Redefining Christmas: The Untold History of Our Most Beloved Holiday

Small Christmas tree

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 mark, I’m lucky to get gifts of any kind, let alone the dreaded Christmas/birthday variety.

Small Christmas tree with white and red ball ornaments

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.

Mosaic of Constantine, the Roman Emperor

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 Frozen), Christmas is a holiday designed to appeal to children and those who have them. 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?

Chocolate no-bake 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?

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8 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.


  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking posting, Mark. While I disagree with some points, I can’t help but support your position about the over consumerization of Christmas. I have always valued handmade gifts more than store-bought ones and have never bought into the notion that the price of a gift is somehow indicative of the love that I have for the recipient. In my book, the best way to show love is in actions and in attitude, sometimes by listening or merely by being present with another person, by sharing what you have rather than striving to always have more. Merry Christmas, Mark, and Happy Birthday too.


  3. I love you for this, Mark : spot on. It’s so all about the philoprogenitiveness. But could be something so much better. It’s the return of the light for pagan me, the day when you say yup yes the solstice wasn’t kidding.


  4. Great post, but what I like are your words on redefining Christmas. I don’t exchange gifts, but for some 25 years, I made them. I also made the wrappings and/or decorations. One year, about 15 years ago, I even made chocolates and choc-coated strawberries and made a box with dividers for each chocolate and the decorations for each box. I made prunes marinated in Port and decorated the jars with home-made labels and seals. Admittedly, I am the creative type and have a background in art, graphic design and textiles 45 years ago, so have the skills to do such a thing.

    I don’t celebrate Christmas at all now, but I do celebrate the Gift of Giving. Whether it be cooking something special or making chutney/sauces or pickled or whatever. I made cards from my photos for many years, but don’t send cards now as my health precludes walking up the steep hill to the letterbox in the main street to post them.

    This year, my gift will be (and it actually has been for 7-8 years), enuring I write (aka email) all those friends who are seriously ill, ensuring I make my email easy to read and appropriate to the recipient’s interests. I let them know who much their friendship means to me and the time they’ve taken to care and understand where I’m coming from too. I ensure I remember all their children and interests in the content of that letter. I never say I hope you get better or, it could be worse. That is the worst possible thing to say to someone who has been ill for over 20 years and bedbound having a carer for 15-17 of those years.

    You don’t talk about the past or the future. You talk about today. This present moment. You talk about the activities that make them happy.

    Best wishes for the holiday season, Mark. Hope your own health doesn’t stop you doing the activities you love and does not hinder your pleasure in hiking and the great outdoors – being in nature – making photos to share and last, but not least, I wish you a very Happy Birthday. May your day be spent with loved ones or doing whatever you love best 🙂


  5. Terrific story. I am 67 years old and made a choice in my teens never to have children. Rather I set out to make a difference in people’s lives by other means. Usually creative means. And I have certainly handmade many gifts over time. Like you I abhor the packaging on packaging on packaging that accompanies almost everything there is to be purchased (thank god for Farmers Market and your own containers). This year I told all those with whom I typically exchange gifts there would be no more of that; I want nothing but experiences. No new objects please. Instead I have been doing things with friends and it has been a hoot. Laughter and love are precious commodities which do not damage the planet.

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