Have you ever wondered where Christmas originated? It goes back to the birth of Jesus Christ in ancient Israel, but how we celebrate Christmas today comes from traditions from all over the world.
What’s more American than McDonald’s? It was started by the McDonald brothers in San Bernadino, California, in 1940. Since then, it has spread American fast-food to over a hundred countries. But if you look closer, just how American is McDonald’s in the details?
McDonald’s is an Irish name. The hamburger has roots in Germany. French fries are, well, French. So, as much as Europeans might look down their noses at the uncultured, fast-food-crazed Americans, McDonald’s is at least somewhat European. So, at least in part, we have them to thank (or to blame…).
Now, let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime. There may seem like no holiday that reminds you of being home more than Christmas. But I think you’ll be surprised to learn just how much of your Christmas celebration started outside your homeland. As you’ll see, Christmas fittingly brings together traditions from all over the world to celebrate a birth that forever changed it.
Where Christmas Originated: The Records
Let’s start with the historical records of the first Christmas. We read about Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus in two places: the first chapters of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. It’s true that both Matthew and Luke were first-century followers of Jesus, but, beyond that, they weren’t at all similar. Matthew was a Jewish former tax collector and Luke was a Gentile doctor. The entrance of Jesus into the world brought them together.
Next, we move onto the continent where the first Christmas took place. Continent? Try continents. At the center of everything is a Jewish baby born in the tiny nation where Europe, Asia, and Africa come together. A European emperor calls a census which requires each man to return to his birthplace.
Where Christmas originated: Asia, Africa, and Europe have indispensable parts to play in the Christmas story.
A Middle Eastern couple, with the wife pregnant, travels to the husband’s hometown. After the baby is born, he is visited by shepherds from the Israelite countryside. Later, by magi likely from the courts of Iran. The local king, threatened by news that the child is a rival king, sends soldiers to find and destroy the child. The couple flees to Egypt in Africa to wait until it’s safe to return home. Asia, Africa, and Europe have indispensable parts to play in the Christmas story.
Where Christmas Originated: The Traditions
Christmas continues to bring the nations and ethnicities together in our Christmas traditions. Wreaths as adornment take us back to ancient Persia, Egypt, and Greece. The advent calendar was invented by German Lutherans. The Christmas tree custom developed in the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia, as well as German Protestant homes. Our traditional Christmas flower, the poinsettia, originally came from Mexico and Central America. Christmas cards came from England, and Christmas cookies came from The Netherlands.
Interestingly, candy canes were invented in Protestant Germany to keep kids quiet during live nativity scenes (which were invented by an Italian Catholic). To justify giving candy to kids during church, they made the “sugar stick” with a curve at the top and used the shape to teach kids about the shepherds.
Where Christmas originated: We may sing our Christmas carols in English, but our songs echo down to us in multiple languages.
We may sing our Christmas carols in English, but our songs echo down to us in multiple languages. “Silent Night” comes from a small town in Austria.” “O Holy Night” was first a French poem. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is an African-American spiritual. The music for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by a Jewish German Reformed Christian. Its lyrics were written by a couple of British Methodists.
To the north/south/east/west directions from which Christmas comes at us, we can also add “up” and “down.” Some Christmassy things originated in the sky: the original star (which we put on the tree) and singing (which we get from the angels’ original proclamations of Jesus’ birth). Other things originated much closer to the earth: like the feeding trough at the centerpiece of our nativities, or the barnyard animals that circle around it.
Christmas continues to be where heaven meets earth, continent meets continent, and even where historic enemies meet and become brothers and sisters. Christmas continues to be “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Christmas continues to be “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
And since you’re already celebrating this multiethnic mosaic called Christmas, then wouldn’t it be a fitting opportunity to get together with somebody who doesn’t look much like you? Let this Christmas be a time for becoming closer friends, drawn together by the birth of the only one ever born King of the globe.