The history of Christmas: Where did the holiday traditions come from?

When it comes to the history of Christmas, there’s no better source of information than Gerry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba who has literally written the book on Christmas. In fact he’s written three books on Christmas.

Historian Gerry Bowler calls Christmas the world's most celebrated holiday

Gerry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, has written three books on Christmas, including his most recent, Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday. (Shane Gibson/CBC)

Christmas is a time of year many take time to be with friends and family, but the celebration means different things to different people. Everyone has their own unique traditions for the season.

When it comes to the history of Christmas, there's no better source of information than Gerry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba who has literally written the book on Christmas.

In fact, he's written three books on Christmas.

Bowler's most recent is Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World's Most Celebrated Holiday. Although he admits New Year is a close second, Bowler stands by his assertion Christmas is the world's most celebrated holiday.

"New Year's is celebrated on different days according to different calendars, and it's really a very brief celebration," he told CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup Sunday. "Whereas Christmas occupies us for at least a month out of the year — it's celebrated much more intently."

And the celebration of Christmas continues to grow around the world even in non-Christian majority countries, notes Bowler, who says the holiday's malleability has contributed to its expanding popularity.

"Christmas absorbs all sorts of meanings as time goes on (and) these meanings shift," he said. "In Asia right now, non-Christian cultures look at Christmas as something Western, and therefore associated with modernity and industrialization and new prosperity."

The popularity of the holiday in Asia is causing some conflicts in China, says Bowler, where much of the things you'll find under the tree this year are made.

"You'll see people flocking into churches, largely for the novelty of it, but also at the same time the Chinese government trying to denounce Christmas as being a white, Western interloper against Chinese traditions," he said. "So Communist Party officials and university students and so on are prohibited from taking part in Christmas."

From St. Nicholas to Santa

Bowler says adaptability is nothing new to the celebration of Christmas and points to the rise of Santa Claus as a good example.

He says the idea of Jolly Old St. Nick comes from St. Nicholas, who was considered to the most powerful of all male saints during the middle ages.

"One of the things that he looked after was children and from at least the year 1200 he is assigned the job of magically bringing gifts to children," he says of St. Nicholas. "So for the last 800 years we've had magical Christmas gift-bringers."

But over the years the image of St. Nicholas was challenged, particularly by Protestantism, which started in the 1500s and abolished the cult of saints, says Bowler.

"But they discovered… that the world needed a grandfatherly, mysterious, gift-bringer."

And that's exactly what the invention of Santa Claus was able to bring, he says.

Christmas had fallen on "very hard times" in the English speaking world by the 1700s, but it was rescued in the 1800s, in part by by Charles Dickens and various carol collectors, but mostly by a group of poets, intellectuals, and writers from New York in the early part of the century, says Bowler.

"They tried to soften the drunken, alcoholic, and ruckus outdoor celebration that Christmas had turned into and they tried to bring it indoors," he explained. "They tried to recall the memory of St. Nicholas, who had come to New York as Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas… who became Santa Claus — a very non-sectarian, but still benevolent grandfatherly figure that brought gifts.

"From the 1820s this idea went viral, spread all throughout North America and Europe."

But is it Jesus' birthday?

As for the ongoing debate on whether or not Jesus Christ was actually born on Dec. 25, Bowler says he's come to the conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, born on Christmas day.

"It used to be said, fairly confidently, that the Christmas season in December had been borrowed from pagans, particularly Romans, who had a lot of mid-winter festivities," says Bowler. "But starting in the 1990s, a number of scholars have poo-pooed that idea and come up with what they think is a more reasonable explanation for early Christians really believing December 25th was the holiday."

Bowler says the decision to celebrate Christmas in December turned out to be a good choice.

"One of the reasons I think they were wise in doing so is because this is a time of the year when we absolutely need a holiday. This is when the earth is the bleakest," he said. "Our days are long, the greenery has disappeared and yet in pre-modern cultures this is also the time when food is most abundant because the harvest is in and the bread has been made.

"So it's a time to eat while you can and hope for the return of the greenery and the return of the light."


  • Professor Bowler states in the above story that the sun is furthest away during the Christmas season. While the sun may feel further away, it is actually not - the sun is closest to the earth during December/January, thanks to the Earth's elliptical orbit. The Earth's axis tilt explains our cold weather. Here's what NASA has to say on the subject:
    Dec 26, 2017 7:07 AM CT