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History of Christmas

Updated Wednesday, 8th December 2010

OU Reader in British History Bill Purdue explores the origins of Christmas. 

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Bokeh colourful Christmas decorations Creative commons image Icon Barbara Piancastelli under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license The research of Bill Purdue, co-author of The Making of a Modern Christmas with J.M. Golby, confirms that many of the rituals enjoyed at Christmas have strong pagan roots. “The ancient pagan rituals of worshipping the sun are strongest in December,” says Bill. “This is the time when the sun is seen to be reborn and starting to rise again – known as the winter solstice – and is rooted in a desire to encourage its return in the winter months, especially for northern Europeans whose winters are darker and longer.”

As Bill points out, the pagan influences are obvious in the symbols and traditions that are associated with Christmas: for example the sun is represented by the tradition of people lighting up their houses with lights and baubles. In the fourth century, the Church decided to adopt the winter solstice as a Christian celebration, taking the ‘festival of the sun’ and turning it into the ‘festival of the son’. The traditional pagan practices were stamped out by the Church – if not stamped out, they were turned into Christian traditions – and Pope Julius I set 25 December as the date for Christmas in an attempt to seal the Christianisation of the pagan celebrations that already took place at this time of year.


In the Middle Ages, the focus turned to great feasting – as Bill points out: “This is where the consumerism of Christmas has its roots, reminding us that indulgence and feasting was what it was all about from the start anyway!” But, alas, as with all acts of hedonism, the celebrations were put to an end when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans rode into Christmas town in the 17th century and well and truly turned the sparkly lights off. Troops were ordered to force shops to stay open on Christmas day, Christmas decorations were torn down and burned, and all the fun, feasting and laughs were stopped.

But this didn’t last too long with the dawning of the Restoration. In fact, Bill thinks that the abolition of Christmas played a crucial role in the success of the Restoration: “It could be argued that the people wanted the king back so that they could have Christmas back!”

Modern Christmas

So Christmas returned and as the Victorian era took hold, those traditional scenes that are currently associated with the festive season came into their own – horse-drawn coaches rushing down snowy lanes and warm, toasty fireplaces dripping with stockings and decorations. The image of Santa Claus as we know it today was also
a Victorian invention thanks to Clement Moore’s poem The Night Before Christmas.

And what of our modern Christmas? “As the 20th century drew closer, Christmas began to be repackaged with a focus on the home and children,” says Bill. “We now combine old Pagan symbols with traditional Victorian images to create the Christmas festival that is celebrated around the world today, often regardless of religion.”

This article was Day 13 of the OpenLearn Advent calendar for 2010, and originally appeared in The Open University student and alumni magazine, Sesame.





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