The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor). Just a few years later in 350, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as the official day for celebration of the birth of Jesus. There being no scientific or historic data to enable the Church to name that day as the actual birth day of the Christ child, it is postulated that the Church chose to do so for several possible reasons:
(2) it also corresponded with the day (or several days) when one or more polytheistic (pagan) rituals or celebrations occurred, some connected to the Roman winter solstice;
(3) in the Chronology of 354 AD (a 4th-century illuminated manuscript, which was produced in 354 AD for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentinus), there was some evidence of a Christian liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus in Rome (in the Eastern Church, the birth was already being celebrated on Jan. 6th, the feast of the Epiphany). Even in the West, the January 6 celebration of the nativity of Jesus seems to have continued until after 380. Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was much more popular and festive than Christmas in the early middle ages, and was a time for the bestowal of gifts in the tradition of the three Wise Men -- a custom that survives to this day; and finally,
(4) The Jewish festival of Lights, Hanukkah, starts on the 25th of Kislev (the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December). Hanukkah celebrates when the Jewish people were able to re-dedicate and worship in their Temple in Jerusalem following many years of not being allowed to practice their religion. Since Jesus was a Jew, this could be another reason that helped the early Church choose December the 25th for the date of Christmas!
The first Nativity Play was performed in a cave by Monks in Italy! St. Francis of Assisi and his followers acted in the first play in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them, as he was born into a poor family like theirs and not to a rich family. St. Francis played the part of each character in the story himself using wooden figures in the play. After a couple of years, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story. Songs were sung by the people taking part and they became what we call Christmas carols today! Now cribs or crèches are used in Churches all over the world and even in some homes.
It's hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognize today. The transformation happened quickly, and came from all sectors of society.
Many attribute the change to Queen Victoria, and her marriage to the German-born Prince Albert who introduced some of the most prominent aspects of Christmas. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition that was reminiscent of Prince Albert's childhood in Germany. Soon every home in Britain had a tree bedecked with candles, sweets, fruit, homemade decorations and small gifts.
Gift-giving had moved from Epiphany in January as Christmas became more important to the Victorians. Initially gifts were rather modest following earlier medieval tradition– fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade trinkets. These were usually hung on the Christmas tree. However, as gift giving became more central to the festival, and the gifts became bigger and store-bought, they moved under the tree.
The Christmas feast has its roots from before the middle ages, but it's during the Victorian period that the dinner we now associate with Christmas began to take shape. Examination of early Victorian recipes shows that mince pies were initially made from meat, a tradition dating back to Tudor times. However, during the 19th century there was a revolution in the composition of this festive dish. Mixes without meat began to gain popularity within some of the higher echelons of society and became the mince pies we know today.
The second point I want to make with all of this is that Christmas is a totality of a lot of history, an abundance of traditions and celebrations from many lands and customs. However, Christmas has emerged as a shopping spree, complete with a Black Friday, Cyber Mondays, and various and sundry sales. There is hardly a Christmas tradition left that hasn’t been commercialized by a retail corporation or some enterprise. Christmas in these United States has regressed to what used to exist in the medieval fairs connected to Christmas – a bunch of merchants selling their wares. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have families and individuals who are maintaining some of the original meaning and traditions of Christmas – not at all.
(4) Shop at small local businesses whenever possible;