Why is Christmas on December 25th? Why is a tree part of the tradition? Where did the idea of giving gifts come from?
On today’s episode we’ll go back to an interview with Heather LeFebvre from 2019 to learn more about the history of Christmas.
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Dan LeFebvre: Christmas today is filled with festive family gatherings, great food, gift giving, decorations. And I’d like to start by focusing on one of those decorations, the nativity. Now the reason I’d like to start there is because for a long time, the nativity scenes shaped how I used to imagine that first Christmas might have been.
And. I don’t think I’m alone there. After all, in the Christian tradition of the nativity scene, it’s supposed to depict that first Christmas as told from Luke 2 verse 7. Now, not all nativity scenes are the same, but generally speaking, it looks pretty similar. You have Mary and Joseph, they’re looking over a baby in a manger that looks kind bassinet, very uncomfortable looking.
And then sometimes you have three wise men in there and there’s almost always hay. animals and all of it’s set in a standalone building by itself. It looks like a barn because the inn was overbooked as the Bible says. Of course, I don’t expect anyone to assume that the inn is a holiday inn or motel six, like we think of the word today, but it doesn’t stop there because when you explain the manger in your book, my, in my mind, that’s a very different picture from the wooden bassinet looking thing.
That I see in a lot of nativity scenes and I think a lot of people today might have a mental image of what that first Christmas might have looked at and have it be driven by A nativity scene that they see, but that might be wrong. Could you paint a picture of what that first Christmas might’ve actually looked like?
[00:03:39] Heather LeFebvre: Sure. So what scholars right now think that first Christmas probably looked like was a bustling household in Bethlehem. Just a regular house that a regular everyday family would live in. And that house would have been divided into two parts. There would have been the part for the family to actually live in, eat, have their food, sleep.
And then in the same structure under the same roof would be a part of the house that would be for keeping their animals, especially overnight. So yes, there might be some hay there and probably a manger. Although a manger would have most likely been made out of stone, a stone trough that was chiseled out and that manger probably functioned as the separation between the animal side of the home and the people side of the home.
So what most likely was happening in the first Christmas was Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem during a very crowded time because of the Roman census, when everyone was returning to their home. Their hometown. So it was like we do at Christmas where we all travel back to see our relatives and our houses are filled to bursting with people sleeping on the floor and all the spare bedrooms.
So Joseph went to his relative’s house. And their guest room was full. There was no place for them to stay. All the guest rooms were probably full in Bethlehem. And the only place for them to rest for Mary to have this baby was in the animal side of this house. The manger would have provided maybe the only safe place to place a baby so that it wouldn’t be trampled on the floor by either the animals or the visiting relatives.
I Think we got the idea of an inn from medieval interpretations of the Greek word kataluma, which can better be translated as a guest room. So when Joseph knocked on the door, there was no room in the guest room. Or Mary and Joseph. So they had to be put in the animal side of the house. So probably the first Christmas was loud, hot, smelly, okay.
Yes. Bustling with people. And, maybe they took the animals out, so Mary and Joseph could have a little privacy to have the baby, but maybe the animals were there, too. Yeah, quite a different picture than we all grew up with, but scholarship changes over time, and thanks to archaeology and Greek scholars, this is probably closer to what really happened.
[00:06:21] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, that, that’s a very different picture than than I think of when I see that, the nativity scenes and things, it seems quiet and by itself and, it is its own building. And so you don’t expect a lot of people there. And a lot of the animals are all well behaved and they’re all smiling and everything.
[00:06:40] Heather LeFebvre: wE like this romantic idea of quiet and peaceful and everyone wants. It’s one side in their mind at Christmas, but I think it was a lot more like our real lives in general, crazy and chaotic and
[00:06:52] Dan LeFebvre: bustling. In your book, you mention how no one kept track of birthdays back then, which makes sense from a historical perspective, but then to contradict that, we still know when Christmas is.
And so they had to have tracked something if that was, if that was the celebration of Jesus’s birth. But. that kind of contradicts not tracking birthdays. Can you give an explanation of how we began celebrating Christmas on December 25th?
[00:07:23] Heather LeFebvre: This really puzzles scholars about exactly when and how it came about, but the best sort of way we can explain it is, yeah, no birthdays were being kept written down around Jesus time.
However, as Christians moved into the Roman Empire, we went through the first few centuries of church history Roman persecution came on hard, and in fact, many Christians were put to death. And the early church was in hiding. They wanted to remember these Christians that died and they started recording death dates.
The death date started to be written down and remembered by the early church, and there was a list was compiled that was passed around many Christians knew about. Over time, this list began to include the a remembrance for Christ’s baptism. And of course, a remembrance for his death and resurrection, which that date was easy to come up with because it always fell with the Jewish celebration of Passover.
So there’s no trouble on finding a date for that. There wasn’t any record of Christ’s birth. PeOple had to come up with an explanation of when that could be, and there’s all sorts of lines of it would be nine months from his conception, and we’ll set his conception in March 25th, so you count nine months, and that’s December 25th.
Everyone had their own ideas for this. However, there was something else going on in the culture, and that was the fact that the Roman culture was celebrating already, Of a huge festival in December for a week called the festival of Saturnalia. And it was accompanied by feasting people being off of work.
A lot of merriment drinking going on. They also had another separate festival specifically on December 25th. Which was their winter solstice date, and that was the festival of the unconquered sun. And so there’s a lot of speculation that as Christianity was growing and spreading in Rome, this December 25th date, which was already a holiday, to a son gone could easily assimilate and be converted into a Christian holiday to the Son of God.
And official records from at least 345 A. D. show that Christians were now celebrating the birthday of Christ. On December 25th.
[00:09:55] Dan LeFebvre: Almost sounds like a little bit of convenience in there. There was already a celebration going on. And so this is as good a time as any, almost. We don’t really know when it is.
[00:10:08] Heather LeFebvre: So it seemed very convenient and when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity in 313, suddenly Christians could be celebrating out in the open. And this gave that something to focus around when all their neighbors were focusing on pagan festivities. Now
[00:10:26] Dan LeFebvre: how about the name Christmas because I’m sure the first Christmas wasn’t in their minds the first Christmas But when did the name Christmas come into the picture?
[00:10:36] Heather LeFebvre: So that took a really long time and It’s funny to think that the word Christmas was not in use until a thousand years after Christ was born. So the first record of the actual word, it would be an old English word for Christmas comes into the records in 1038. And it’s two words put together Christ’s mass being the word that the Roman Catholic Church, which was pretty much the only church in the West at this time, used for a worship service.
So this was Christ’s worship service as opposed to a worship service to remember a different saint. There were masses named after various saints throughout the year in celebration of their death dates.
[00:11:28] Dan LeFebvre: So like a Peter Mass almost? That would be to celebrate him specific for him, and then this one is Christ’s Mass?
Is that, am I getting that right?
[00:11:36] Heather LeFebvre: Yes. Martin Mass would be to celebrate St. Martin’s death day. And Christ’s Mass was not his death, but for his nativity.
[00:11:46] Dan LeFebvre: Interesting. Okay, yeah, a thousand years later. What, do you know, what do, or do we know what they called it before that?
[00:11:56] Heather LeFebvre: I think just a nativity.
They just called it because in the early medieval years they were preaching nativity sermons.
[00:12:06] Dan LeFebvre: Okay, keep it simple. . Yeah. Today you think of Christmas and one of the, one of the key things as I mentioned in the beginning was gifts and giving gifts, and that’s one of the most popular traditions around Christmas today is giving gifts.
When did the, that tradition of giving gifts start to take shape? So
[00:12:28] Heather LeFebvre: for the Christians, as they were beginning to celebrate the, this anniversary of Christ’s birth, gift giving really wasn’t a part of that. They were focused more on the religious aspect. So it would have been more of going to church, having a church service, maybe having a meal in their homes to celebrate, but gifts were not really a part of it.
gIfts were somewhat of a part of the Roman Saturnalia festivals and other winter pagan festivals in Europe. But also the gift giving seems to have taken place more around New Year’s celebrations, not so much for Christmas. So there was some gift giving going on, mostly it was gift giving from the rich to the poor.
So the nobles might provide gifts. or the peasants. A master might provide gifts for the servants. It wasn’t really focused on children. These were adult festivities and celebrations. definitely not child focused yet. The whole gift giving for everyone really came into its own during the Victorian era, especially handmade gifts were popular at that time.
And the Victorian era is also when a child centered holiday came into its own and gifts became very important. Gifts for children in the sort of late Middle Ages to 15, 1600s would have been given on December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas. January 1st, so really it’s the last 200 years where the gift giving at Christmas has become a major focus of the holiday.
[00:14:10] Dan LeFebvre: Okay. So relatively recent overall, as far as the overall celebration is concerned. You mentioned the dates that gifts were given, but in your book you mentioned Martin Luther. gave his gifts on Christmas Eve, even though in the 1500s it was popular to give gifts on the celebration of St.
Nicholas that you mentioned earlier. Now I know a lot of people today even carry on that tradition, probably without even realizing that it may have been Martin Luther who started that. Was he actually the one who started that tradition of giving gifts on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas?
[00:14:46] Heather LeFebvre: It’s always hard to say who starts what.
Martin Luther had a lot of popularity and whatever he did spread around the whole Western world. So he is attributed in Germany with switching the gift giving from December six, the feast of St. Nicholas to Christmas Eve. So we can definitely attribute his influence to that. Martin Luther was one of the foremost leaders of the Protestant reformation.
He was concerned with correcting abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. Something he was concerned about was that there was so much focus on venerating the saints, and he felt that some of that focus should be returned to Christ. And one way he could do this with children was switching the gift giving for children from the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
to Christmas and switch up this gift giving figure from St. Nicholas to the Christ child. So yes, he was a forerunner in switching the gift giving and making it focused. On Christmas Eve,
[00:15:54] Dan LeFebvre: you mentioned St. Nicholas in there. Cause that’s something I want to talk about because that is of course an alternative name for Santa Claus, jolly old St.
Nick, right? So what does St. Nicholas have to do with Christmas? And when does that Christmas tradition, cause you were saying St. Nicholas the celebration was earlier in December. When did that start to merge into the Christmas tradition and start mixing Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus and, becomes a hot mess of different characters merged into what we know today?
[00:16:30] Heather LeFebvre: exactly what it is. It’s all a hot mess. We could fill a whole book with this. We have Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus, so let me try to pull out a few key points of this history and how it all fits in. So we do know that there most likely was an actual man named Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop of Smyrna.
That would be in Turkey. He lived around the time of 270 AD to 343. Now the tricky part is that we don’t have any written records from his actual living time period. The first records we have of his life come 400 years later. So that means it’s hard to prove what’s right. And what’s been made up.
The other thing that adds to this, there was another Nicholas of Scion. Who in these two lives became confused and no one knows which information goes with which Nicholas and then in the middle ages that became popular to compile lives. And these were embellished stories of important figures and they were written with good intentions that the lives were written to be moral lessons.
For the people alive then, so they took people that maybe had done something good and they really added extra good stories to their lives, hoping that this would motivate current people to do good things. So a lot of legends grew up around this name of Nicholas. Especially the legend that we hear in various forms of him wanting to help a poor man who had three daughters.
These three daughters couldn’t marry because they didn’t have money for dowries. So Nicholas decides to use some of his wealth and he puts some gold in a sack and one night throws it in the window. And the next morning, one of these daughters discovers it and lo and behold, she has enough money to marry.
tHen the same thing happens two more times so that each of the three daughters are able to marry. So there’s all kinds of versions of the story. The gold maybe lands in someone’s shoe or the gold comes through in a different way than the window. Lots of different details. The gist of the story is that Nicholas was a kind and good man.
He cared for young people and we should emulate what he’s doing. So he became a, uh, someone to emulate. His fame spread and he was well known from Russia all the way to to the Western part of Europe. And eventually December 6th became the legendary date of his, so no one really knew the date of his death, but December 6th was somehow decided upon, and so he eventually became Saint Nicholas, and he was remembered every year on December 6th.
And then somehow the gifts got started. He was also known as the patron saint of sailors, and he was the patron saint of a few other things too. So his scope of influence was very wide and varied. But he somehow he came to also be the saint who gave gifts to children. So he was well known as a saint when the Reformation hit and the Protestants really wanted to back off on the remembrances of saints and the veneration that was happening.
Of course, in Germany, Martin Luther switched the focus from December 6th to Christmas Eve at the Christ Child. in England, They just gave up on St. Nicholas altogether and introduced their own gift giving figure by the name of Father Christmas. The Netherlands stopped having a St. Nicholas during the Reformation and somewhere afterward they came up with their own version whom they called Sinterklaas.
So you can be getting here. the progression from Saint Nicholas to what we know as Santa Claus with this middle name of Sinterklaas. So in the 1800s, it was, these figures were becoming popular again in Europe as the the original effects of the Reformation were it happens that Washington Irving, a famous American writer, was living in New York in the early 1800s, and he decided to write a comical history of New York.
So you have to catch that word comical. This was not to be a true history of New York. This was to be a joke. And in his book, he described the importance of St. Nicholas. To their first residents of New York City uh, those residents being from the Netherlands. Sinterklaas was mentioned, St.
Nicholas, it’s all in one, and Washington Irving described this Sinterklaas as coming down chimneys. And flying above people’s heads. So this idea is moving from a saint of the Christian church to a mythical character who can work magic. And then around the same time an anonymous poem was published, The Night Before Christmas, and that described further details of This emerging figure there was a sleigh reindeers.
It was christmas eve. There were no saintly robes that saint nicholas would have been in the middle ages instead. He now had first
and center class suddenly translated into American English as Santa Claus. So throughout the 1800s, this whole Santa Claus thing began to develop. I think that the newspapers every year at Christmas would print more details of this. There’ll be drawings. And every year the drawings added something more, maybe a belt.
Different details of maybe the names of the reindeer. Finally, in the 1930s, Coca Cola decided to use Santa Claus as part of their advertising campaigns. And that really helped to consolidate everything that was going on as to who Santa Claus was, what he looked like, and what he did. Yes, it’s really been less than a hundred years to have this modern idea of a Santa Claus in the red clothing with his…
Flying reindeer. Wow.
[00:22:54] Dan LeFebvre: It sounds like everybody throughout history, so it’s not like a collective effort, but it just seems like almost, the entire world had something to say. They add a little bit of a tradition here and a tradition there and a little bit there and a little bit here in order to create this overall character.
[00:23:13] Heather LeFebvre: that’s a good way to describe it. It was like a 1700 year in the making project that everyone participated in
[00:23:24] Dan LeFebvre: tHere were two things that kind of stood out that you mentioned there and one of them was when St. Nicholas when the story of him putting the gold in the window as for dowry and then the story of the comical, Story in, in New York of being one of the first mentions of coming down the chimney.
And those two things, I don’t know if they’re tied together at all. If he may have written about coming down the chimney is that way. But when you’re talking about St. Nicholas, putting the money in the window, the first thing that comes to mind is, oh, that could easily translate into he’s coming into the house some way in an unconventional form.
And, in order to give gifts. It, in that case, it was dowry, not necessarily the gifts that we get today. But yeah, it was, it’s interesting that even little bits like that could be used, changed over the years and pull into the story that we know today.
[00:24:23] Heather LeFebvre: Oh, absolutely. And I think probably Irving was pulling off of that story because that story has been told in every country in a different way.
There probably was a chimney version back then. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:24:35] Dan LeFebvre: Depending on the. The. architectural of the different regions and houses in that time and such. Now talking about gifts for Christmas and regardless of where Santa comes in, if he comes in the window or he comes down the chimney, regardless of how the gifts get there, we know during Christmas, they all end up in one place and that is under the tree.
How did The tree or the pine tree, I should say, because it seems like it’s always a pine tree and I have yet to celebrate Christmas with a dogwood or an apple tree or anything. How did this become a part of the Christmas tradition? This is
[00:25:18] Heather LeFebvre: also something that is shrouded in obscurity and really hard to pick out exactly how did this all.
Some people attribute it to Martin Luther, but I think we can be safe in saying he probably didn’t start that. We do know that pagan winter holidays often involved decorating homes outside of homes with greenery. Mistletoe, Holly, these were all symbols of. Fertility of the spring coming around again.
And as Christians adopted a lot of these pagan traditions into their religious ceremonies, they changed the meanings so that Holly could be seen to represent the red berries as the blood of Christ the thorns on the Holly as the crown of Christ on the cross, these types of things.
The whole decorating with greenery stayed alive in the Christmas celebration, even as it was taken over by the Christians, where it went from decorating with greenery outside to actually bringing the tree inside the house. We’re not quite sure. Probably the late middle ages, 14, 1500s, 1600s. We do know Germany seemed to be the area where it came from.
And then during Victorian times. It was famously made more popular by Prince Albert importing his growing up years experience into that there with Queen Victoria and their nine children. There was a picture of their family standing around their Christmas tree in the palace that was published in the newspapers and went viral as we would say now.
And from then on, everyone wanted to have a Christmas tree, just like the royal family. So it’s definitely something that started in Northern Europe, where we have pine trees. It’s not something that other parts of the world really had in mind. But then again, Christmas really was started and celebrated more in the European.
Area of the world and not so much in other cultures as I talk about later on in the book. I think that the first winter celebrations were an antidote against the depressing weather of December and January, and that’s not something that the rest of the world that had a more moderate climate really needed.
And that’s probably why I Christmas really concentrated in Europe.
[00:27:50] Dan LeFebvre: So that makes sense why there would be so many European traditions heavily influencing what we know today as just traditional Christmas celebrations. Now, speaking of that, there’s a lot of stuff that, that you’ve mentioned. Up until now, that seems to all come together into the Christmas celebration that we have today.
Is there an era of history that if we could pinpoint to, when, if you go back through history, a lot of these, I would imagine if we go to a Christmas celebration in the 1500s, we wouldn’t really recognize it as a Christmas celebration. If we go to a Christmas celebration in the.
yeAr 1000, it wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as a Christmas celebration. And I know that where you go is going to make a difference too, where in the world that celebration is, but is there an era of history where if we went back in time, it would start to resemble the holiday that we have today and start to this is an era that we can point to as the holiday celebration and traditions that we have today.
[00:29:01] Heather LeFebvre: I think it has to be the Victorian era. This is really when we see a lot of the elements that we enjoy today coming into their own commercialization of the whole holiday. Carol singing, card sending was invented, gift giving exploded. The whole child focused holiday came into being Santa Claus was gaining popularity really, when it comes down to it, people were moving away from a more religious focus to the secular commercialization, which is often what we see today.
There were a lot of writers in the 1800s who were writing about Christmas. And in fact, I was disappointed to discover that some of these writers, like Washington Irving, Almost invented a late medieval type Christmas and wrote about it in their books as if this was actually how Christmas was being celebrated to convince their readers of all these wonderful traditions that needed to take place and reading that I was like, what we were not carrying on these traditions that have been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years were just trying to have what Washington Irving invented in his mind for us.
Yeah. But yeah the books available to people to read about Christmas celebrations and then to want what they read as part of their own celebration, it’s all happened in the Victorian era.
[00:30:24] Dan LeFebvre: Can you give an example of what one of those might have been that was not really a tradition that he made up?
[00:30:30] Heather LeFebvre: It’s not fresh on my mind exactly right now But the idea that Christmas was a huge deal and that involved so much presents, feasting days, and days of feasting, and the whole idea of going Going to a little village where there’s tons of snow and everything’s jolly and happy. I don’t think it was really quite such a big deal as Irving made it out to be.
I think the celebrations at that point were quieter, not so
[00:31:00] Dan LeFebvre: big. Okay, and then so yeah, he made it into, this is this is just what people have done all along. Even if not necessarily the case. Yeah. As you were researching this book and maybe that, maybe you already gave the answer there, but I was curious, was there anything about the overall history of Christmas that really just shocked you and surprised you that you didn’t expect?
[00:31:23] Heather LeFebvre: think definitely the setting of the first Christmas kind of has surprised me. I’ve been thinking about that for a number of years as I’ve been researching that. I think I was surprised. I didn’t hadn’t quite realized that Christmas had been outlawed in the original colonies here in America.
I think I knew that it had been outlawed in England during the 1600s, but for quite some time in America it was illegal to celebrate Christmas. Yeah, so that the whole controversy about Christmas being illegal in England and America, it was a real. Fun and interesting thing to explore and find out.
[00:32:01] Dan LeFebvre: Why was it illegal?
[00:32:03] Heather LeFebvre: So hard to get your head around, but when the ref, the Protestant reformation came in, they were concerned to, to remedy some of what they perceived to be. Abuses in the Catholic Church or things that had strayed maybe away from Scripture in their mind. So they did not see a mandate in Scripture for this celebration of Christ’s birth.
And they felt that was adding to Scripture to require people to come for special services when the Bible did not require that. So they felt that. This was not necessary and was maybe putting an unnecessary burden on people. They were also concerned about the drunkenness and crazy things happening with the non religious celebrations of Christmas and they thought it’s better for our children if they don’t even have access to that so so let’s just get rid of it all.
[00:33:00] Dan LeFebvre: It probably didn’t help thinking of The, the history between the Protestant and Catholic and the fact that the name Christmas is, has mass, right? So it’s very on the Catholic side, whereas on the Protestant side, they probably weren’t a big fan of that. Exactly. Yeah. Now at the end of each chapter in your book, I love that you have some discussion questions, suggestions for how to celebrate Christmas the way that they did in different points in history.
And I really thought that those were a great addition. It’s a perfect way to learn about the history of Christmas as a family together and experience it as if it, we were going back in time, but then I love that you did. You didn’t stop there. The stories. throughout history in your book are accompanied by recipes to go along with it.
There’s the shepherd’s meal to send your taste buds back to the time of the first Christmas, the historic German Christmas cookies, Italian soups, mince pies, know that I’ve even had a mince pie edible tree bark going along with another story. We didn’t even talk about, but it’s in your book, the story of Boniface and the Oak of Thor.
There’s so many great recipes. In your book, when I was reading, the history of Christmas, I wasn’t expecting to get recipes there. Can you explain a bit about why you decided to include recipes in your book?
[00:34:31] Heather LeFebvre: I love history, and I love teaching history, and I’ve been teaching history to kids for at least 15 years.
And one thing that I have noticed when teaching kids, and adults for that matter, The more ways that you can experience history with all of your senses the longer the information is going to stick with you and so I Really purposed in this book that I wanted people to think about what it sounded like at the, these different Christmas celebrations, what it felt like, the temperature the weather what it what it would taste like to actually be at these celebrations and eat these foods.
And so I have an active imagination and I like to think that when I’m. I’m eating these recipes. I could close my eyes and just taste what I’m tasting and imagine myself right back there in that time period. And so I think recipes can be a really fun way to experience history and almost pretend we’re back there.
[00:35:35] Dan LeFebvre: That’s great. Wrapping yourself in the immersion of history. What a better way. And to throw a little bit in this, I happen to know from experience that you are an amazing cook. And so I can only imagine what your house smelled as you tested some of these recipes. Do you have a favorite from the book that you made?
[00:35:52] Heather LeFebvre: have to be the candy cane cookies, which would be from the 1950s chapter. I think candy canes have always been my personal symbol of Christmas since I was a little child, and a good friend of mine introduced those cookies to me about 15 years ago, and ever since I have to make them every year.
They look like candy canes. They taste like peppermint and yeah, they say christmas to me
[00:36:18] Dan LeFebvre: But thank you so much for coming on to chat about the history of christmas And I think i’ve mentioned this to you off air, but I will say it again I love the approach that you took in this book. It’s not you know A lot of history books are like text books and very dry.
This is very story driven It’s, I have a lot of fond memories of my own mother reading stories to us as kids, we’d gather around and she would read stories, especially around Christmastime. And as I was reading your book, I could easily imagine this being one of those books that you gather the kids around, chow down on some of that edible tree bark or candy cane cookies or whatever it is.
And just learn about the history of Christmas. And before I let you go, can I. Get you to let us know where we can get a copy of your book. Yes.
[00:37:06] Heather LeFebvre: The copy You can get a copy of the history of christmas from amazon. Barnes and noble. com target. com So pretty much anywhere books are sold and you can find me at heatherwinslowlovefeb.
[00:37:21] Dan LeFebvre: Thanks again so much for your time.
[00:37:23] Heather LeFebvre: Thanks for having me.