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What is Christmas: Understanding the History and Origin

  • Rachel Dawson Design Editor, Crosswalk.com
What is Christmas: Understanding the History and Origin

Christmas is so full of wonder, meaning and tradition. But, where did all these things that we now call "Christmas" come from? Let's briefly sketch the origin and development of what we now celebrate as Christ's birth.

Below we will look at the origins of Christmas, holiday traditions (and their Christian significance!), favorite Christmas carols, Scripture about the nativity story and birth of Jesus, and history you might not know:

What is Christmas and When Did it Start

What is Christmas and When Did it Start

Christmas is the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ's birth, held on December 25 in the Western Church. The traditional date of December 25 goes back as far as A.D. 273. Two pagan festivals honoring the sun were also celebrated on that day and it is possible that December 25 was chosen to counteract the influence of paganism. To this day some people feel uncomfortable with Christmas because they think it is somehow tainted by the pagan festivals held on that day. But Christians have long believed that the gospel not only transcends culture, it also transforms it. In A.D. 320 one theologian answered this criticism by noting, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

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This content was adapted from "Christmas Eve" by Dan Graves.

The Dates of Christmas

The Dates of Christmas

Why do we celebrate on December 25th?

There are two specific theories for why we use the date of December 25th for Christmas.

First, People and religion of the day celebrated some sort of holiday around that time. From Jewish Chanukah to Pagan Winter Solstice to Germanic Yule to Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun); the sheer number of celebration days with their trees, decorations, yule logs, mistletoe and feasts seem to point to a season of celebration to which Christians added the birth of Jesus as a counter-cultural event and possibly even an escape from the pagan holidays for early believers.

December 25th was the Saturnalia Festival of emancipation, gift giving and the triumph of light after the longest night. The Christian sees the truth implicit in this pagan tradition that reflects: Christ the Light of the world, His triumph over the night of sin in Luke 1:78-79:

"...Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Second theory centers around the date “accepted” by the Western Church of March 25 as the Annunciation or Immaculate Conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. December 25 is 9 months later and thus celebrated as the birthday of Jesus. Regardless of the possible reasons for the date, the Church calendar was set in the West during Constantine’s reign while the Eastern Church held onto the date of January 6 for some time. 

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The Origin of Christmas Eve

The Origin of Christmas Eve

For centuries, Christmas was celebrated not as a single day, but as a whole season in parts of the world, beginning with this day, December 24, Christmas Eve. Perhaps the practice of celebrating the evening before the big day is an echo from ancient Jewish reckoning. Among earlier Jews, a day began at six in the evening and ran until six the following evening. Had not Moses written: "An evening and a morning were the first day"?

Christmas means "Christ-mass." Although the date is a guess, the tradition of observing it goes back to at least the fourth century. Under the influence of the church, Christian traditions replaced pagan solstice festivals throughout Europe. Often the more innocent pagan practices (such as bringing in a Yule log, decorating with holly and the like) were carried over into the Christmas observance, transfigured with new meaning.

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This content was adapted from "Christmas Eve" by Dan Graves.

The Christian Meaning Behind Ancient Traditions

The Christian Meaning Behind Ancient Traditions

Evergreen Trees were the symbol of eternal life. Martin Luther introduced them to the Reformation Church as a picture of our endless life in Christ, by bringing in a tree to his family on Christmas Eve lit with candles (Isaiah 60:13).

Candles are a picture that Christ is the Light of the world (John 8).

Holly speaks of the thorns in His crown (Matthew 27:29).

Red is a color of Christmas that speaks of Christ's blood and death.

Gifts are a reminder of the gifts of the Magi to baby Jesus. Each of them speak to a component of His incarnation: Majesty in life, Bitterest Agony in Death and He as Gods Perfect gift to us (Matthew 2).

Photo credit: Unsplash/Tim Mossholder

More Holiday Traditions

More Holiday Traditions

The Yule Log was a symbol by which all the men in the family would carry a log large enough to burn for 12 days into the house. They were identifying with Christ and His Cross. The fire was started with a fragment from the previous years [this refers to the eternal existence of Christ before His birth] log. It speaks of warmth, unity, joy and the security of endless life.

Mistletoe was an ancient symbol from the Roman times. It was under Mistletoe that old enmities and broken friendship were restored.  So Christ was the One who took away the enmity and gave us Peace with God (Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1).

Bells are associated with ringing out news. Christ is the good news, the best news of all.

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Modern Traditions

Modern Traditions

In 1822 Clement Moore wrote a poem for children that has never been forgotten. It was entitled, "Twas the Night before Christmas..."!

Santa Claus is a Dutch word that is actually Sinter Claus, Saint Nicholas in English.

Saint Nicholas was the supposed early Bishop of a church in Asia Minor [the modern country of Turkey]. He became aware of some desperate needs in his congregation, and a family having to sell their children into slavery, so one night he came and left money on their doorstep. It was gold in a stocking.

Christmas Cards started in 1844. An English artist named William Dobson, drew up some pictures in England for use at this season. They found local use there and soon spread to America. In 1846 Cole and Horsley saw the commercial potential of this growing tradition and started the production of what is now over a $1,000,000,000.00 industry, that sees 4 billion cards sent each year in America alone. 

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This content was adapted from the original article "The Origin of Christmas Traditions and Christ's Birth" by Dr. John Barnett.

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

Among the many accounts claiming to explain the origin of the Christmas tree, the three most popular are from Germany — making it the likeliest place of origin. The stories span from the 8th to the 16th century. All three have some element of historical fact, and they may even loosely connect from one to another.

1. The first story is about St. Boniface. In the 8th century, he was a missionary to some of the remotest tribes of Germany. He is probably best known for what is called the “Felling of Thor’s Oak.” It is said that upon entering a town in northern Hesse (Hessia), Boniface learned that the people worshiped the god Thor who they believed resided in a great oak tree among them. Boniface determined that if he wanted to earn an audience with the people, he would have to confront Thor. He announced before the people that he was going to cut down the oak, and he openly challenged Thor to strike him down. Miraculously, as Boniface began to chop the oak, a mighty wind blew and hurled the tree to the ground. Tradition holds that a fir tree was growing in the roots of the oak, and Boniface claimed the tree as a symbol of Christ. Needless to say, the people readily accepted Boniface’s message, and the tree eventually came to be associated with the birth of Christ and a celebration of the day when the mighty God (who could hurl a gigantic oak to the ground) chose to humbly enter the world as a babe.

2. Another possible source of the Christmas tree (and probably the most likely) comes from medieval religious plays in Germany. Among the most popular of these plays was the “Paradise” play. It started with the creation of man, acted out the first sin, and showed Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise (the Garden of Eden). It closed with the promise of a coming Savior, which made the play a particular favorite during the Christmas season. In the play, the Garden of Eden was most often represented by a fir tree hung with apples and surrounded by candles.

3. A third tradition about the origin of the Christmas tree attributes it to Martin Luther, an influential leader of the Reformation. Some say that on Christmas Eve, Luther was walking through the woods near his home. He was struck by the beauty of how the snow shimmered in the moonlight on the branches of the trees. In an effort to re-create the magnificent sight for his family, he cut down the tree, placed it in his home, and decorated it with candles.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Greyson Joralemon
This content was adapted from the original article "The Origin of the Christmas Tree" by Angie Mosteller.

6 Ways to Make Christmas about Jesus

6 Ways to Make Christmas about Jesus

  1. Give a gift to Jesus.
  2. Like Christ, give to those who can't repay you.
  3. Pause to sense the darkness outside at night, and then thank God for sending the light.
  4. Read the Scriptures to your family.
  5. Start some traditions that point to Christ.
  6. Enjoy this wonderful time of the year, don't lose the season for the rush.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Freestocks Org
This content was adapted from the original article "The Origin of Christmas Traditions and Christ's Birth" by Dr. John Barnett.

3 Christmas Carols that Tell the True Christmas Story

3 Christmas Carols that Tell the True Christmas Story

"The First Noel"

“Noel” derives from the Latin verb “nasci,” to be born, and eventually trickled down into the French reference to the Christmas holiday. Defined, it literally means, “a Christmas carol” (Merriam Webster). The very world “Noel” is synonymous with Christmas.

It’s quite possible that the tune of this song has been played since the 1200s. Davies Gilbert added the lyrics in the 1800s, and it was published in 1823. The song retells the story from Luke 2 of the angels telling the shepherds in the field of the Savior being born, and the wise men following that same star to bring Him gifts.

Embracing Noel sends us traveling back to an ancient era, where our timeless Savior was born. The word used to describe the day of His birth became an anthem in celebration of the day of His birth. Though the angels sang in celebration of His birth first, we get to share in that joy of His coming by singing along today.

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"

Historically an Advent song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” exudes the angst of a people waiting for their Savior. With references to the Rod of Jesse and the Key of David, it envelopes the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus Christ, which brings the New Testament into an even brighter light.

The first verse of the song speaks of the Son of God appearing. When we sing this classic Christmas carol, we are lauding the Lord over stanzas of Scripture that took over 800 years to be fulfilled. Isaiah spoke of the Messiah’s birth around 740-680 BC: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Centuries later, Matthew recorded these words: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”; Matthew 1:23). 

"Joy to the World"

Isaac Watts penned the lyrics to “Joy to the World,” but God Himself ordained the Scripture that is referenced throughout its stanzas. Psalm 98, Psalm 96:11-12 and Genesis 3:17-18 are all embraced in the beautiful truth of what Christmas is really about. Since 1719, we’ve had a melody to weave around the embrace of these promises. They are timeless and without boundary.

“And so, let the heavens resound in gladness! Let joy be the earth’s rhythm as the sea and all its creatures roar. Let the fields grow in triumph, a grand jubilee for all that live there. Let all the trees of the forest dig in and reach high with songs of joy before the Eternal” (Psalm 96:11-12).

“Joy to the World” is a repetition of God’s promises; ones that we need to repeat to ourselves far beyond the Christmas season. The very definition of the word, “joy,” is “a source or cause of delight” (Merriam-Webster). “He reigns with truth and grace.” He is righteous, He has come, and sits at the right hand of the Father with authority. 

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This content was adapted from the original article "10 Christmas Carols that Tell the Real Story of Christmas" by Meg Bucher.

Christmas Bible Verses

Christmas Bible Verses

"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." Matthew 1:18-25

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this." Isaiah 9:6-7

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." Micah 5:2

To read more Christmas Bible verses, click here!

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This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What is Christmas? Understanding History, Origin and Traditions
Christmas Eve History and Traditions
The History of Santa Claus: Origin of St. Nicholas & Christmas Traditions
When Was Jesus Born? History of December 25th
The Birth of Jesus: Bible Story and Scripture Verses
What is Advent: Definition & Meaning Behind Christmas Tradition
Advent Wreath & Candles - Understanding the History, Meaning, and Tradition
The History and Meaning of the Advent Calendar
What Are Advent Readings & Why Are They Important?
Christmas Bible Verses & Scripture Story
Christmas Prayers
Advent Prayers





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