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Christmas: A history

To look at the roots of many traditional Christmas customs.

by Jude Scrutton

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To look at the roots of many traditional Christmas customs.

Preparation and materials

  • This assembly contains lots of information: you might wish to select sections to suit your own school.
  • Pictures of different types of food and Christmas decorations.
  • It would be helpful to project a map of the world, indicating the civilizations referred to (see


  1. There are very few people in the world today who do not know what the Christmas holiday is all about. Ask the children why we celebrate Christmas.

    Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ over two thousand years ago. The word ‘Christmas’ is a shortened form of the words ‘Christ’s Mass’ (‘Christ’s Eucharist/Holy Communion’).

    However, the holding of a midwinter holiday did not start with the birth of Christ and many of the traditions that we keep during the Christmas holiday season began way before his birth. Exchanging gifts, decorating trees, and the burning of the Yule log were all winter traditions that began long before the Christian religion but were eventually incorporated into the holiday that became known as Christmas.
  2. What, then, were the pagan origins of some of our Christmas traditions?

    The twelve days of Christmas
    About four thousand years ago, the land that is now east Syria and north Iraq used to be called Mesopotamia. Here there was a very ancient civilization. (Show this on a world map.)

    The people of Mesopotamia celebrated their New Year in midwinter with a 12-day festival called Zagmuth. The Mesopotamians held this festival in honour of their chief god, Marduk, because they thought that he battled the monsters of chaos at the beginning of each winter. It is believed that the celebration of the 12 days of Christmas originated from this festival.

    Feasts, presents and candles on trees
    The ancient Romans held a celebration each year in honour of their god Saturn. The festival, which they called Saturnalia, began in the middle of December and lasted until the first day of January.

    The Romans decorated their homes with garlands, as well as trees upon which they hung candles.

    During the festival the citizens of Rome would visit one another’s homes, hold great feasts and exchange gifts to promote good luck.

    The Yule log, songs and apples on branches
    The land of Scandinavia (the countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark) is so far north that in midwinter the sun hardly rises above the horizon. In fact, in the very northern areas, the midwinter days are as dark as the nights.

    In Scandinavia, in ancient times, the Scandinavians would hold a festival called the Yuletide. A Yule log would be burned in a special fire, and everyone would gather around the fire for a feast. To remind themselves that the spring and summer would surely return again, people in some areas of Scandinavia would tie apples to tree branches. The tradition of the Christmas tree is believed to have evolved from this ritual, as well as from the Roman custom of decorating trees with candles during the festival of Saturnalia.

    In Scandinavia the people would sing celebration songs on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It is said that this may have been the origin of the singing of Christmas carols.

    Why is Christmas Day celebrated in midwinter?
    The Bible itself does not give a date for the birth of Jesus. But the reference to shepherds watching their flocks at night points to spring since in winter shepherds brought their sheep down into sheepfolds in the valleys.

    One theory is that the Roman emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity around AD 312, wanted to incorporate the pagan winter rituals into the celebration of Jesus’ birth. In this way, Constantine hoped to help both pagans and Christians celebrate together. Many believe that this is the reason for celebrating the birth of Jesus in winter.

    Eventually, the Roman church became almost completely successful in making the midwinter celebration only about the birth of Christ.
  3. The Christian festival of Christmas always celebrates the birth of Christ. It is not, however, celebrated in exactly the same way in every country.

    In Britain
    One tradition observed in Britain during the Christmas season is ‘Boxing Day’. On Boxing Day, in many churches, the boxes containing donations for the poor are opened and the gifts are distributed to the poor.

    One theory about carols is that they originated in Britain and not in Scandinavia. Whether or not this is true, many Christmas carols and a lot of Christmas music was composed in nineteenth-century England.

    It is believed that the first Christmas card was a card designed by a British painter, John Callcott Horsley. Horsley designed his card in 1843 for his friend Sir Henry Cole, who was the first director of the Victoria and Albert museum. The card showed a family celebrating Christmas, and read, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’. The tradition caught on quickly in England, and it was not long before Christmas cards began showing up in the United States and other countries.

    Christians in China celebrate Christmas by decorating their homes and trees with paper lanterns, paper flowers and paper chains.

    Christians in Iran refrain from eating any animal products from 1 December until after Christmas church services on 25 December. Then they have a traditional feast of chicken stew.

    In Venezuela, Christians attend morning church services every day from 16 to 24 December. In the capital city of Caracas, it is customary to roller skate to these services.

    Northern Brazil
    People in northern Brazil celebrate Christmas with a traditional play called ‘Los Pastores’, or ‘The Shepherds’. In this play, the shepherds are always women, and there is a scene where a gypsy attempts to kidnap the Christ child.

    One cannot talk about the history of Christmas without mentioning Santa Claus. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna, who lived in the fourth century in the country we now call Turkey, was a very wealthy, generous and kindly man. He was known to take gifts to the houses of poor children in order to brighten their spirits. He was later titled Saint Nicholas, and became the patron saint of children and seafarers. From his story evolved the legend of Santa Claus – the jolly man who brings gifts to children all over the world on Christmas Eve.

    In England St Nicholas came to be known as Father Christmas, while in China he is known as Dun Che Lao Ren, which means ‘Christmas Old Man’.

    Many believe that the giving of gifts originates from the deeds of Bishop Nicholas, and not from the Roman tradition of giving gifts during the festival of Saturnalia. More likely, the tradition evolved from both practices.

Time for reflection

Think about the Christmas traditions that your family keeps, and how important they are to you.


Be thankful for all that the adults in your life do, and all the time that is spent, in order to keep those family traditions.


Whatever our beliefs, at Christmas most of us are lucky enough to share quality time with family and loved ones. But it is important to think about people who are living on their own and might be lonely. Often Christmas is a much lonelier time than usual for these people.


The Lord’s Prayer


‘Lonely this Christmas’ by Elvis Presley

Or sing one of your school’s favourite carols.

Publication date: December 2011   (Vol.13 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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