The first Christians in the northern hemisphere celebrated Christmas on December 25 in order to finish off their year with a celebration, and then go into a period of long reflection before the new year—kind of like the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur. In 354 CE, Emperor Constantine declared that all churches would celebrate Christmas on December 25.
In North America, Christmas didn’t become a major Christian holiday until the 16th century when both European settlers and enslaved Africans were exposed to it. Before that, it was primarily celebrated by Europeans in the southern US and British Columbia.
This is when we start to see Christmas traditions from around the world becoming integrated into our celebrations: Germans brought trees; Germans and Scandinavians introduced decorating with candles; St. Nicholas was adopted from Dutch tradition; the idea of giving gifts on Christmas Day came from Britain; African-Americans contributed gift-giving on New Years Eve; and so on.
Historically, celebrating Christmas has been a religious experience for most people, but modern Christianity has seen an influx of secular celebrations as well. In fact, most Christians don’t think about Jesus at all during this time of year—they’re focused on Santa Claus, reindeer pulling sleighs through a winter wonderland, ice skating
The history of Christmas is rich and complex. In the United States, we often think of the holiday as a secular celebration, but it was originally a religious holiday that remains strongly tied to the Christian faith. In fact, Christmas celebrations in the US have been so influenced by American culture that it can be easy to forget that some of our most common traditions actually originated elsewhere in Europe. We’ve all heard the tales of how Christmas began with a baby born in a manger, but few people know how those stories came to be so widely celebrated worldwide.
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