Few holidays aside from Christmas have the distinction of the long history and worldwide spread that this midwinter holiday enjoys. With its modern history going back over 2,000 years to the birth of Christ, and aspects of the holiday having an ancient history as a winter celebration going back even further, Christmas is easily the oldest holiday in the world.
Many of the traditions we now observe had their roots in the ancient world. Empires such as Rome, Persia, and Mesopotamia celebrated their own versions of the winter solstice, as well as European civilizations such as the German and Norse tribes to the north. All had some sort of festival in honor of their respective gods. The Norse celebrated the return of the sun with a Yule log, which the men would bring home to burn. Sometimes the huge logs would last for over a week, fostering the familiar "12 Days of Christmas." Each spark was representative of a new calf or pig that they would be blessed with that year.
Christmas as we now recognize it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. According to the Biblical account, Mary became pregnant by the Holy Ghost and gave birth to her son in Bethlehem, His birth heralded by angels and recognized by kings. This miraculous event is what is now celebrated by many people throughout the world.
In the early years of Christianity, the pagan traditions were looked upon with disgust and horror. The early Church fought desperately to exclude the customs of Saturnalia and other pagan rituals from coming into the church and was alarmed as their converts continued to practice such customs. Finally, they attempted a different tactic, changing the usual pagan practices and giving them Christian meanings, and so adopting the heathen holidays and morphing them with Christian observances.
This practice was widely debated over the years to come, as different religious sects continued to reject the entire idea of celebration during the Christmas week, instead observing the practice of solemnity and reverence. Puritans especially disdained the celebration and frivolity which took place during the Yuletide festivals. They erected laws forbidding the hanging of decorations or any festive gatherings on that day, other than a church service, on penalty of a stiff fine. This practice continued to be followed throughout early American history until the early nineteen hundreds, when the influx of European immigrants finally overwhelmed the old Puritan customs. Today it is a joyous celebration remembering the Christ child.