It would be easy enough to imagine Christmas as a simple continuum of tradition dating from the birth of Christ. You'd begin with the nativity story, apply the December 25th date to Jesus' birth, establish the gift-giving precedent of the magi and work from there. Over the centuries, classic Christmas traditions would accumulate: perhaps beginning with the yule log, followed by the Christmas tree and finally winding up in the present day with giant inflatable snowmen and icicle lights.
The history of Christmas, however, is hardly a continuum. It is a varied and riotous story, one that actually predates the birth of Christ. Early Europeans marked the year's longest night -- the winter solstice -- as the beginning of longer days and the rebirth of the sun. They slaughtered livestock that could not be kept through the winter and feasted from late December through January. German pagans honored Oden, a frightening god who flew over settlements at night, blessing some people and cursing others. The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated yuletide, and each family burnt a giant log and feasted until it turned to ash.
Christmas traditions have a way of feeling timeless -- you may have seen the same ornaments, sung the same songs and eaten the same foods for your whole life. Some Christmas traditions are, in fact, ancient. They have pre-Christian roots and originate from pagan winter-solstice celebrations or Roman festivals. Other traditions are relatively modern--either rescued from oblivion or conjured up in the surprisingly recent past. Some significant holiday traditions include decorations, activities and food.