christmas in simple words?

Christmas is a time of year when people get together and celebrate. Whether religious or not, Christmas encourages people to get together with family and friends. It is both a secular and religious holiday. 

How was Christmas celebrated in the 1900s?

In the 1900s the biggest change to Christmas was the commercialisation of the holiday, with companies finding ways to market the holiday more towards children and buying toys as presents.

In 1902 the plush teddy bear was invented specifically for Christmas. Every year since companies have been trying to put out the ‘toy of the year’ for Christmas.

Prior to this, the Victorian tradition of putting out stockings was popular even as toys became the gift of choice. Children would hang a stocking at the end of their bed and on Christmas morning they would small toys and an orange.

From its roots in the winter solstice to now being a fairly commercial holiday, that is just a short history of Christmas and the origin of Christmas

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