Redefining Christmas: The Untold History of Our Most Beloved Holiday

As a matter of full disclosure, you should know that I was born on December 25th. As such, I’m what most people refer to as a “Christmas baby.”

On this basis you might think my feelings about the holiday are unambiguously good. After all, what could be more exciting than being born on the biggest holiday in the Western calendar?

Yet the reality is that, because of the competition for people’s attention at Christmas, my birthday is largely forgotten. The most pernicious example of this is the tendency of people to combine Christmas and birthday gifts into one, representing a 50% reduction in the overall value of the gifts I receive. And now that I’ve passed the 35-year-old mark, I’m lucky to get gifts of any kind, let alone the dreaded Christmas/birthday variety.

small christmas tree

But there are other reasons why my own, and many other people’s, feelings for Christmas are less than unambiguously good.

For starters, this time of year represents the single largest spectacle of consumerism in the modern world. It’s the time when landfills are inundated with worthless garbage, most of it plastic, that will persist in our planet’s biosphere for millions of years, contributing to mass extinction and the proliferation of cancer in the human gene pool. It’s the time, more than any other, when the size of your bank account determines your prestige in the eyes of your associates, who will gauge your magnanimity on the basis of your gift-giving. And it’s the time of year when the expectations of feeling good are so hugely unrealistic that they leave many people feeling exactly the opposite.

And that should be a cause for concern.

A Little History of Christmas

But of course Christmas is much more than just a spectacle of consumerism, as most of us can attest, if only from watching A Charlie Brown Christmas for the 9,476th time. (Yes, it’s one of my favorites too.) After all, this is the day when the birth of Jesus Christ, the central figure in the world’s largest religion, is celebrated. Hence the moniker, Christ Mass, the latter word being a reference to the predominant form of worship in Catholicism.

But, believe it or not, there was a time when Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas.

Christianity before Christmas

This was in the earliest days of Christianity, circa 30-325 CE, when Christians were still marginalized members of society and were all too cognizant of how easily they could become targets of Roman persecution. As a result, there was a mentality of resistance that permeated almost all Christian doctrine, including that relating to the most basic of human activities, procreation.

Desiring to separate themselves from the world of the flesh–in large part because they knew they needed to be fearless in the face of Roman persecution if they were to survive as a religion–early Christians laid a heavy emphasis on resisting temptation of any kind, whether that was the temptation to eat (gluttony), sleep (sloth), or have sex (lust). (Eventually these temptations of the flesh would become enshrined in the seven deadly sins.)

As a result, early Christians disavowed any aspect of life relating to sex, up to and including pregnancy and childbirth. To them, these activities were merely reminders of the world of the flesh, which could all too easily be taken away by Roman authorities, thereby destroying a true believer’s resolve to stand firm in the face of persecution.

But eventually things changed.

Christmas Becomes a Holiday

After the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power in the early fourth century, massive changes took place.

roman emperor constantine

Among these, he defeated his rival co-emperors and consolidated power by exiling or killing them; he moved the capitol of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey); and he legalized Christianity in 313 CE, opening the gateway to its eventual adoption as the state religion of the Roman Empire.

And it was this last move that had the greatest impact on Christianity.

For 300 years until this time, Christians had never once celebrated Christmas. On the contrary, they had regarded it the same way they would have regarded the celebration of anyone’s birth–as a reminder of Pagan Rome and the world of the flesh. After all, to celebrate birth is to celebrate children, and to celebrate children is to celebrate an attachment to the world that could very easily get in the way of one’s willingness to become a martyr for the faith.

But once the persecution ended, Christians could let down their hair again. And that’s exactly what they did.

In a mere 25 years, Christianity made a full reversal on its attitude toward procreation. From avoiding any celebration of it whatsoever, it proceeded to the first recorded celebration of Christmas in the year 336 CE. And it wasn’t long before the marginalized sect of Christianity adopted the mindset of Pagan Rome, encouraging its followers to have as many children as possible in order to ensure an ever-expanding base of support.

To quote Genesis 1:28, “‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it . . . ’”

The Issue of Procreation and Christmas

Whether we realize it or not, this history of Christmas is still present in the holiday we celebrate today.

From the emphasis on family (of whom children are the future) to the emphasis on gifts (primarily for children, who are most excited for them) to the emphasis on storytelling (whether in the form of A Charlie Brown Christmas or Elf), Christmas is a holiday designed to appeal to children and those who have them.

a charlie brown christmas

This, by default, makes it a celebration of procreation, whether we realize it or not.

And it’s no coincidence, since the original story of Jesus being born in a manger in Bethlehem to a virgin–who, by definition, had never had sex with a man–is of course, first and foremost, a story of procreation.

But where does that leave all of those people, myself included, who have no children and probably never will? What relevance is there in a story that revolves around getting pregnant, having a child, and contributing to human overpopulation in a world on the brink of ecological collapse?

In short, is there even a reason for Christmas any more?

Redefining Christmas

The short answer to that question is a resounding “no.”

The long answer, however, is more complicated. And it goes something like this.

What if, instead of celebrating procreation and human overpopulation, December 25th were a day to celebrate creation and creativity in all its many forms–whether writing, photography, music, baking, theater, knitting, engineering, or computer programming? What if December 25th were a day for us to give gifts that we’ve made with our own two hands, preferably with reused/recycled/sustainable materials? And what if December 25th were a day for sharing those gifts with the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten in society?

homemade chocolate cookies

To put it another way, what if Christmas were the best way to live the rest of our lives?

Of course this is only an idea. And for it to become more than that, there would have to be millions of people in our world who believe in it, act on it, and turn it into a way of life.

But considering that’s how Christmas first came into being, who says it can’t happen again?


Around the first weekend of February, I will be launching a Patreon campaign to facilitate the growth of Mark All My Words. There are numerous reasons for this, including the need for: web hosting, domain-name registration, photographic equipment, transportation, health insurance, videography, research, and editing.

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16 thoughts on “Redefining Christmas: The Untold History of Our Most Beloved Holiday

  1. I’ve just started following your blog for your lovely photos and hiking reports, so as a stranger I’d like to say happy (belated) birthday, and happy holidays to you. I agree wholeheartedly on the toxic effect of consumerism on the holidays. Particularly in the US, where consumerism has become the driving force of our social structure, it is increasingly poisoning and politicizing almost everything we do. Just sapping all the joy and meaning out of things. It’s not just Christmas anymore, either. We are inundated with ads to buy-buy-buy gifts-gifts-gifts for every holiday on the calendar. And there can never be enough spending. The ads are ever more aggressive for ever more expensive items. How many cars are we expected to buy each year? It’s ridiculous.

    I love your idea of celebrating creation by using our creativity. I’d like to reclaim the idea that “it’s the thought that counts,” and make gift-giving a true token of our feelings for each other. One gift, small, personal, chosen with care or made with love, is surely far more meaningful to this holiday than any of the extravagant indulgences we are pressured to buy. I think we all need to stop and think about what any holiday really means to us and shape our celebrations along those lines.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Jen.

      I completely agree about the hyper-commercialization of the holidays. There’s simply no need for the mountains of expendable waste that invariably result from such societal gluttony. We would be far better served merely by spending time with each other, sharing hand-made/practical gifts, and celebrating the simple fact that we’re alive.

      I hope the New Year is treating you kindly so far.

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