Christmas: what is the origin behind the tradition?

The first Christmas would have been celebrated around the year 336, in Rome

The Christmas party has not always been celebrated with loved ones around a good meal and gifts under the tree. Discover the story behind the tradition and how it has been reinvented over the years.

Christmas has not always been synonymous with decorations and gifts galore placed under the tree by Santa Claus. This traditional festival, of Christian origin, actually dates back to the supposed birth of Jesus Christ. The Gospels do not specify the exact date, but give details of the Immaculate Conception. The Virgin Mary, chosen by God to bear her son, is said to have given birth to the famous toddler in a stable in Bethlehem. The story goes that the angels then began to sing and a star lit up in the sky.

The word Christmas could come from the Latin “natalis dies” which means “day of birth”. Other etymologists suppose that Christmas comes from the contraction of two Gallic words “noio” which means “new” and “hel”, “sun”. The first celebration of this event could date back to the year 336. At that time, the Roman Emperor Constantine – who converted to Christianity – chose December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which also coincides with the feasts of winter solstice. The festival then lasted 12 days, from Christmas to Epiphany.

Due to its origin, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox consider Christmas to be an important holiday. On the other hand, Jews and Muslims, who do not recognize Jesus as a prophet of their religion, do not traditionally celebrate him.

A renaissance in the industrial age

In the Middle Ages, the religious festival became more popular. It is also customary to celebrate midnight mass on the evening of the 24th and Christmas mass on December 25, from the 7th century in Rome. Children, nicknamed the “guisarts”, sing hymns in exchange for a few pennies or sweets. Those who refuse to do so risk being cursed.

It was not until the 19th century that decorations and fir trees entered the homes of English bourgeois families, at the end of the end of the industrial revolution. “We are witnessing a real ritual transfer from the religious sphere to that of private life”, notes Martyne Perrot, sociologist at the CNRS, in the Journal des Psychologues of December 2006. The royal family, of German origins, launched the fashion for the Christmas tree decorated with candles and gifts.

It is also during this period that a certain “Christmas spirit” emerges, synonymous with compassion. The bourgeoisie is worried about the fate of the working class and shows charity to prevent revolts. One of Charles Dickens’ biographers recounts that the American industrialist Fairbanks promised to give all his workers a day off for Christmas and the following year added a goose for their Christmas Eve meal after hearing a reading of the famous storyteller.

A common celebration and specificities

Over the centuries, Christmas has adapted to traditions brought up to date. Santa Claus, inspired by Saint Nicholas, a 3rd century bishop, kept in the German and Danish tradition was popularized in the 18th century by American authors like Clement Clarke Moore. Decorative candles gave way to light garlands, following the invention of Thomas Edison. The decorated tree adorns the living rooms and it is customary to wrap gifts in pretty paper. Only the holiday menus have retained their regional specificities.

Far from religion, Christmas has become a popular holiday over the centuries celebrated by believers and non-believers alike. Sometimes considered “too commercial” for some and source of anxiety for othersthose who have decided to sulk can at least take advantage of this holiday to rest.

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Christmas: what is the origin behind the tradition?

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