Christmas is both a religious and secular holiday. Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and public holiday in countries around the world, including many whose populations are mostly non-Christian. Many of the traditions that we observe, such as exchanging gifts, decorating trees, sharing food with family and friends, and burning Yule logs, were all winter traditions that began before Christ’s birth, but were incorporated into Christmas.
The winter solstice has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated when the worst of winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and more sunlight.
In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, they celebrated Saturnalia—a holiday to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture.
In 350 AD Pope Julius I, choose December 25th as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It is believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced. Clearly, this plan worked.
Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States by President Ulysses S. Grant on June 26, 1870.