Although the Gospels descriebe Jesus ‘ birth in detail , they never mention the date , so historians do not know on what date he was born.The Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 as the day for the Feast of the Nativity in order to give Christmas meaning to existing pagan rituals.For example , the Church replaced festivities to commemorate the birth of Mithra , the god of light , with festivities honoring the birth of Jesus , whom the Bible calls the light of the world.The Catholic Church hoped to draw pagans into its religion by allowing them to continue their revelry while simultaneously honoring the birthday of Jesus.The Eastern Orthodox Church took a slightly different course.By the end of the 4th century the Eastern Church in Constantinopole had also begun to acknowledge December 25 as Jesus’ birthday , but it emphasized the celebration of Christ’s baptism on January 6 as the more important holiday.
Over the next 1000 years , the observance of Christmas followed the expansion of Christianity into the rest of Europe and into Egypt.Along the way , Christian beliefs combined with existing pagan feasts and winter rituals to create many long-standing traditions of Christmas celebrations.For example , ancient Europeans believed that the mistletoe plant held magic powers to bestow life and fertility , to bring about peace , and to protect against disease.Northern Europeans associated the plant with the Norse goddess of love , Freya , and developed the custom of kissing underneath mistletoe branches. Christians incorporated this custom into their Christmas celebrations , and kissing under a mistletoe branch eventually became a part of secular Christmas tradition.
During the Reformation of the 16th century , Protestants challenged the authority of the Catholic Church , including its toleration of surviving pagan traditions during Christmas festivities.For a brief time during the 17th century , Puritans banned Christmas in England and in some English colonies in North America because they felt it had become a season best known for gambling , flamboyant public behavior , and overindulgence in food and drink.
Europeans who settled in North America often found they had to change their Christmas celebrations because they could not faithfully recreate the traditions of their homelands.For example , colonists in the American South may have aspired to recreate a sense of the English Christmas.But colonial accounts of Christmas celebrations in the South do not mention the presence of mummers or waits , both of which were central figures of the traditional English Christmas.Nor do historical accounts describe settlers engaging in such traditional English customs as feasting on boars’ heads or drinking from wassail bowls.
Colonists from England , France , Holland , Spain , and other countrie also gradually modified their Christmas ceremonies as they encountered new cultures and traditions in the New World.