The origins of the modern feast go back to the ancient folks’ celebrations dedicated to winter and especially winter solstice, the symbolic time of rebirth of the Sun that was supposed to turn from winter to summer, thus giving the hope for survival through the most severe period in the year and entering in a new cycle. The earliest Christian celebration of the Nativity of Christ was mentioned in 354 in a Roman manuscript. Following the spread and development of the Christianity in Europe, Christmas became a legal holiday in the 6th century, placed in the period of the year, coinciding with the pagan midwinter celebrations, in an attempt to cover the strong pre-Christian traditions giving them a special religious significance.
In the Middle Ages Christmas was celebrated as a feast among the others, but with time its importance grew, in religious and spiritual sense. The Protestant Reformation led to abolishing of the religious celebrations in the 17th century, including Christmas which in many countries no more could be celebrated with gatherings, banquets and traditional singing. Only from the early 19th century the tradition was reborn and developed with a new vigor. To a large extent it was the merit of the writers of those days who recalled Tudor Christmas traditions and used magical Christmas setting in their books. A powerful example is “A Christmas Carol”, Charles Dickens’ novel of 1843, that revived the holiday as a family-centered festival of generosity and compassion, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations. Thus, Christmas was spread in Western Europe again in a new sense of family union and festive generosity of spirit. In America, short stories of Washington Irving published in 1820s had great influence of the revival of Christmas spirit, depicting warm-hearted Old English traditions. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” contributed popularizing of the gift-giving and gifts exchange on Christmas, launching dynamic commercialization of the holiday and the beginning of the cultural conflict between this aspect and the spiritual meaning of the feast.
In the Eastern Europe the communist government influenced much on the folk and religious traditions, abolishing the latter. Most of the Christmas traditions and symbols were moved to the secular feast of the New Year, and the official Christmas feast was revived only after 1991. Anyway, until now, New Year remains the most popular and greatly celebrated feast in many post-Soviet countries.
Image: The first Christmas card, commissioned by Henry Cole (collection Dr. Alan Huggins), 1843.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FirstX-MasPostcard1843.jpg