Skip to content

The Surprising History of Christmas

Image of Santa Claus c. 1868


Christmas is celebrated by over 2 billion people around the world. This religious festival commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ and is important to Christians across the globe. Today, the holiday is associated with many cultural traditions such as gift-giving, holiday tunes, hot cocoa, and—who can forget—Santa Claus. But there is much more to the story. In fact, the history of Christmas may surprise you. Here are 6 Christmas facts that might change your perspective. 

1. Celebrating Christmas was once illegal in Massachusetts. From 1659 to 1681, the General Court of Massachusetts charged people a fine of five shillings if they were caught celebrating the banned holiday. That would be about $48 in today’s money. While this doesn’t seem very merry, there may have been a reasonable explanation. The Christmas season had a bad reputation for troublemaking. It fell right after harvest and there was typically plenty of newly fermented beer or wine and fresh meat. Too much eating and drinking often led to very rowdy behavior. The Puritan leaders of Massachusetts wanted to put a stop to that, though they weren’t always successful.

 John Endecott the Governor Massachusetts
Portrait of John Endecott, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Christmas
was made illegal. Endecott was a staunch Puritan who was infamous for his controversial policies.
Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.


2. Many of the most beloved Christmas songs were written by Jewish creators. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, White Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were all written by Jewish lyricists who, though they did not celebrate Christmas themselves, drew from their own experiences to dream up these well-known tunes. The story of Rudolph, written by Robert May, was partly inspired by his daughter (her favorite animal was a deer). The story’s underdog message was based on his experience of growing up as a shy child and understanding what it was like to be excluded.

3. Christmas and resistance to slavery have a shared history. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, many enslaved workers in the United States were given a short reprieve from labor and permitted to visit family. Some courageous people used this opportunity to escape bondage. William and Ellen Craft’s daring escape in 1848 is one of the most famous examples, but countless others made the journey North to freedom.

Christmas was also a known time of rebellion. Perhaps the most famous rebellion occurred beginning on Christmas Day in 1831. Nearly 60,000 enslaved workers went on strike in Jamaica, demanding freedom and a working wage. This uprising would help lead to the abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1833. 

Christmas Rebellion 1831
Destruction of the Roehampton Estate during the Baptist War in January 1832, by Adolphe Duperly.
Image credit: Wikimedia.

4. According to one legend, Saint Nicholas is buried in Ireland.
As the story goes, Irish-Norman knights traveled to the Holy Lands during the Crusades. Before they returned home, they stole the bones of Saint Nicholas. Once in Ireland, they buried the saint’s remains somewhere in County Kilkenny. Today, you can find a grave slab in Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny which (some believe) is the burial site of St. Nick. Want to learn more about the history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus? Check out our Instagram for a quick kids history lesson.

5. Do you love a cup of hot cocoa around Christmas time? You have the ancient people of Mesoamerica to thank. The first known evidence of drinking chocolate comes from the ancient civilizations of North and Central America, namely the Olmec and the Maya. Cacao seeds had great cultural importance to the Maya and were viewed as a sacred food. The chocolate drink was often consumed cold and did not taste as sweet as the drinking chocolate you know today. In the 1500s, the Spanish brought the mixture over to Europe where it was sweetened and served hot. In the 1700s, the final touch was added: milk. Check out our kids magazine Issue 11 | Journey Through the Jungle to learn more about the Maya civilization and its many innovations. 

Maya Drinking Chocolate the MET
 The ancient Maya would blow into a spouted vessel (like the one shown above) to make a frothy spume on the surface of the chocolate drink. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


6. In the early modern period, Christmas was celebrated with a ritual similar to trick-or-treating. Young people (typically boys) from poorer households would visit wealthy homes and ask for a “treat”—gifts, food, drink, or money. The boys would often sing songs as they marched from house to house, wishing goodwill and a successful harvest in exchange for gifts. 

The Christmas season is steeped in history and cultural customs that are continuously changing. Do you know any interesting Christmas history? We'd love to hear it! 


Cover image: Santa Claus Sugar Plums, showing a red-suited Santa Claus on sleigh with reindeer in c.1868. Image Credit: Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-2275