Seven Strange Facts about Christmas

by Seasonal Wisdom on December 20, 2015

churchat Christmas  - beaucon flickrChristmas may be one of America’s favorite holidays, but it’s rather surprising how little we tend to know about the day.

Not convinced?  Here are seven of the strangest and most surprising facts about this popular holiday. Photo by Beaucon/Flickr Creative Commons 

1)  Birth of the Sun

Christmas and the winter solstice have more in common than you think.

The birth of Jesus was assigned to various dates for more than 300 years, but never much celebrated. In the fourth century A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine moved the holiday officially to Dec. 25.   The Julian calendar used at the time erroneously considered Dec. 25 the winter solstice.

Many early civilizations, including Ancient Rome, believed this occasion – the year’s longest night – symbolized the birthday of the sun, and the return of the light.

This annual celestial event was extremely important for these early cultures, which depended on the natural elements to survive.  The joyous occasion seemed an appropriate day to celebrate Christmas.

Gifts at Christmas

Photo by Shutterfotos/Flickr Creative Commons

2)  The Giving Tradition

Today, it’s hard to imagine Christmas without gifts.  But it wasn’t always so.  The tradition dates back to the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, held on the days leading up to the winter solstice.

Kalends of January, the New Year, was another important gift-giving event.

As the Greek Libanius explained, “The impulse to spend seizes everyone . . . a stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.”

As a result, the early Church considered gift giving to be a pagan holdover and frowned upon the practice for centuries.  Gifts were given on Twelfth Night (January 6) instead.

3)  A Slow Start

Christmas ranked low as a holiday for centuries.

Many traditions had pre-Christian roots, and the early Church wasn’t keen to accept them.

It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that the holiday became popular.  Towns and cities often appointed a Lord of Misrule, who presided over the Christmas entertainment.  He dressed in colorful clothing, and directed elaborate processions, plays and festivities.

The largest feasts often included roasted peacock and swan, painted with saffron and “refeathered” right before serving.

“… no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.”

An Order of the English Parliament, December 24, 1652

4)  Against the Law

Christmas merriment came to an abrupt halt when the holiday was declared illegal during the English Reformation, from the 1640s until 1660.  Citizens were forbidden to decorate, sing carols or even prepare the traditional roast goose.

Even in America, it was a penal offense to observe Christmas in New England. The law was declared in 1659 and continued until the nineteenth century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants lessened the Puritanical strictness.

In Scotland, Christmas was banned for nearly 400 years, from the 1580s until the 1950s.  It wasn’t until 1958 that it became an official public holiday.

Santa by fireplace - kevin dooley flickr

Photo by Kevin Dooley/Flickr Creative Commons

5)  The Start of Santa

Santa Claus and Rip Van Winkle share important similarities.

Washington Irving, the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legends of Sleepy Hollow,” introduced Santa Claus to the United States.  Irving adapted legends about a Dutch Saint Nicholas to create an American tradition.

In his best-selling 1809 “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” Irving gave the first literary description of Saint Nicholas in the United States.  The legend traveled fast.  Before long, the character evolved into the loveable Santa Claus we know today.

christmas berries by jennifer donley

Photo by Jennifer Donley/Flickr Creative Commons

6) Oh, Christmas Tree

 The Christmas tree got off to a rocky start in America.

German settlers brought their rich tradition to this country, and trees were found in Pennsylvania settlements as early as 1747. But they weren’t accepted by mainstream society.   In fact, many considered Christmas trees dangerous pagan symbols as late as the 1840s.

The custom finally caught on when the popular English Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, were seen with a tree in the Illustrated London News in 1846.

Before long, the tradition spread throughout England, Europe, Russia and the United States.  By the 20th century, the Christmas tree was firmly entrenched in the American culture.

Learn seven earth-friendly ways to recycle your Christmas trees.

7) Xmas Not So Bad

Those eager to keep “Christ” in Christmas needn’t worry about using Xmas.

“X” is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ: Xristos.  Saying or writing Xmas is quite appropriate when you consider it.

Snowflake - Alexey Kljatov (ChaoticMind75) flickr

Photo by Alexey Kljatov (ChaoticMind75)/Flickr Creative Commons

Learn More

The Oxford Book of Days (Oxford University Press, 2000)

The Stations of The Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year (1400 – 1700)

More Christmas Stuff

Vintage Christmas Cards of 20th Century

More Vintage Cards 

A Toast to Wassail (plus, a recipe!)


JessB December 21, 2015 at 8:25 am

I’m glad the Christmas tree caught on because I love having mine!

Seasonal Wisdom December 21, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Me too, Jess. It’s one of my favorite Christmas traditions. Thanks for stopping by!

Diane December 24, 2015 at 8:37 am

Teresa, fascinating information again. You have a talent for fact finding, with beautiful prose. Happy Holidays!

Seasonal Wisdom December 26, 2015 at 9:05 am

Thanks for your kind words, Diane. They mean a lot! Happy holidays and a great start to 2016. Teresa

John Chapman Garden Landscape Design December 13, 2016 at 5:39 am

Really interesting read this, I am sure there is a few christmas pub quiz questions in here somewhere…

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