This post is meant to give you a historical look at why we do what we do for Christmas. Let's begin...
1. Why do most Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
Christmas, as it is marked on December 25th, symbolizes the day that Jesus was born, as such, for Christians it calls for great celebration. Historically and factually, it is difficult to say exactly when Jesus was born. The Bible itself does not state the date, and if you take the Nativity story as clues, it suggests a spring birth. However, understanding why the 25th is observed as the day of his birth, is easier to comprehend.
When Christianity as a religion came into fruition, the majority of people were not interested in it, as they were mainly pagan, and the pagans of the Greek-speaking East were called Hellenes (more on this point later). Church officials finally decided on December 25th, as the day to celebrate Jesus' birth. This was no coincidence, as this day was already widely celebrated by pagans, honoring Saturn (the Roman god) or Mithra (the Persian god). Keeping some pagan traditions in tact, as-well-as the main celebratory date, church officials were slowly able to convert pagans, including the Hellenes.
2. What Does "Heathen" Mean?
When someone is referred to as a "heathen" it means, non-believer; someone who does not belong to any widely known religion: Christian, Jew, Muslim. Today's understanding of the word heathen, which may have been borrowed from the Armenian, hethanos, meaning pagan, comes from Old English, originated from the Gothic, haipno, meaning Hellene, "So there you go," as stated by Gus Portokalos, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
3. The Christmas Tree
One of the many symbols of Christmas, the idea of the Christmas tree is also very ancient. The Winter Solstice came along every year (December 21 or December 22) bringing in the shortest day and the longest night. Most ancient civilizations believed that the short visit from the sun signified that their sun god was either ill or angry. Thus to appease the sun god, the tradition of decorating the house with a tree became very common.
For instance, Egyptians filled their homes with palms, while the Romans and Celts decorated their homes with evergreens. The church used this tradition as an effective tactic to convert the pagans. Today's Christmas tree is believed to have originated in Germany in the 16th century.
Not all Christian sects approved of keeping pagan tradition. Puritan governor, William Bradford (who is Hugh Hefner's relative - for more on that, check out: FYI Series: Hugh Hefner, a Puritan?) proclaimed such traditions as "pagan mockery."
4. Federal Holiday
It wasn't until 1870 when Christmas became an official U.S. federal holiday - prior to that, celebrating Christmas was seen as a British thing to do, and anything British was not in style.
**The FYI Series is meant to provide a historical context within the pop-culture associated with Christmas. Some of the stories have been proven by historians and some are still debated. I suggest taking these as a light read, as it is not meant to be a historical paper.**