Christmas is never mentioned in the Bible, and there is no suggestion as to the season, much less the date, of Jesus' birth.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated.
The actual date of Christ's birth was chosen by Constantine I, after his conversion to Christianity, and appears to have been a political act designed to have a holiday in his new religion line up with several holidays celebrated by older competing sun-god-worshiping religions, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian, and Mithras, a soldiers' god that originated in Persia. After Constantine's death, Pope Julius I codified the date of Christ's birth as December 25th. The term Cristes mæsse or "Mass of Christ" is an early English phrase first recorded in 1038, 1,000 years after Jesus' death.
Despite all the depictions of the nativity scene, the Bible mentions no "stable” nor does it mention animals. A "manger" is mentioned, but a manger is a feeding trough, not a stable.
Across Europe, Pagans of every stripe have always celebrated the Winter Solstice by draping doorways and mantels with evergreens (holly, pine, fir, spruce, mistletoe), a tradition embraced by the Romans during Saturnalia and the feast of Sol Invictus. After the conversion of Anglo-Saxon (i.e. Norse) Britain in the very early 7th century, Christmas was referred to as Geol, or Yule, the name of the pre-Christian solstice festival which honored the god Thor.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had more-or-less replaced paganism with believers attending church and then decamping to drunken, carnival-like parties in the street generally accompanied by caroling and, in some locations, re-enactment of the nativity scene. Partying and excessive eating was not illogical for this time of year: December was the only real season for fresh meat, as the weather was cold enough that slaughtered animals did not spoil, nor did they have to be salted to preserve them. Late December was also the when the year’s supply of beer or wine (made from grapes, apples, and grain) was now ready to drink. As Stephen Nissenbaum notes in his book The Battle for Christmas (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996), "From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to 'Christianize.'"
In Scotland, John Knox tossed out the "multitude of the monuments of idolatry" in 1562 as part of the Protestant Reformation. These included not only the celebration of Mass, but also Romish liturgical ceremonies, Roman bishops, and many Ecclesiastical holidays, including Christmas. When the Puritans took over England in 1645, they sought to rid the Church of England of all qualities for which they could find no biblical source or authorization. Among the holidays tossed out was Christmas, which was derided as a Pagan holiday adopted by Catholics from the Romans and the pagans of earlier times. Christmas was banned until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, at which point the Puritans were persecuted and fled to America.
For the next 150 years or so, Christmas in England was a time of "misrule" i.e., socially permitted drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling, with direct ties back to the Roman tradition of Saturnalia.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when devout Christians began to bring entire evergreen trees indoors -- a kind of one-upmanship on the ancient pagans.
The Puritans that came to America in 1620 did not celebrate Christmas, and from 1659 to 1681 anyone celebrating Christmas in Boston was fined five shillings.
On December 25th, 1776, George Washington attacked the Hessian troops outside of Trenton, giving his demoralized forces their first real victory of the war. Washington could be reasonably sure his plan of attack would succeed, as American troops did not celebrate the "German" holiday of Christmas.
Christmas remained out of favor in the U.S., and on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution, Congress sat in session. In fact, Congress sat in session on Christmas until 1870, when Christmas was finally declared a federal holiday.
St. Nicholas was actually born in modern day Turkey -- an early Christian saint famous for giving away all of his inherited wealth and traveling the countryside helping the poor, the sick and small children. His traditional feast day was December 6th, but it was celebrated on Christmas eve by early Dutch settlers in New York who called him Sinter Klaas.
The idea of Christmas was introduced to the U.S. by writer Washington Irving who wrote Knickerbocker History, a satire on the transplanted customs of New York's Dutch population, which contained several references to the legendary "Sinter Klaas," who delivered gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Later, in 1921, Irving wrote a Christmas poem called "The Children's Friend," in which the first reference to a sleigh pulled by reindeer is made. Sleigh, reindeer and elves are a cross-over from Scandinavia, where Christmas is celebrated with a jolly elf named Jultomten who is said to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. In Finland, of course, they had much the same story, only there the sleigh was drawn by reindeer.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters. This poem, later retitled, "The Night Before Christmas," was a huge hit and helped establish a picture of "Santa Claus" in people's minds. This picture was crystallized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast used Moore's poem as the basis for an illustration showing Santa Claus as a rotund, cheerful man with a big white beard, a red suit trimmed in white, and carrying a sack of toys, and whose base of operations was a North Pole workshop populated by elves.
Charles' Dickens' book A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and it played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family and compassion over self-centered excess. In 1846, just a few years after A Christmas Carol was published, Queen Victoria (who was of German descent) put up a Christmas tree. This was an entirely foreign tradition to England and came about because of Queen Victoria's marriage to the German Prince Albert of Coberg. As Queen Victoria was a hugely popular figure, and Christmas was already in the process of being reinvented, everyone quickly rushed out to get a copy the Queen and get their own Christmas tree decorated with glass ornaments made in Germany.
In 1938, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store invented the story of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" as part of an advertising campaign. The story that would sell several million copies, before it was turned into a song (1949) which propelled it into permanent orbit.
In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Lynch v. Donnelly that religious themes in government-funded winter holiday displays were permitted under the First Amendment. In 2001, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in Ganulin v. United States which said that observing a day off on December 25th served a legitimate secular interest. .
And now, for a little musical interlude: the incomperable Nat King Cole.
This is a repost from 2008.