The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. In ancient Rome, centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, the week leading up to the winter solstice kicked off a month-long celebration called Saturnalia—a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. It was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down, as slaves became masters and peasants were in command of the city.
In wasn’t until the fourth century that church officials decided to make the birth of Jesus a holiday. The Bible does not mention his date of birth, and although some evidence suggests that it may have occurred in the spring, Pope Julius I selected December 25—most likely to adopt and absorb the traditions of the Saturnalia. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread as Christianity did; to Egypt by 432, to England by the end of the sixth century and all the way to Scandinavia by the end of the eighth century.
Due to the Protestant religion of early colonists, it wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas, re-inventing it into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. This transition took place in part due to author Washington Irving, whose “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” included a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” traditions that would become long lasting customs of the holiday season. Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale “A Christmas Carol,” with a message that stressed the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind, which struck a powerful chord in the United States and England. Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
‘Tis the season to deconstruct our holiday traditions with this week’s featured collection The History of the Holidays. Here’s a peek at a few of the episodes:
- Meet Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey, the Grinch and Rudolph. From caroling to Krampus find out the true origins of our Christmas traditions in The Real Story of Christmas.
- Ho, ho, ho! ‘Tis the season of survival. Armed with history, humor and his trademark ranting, the “Curmudgeon of Comedy” returns to make sense of this 36-day, end-of-year insanity that consumes us all. Get all the tips for Surviving the Holidays with Lewis Black.
- Every battleground from Valley Forge to Desert Storm has stories of how warriors handled the incongruous mix of Christmas and killing. In Christmas at War, find about the heartwarming and heartbreaking moments they experienced.
Watch The History of the Holidays on your HISTORY Vault app available on Roku players, iOS devices and Apple TV (4th Generation). In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of “date which will live in infamy,” check out the collections Pearl Harbor Attack and Pearl Harbor: The Last Word.