During the first two centuries after Jesus' death, Christmas was not celebrated. In AD 245, when a group of scholars attempted to pinpoint the exact date of Christ's birth, a church council denounced the endeavor, declaring that it would be wrong to celebrate the birth of Christ "as though He were a King Pharaoh."
In spite of official disapproval, various attempts were made to pinpoint the Nativity. The result was a confusion of dates: Jan. 1, Jan. 6, March 25, and May 20. The May date became the favored one, because the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:8) reports that the shepherds who received the announcement of the messiah's birth were watching their sheep by night. Shepherds guarded their flocks day and night only at lambing time, which was in the spring. In winter, the animals were generally kept in corrals, unwatched.
By the middle of the fourth century, Dec. 25 was associated with Christmas. Pope Julius (337-352) formally selected that date in AD 349.
But even before that, Dec. 25 was already a widely celebrated day in the Roman World. On that date, citizens observed the Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) in honor of the sun god Mithras. The festival took place just after the winter solstice of the Julian calendar.
Many modern Christmas customs such as decorating a house with greenery, exchanging gifts, and enjoying festive meals originated with this pagan celebration. Scholars believe that Pope Julius selected Dec. 25 as the date of the Nativity in order to win over followers of Mithras.
In 17th-century England, Puritans objected to Christian celebrations that had no clear biblical basis. As a result, the English Parliament in 1643 outlawed Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays. However, Dec. 25 was so popular as a festive day, that by 1660 the citizens reclaimed it. Their neglect of the religious aspects of Dec. 25 resulted in the growing secularization of the holiday.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620, they brought with them a great dislike for Christmas. A Massachusetts law was enacted in 1659 that fined people for celebrating Dec. 25. But the day was so popular that the law was repealed in 1681, although strong religious opposition lasted into the next century.
The Christmas-tree tradition was started in Germany in the late- 15th century. At that time, a popular theatrical performance, the Paradise Play, depicted the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and was represented by a fir tree decorated with apples. Soon the tree was …