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Left Book How Christmas Works
by Brain, Marshall
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Let's say that on December 20 you were to meet a friendly space alien. That is, let's say that his space ship discreetly drops him off in your back yard while you are looking out your window. You walk outside to meet the visitor, and you find out he's a pretty nice guy. His name is Gorg, he is wearing a costume that makes him look passably human, he speaks reasonable English, and he explains that his goal is to spend a week on the planet to learn about its people. He asks if you would consider being his guide for the week, and you decide to take on the job.

So you take Gorg around and start showing him your town. Since it is December 20, one thing is for sure -- Gorg is going to ask about Christmas. And he is going to ask a LOT of questions, because Christmas is a pretty complicated tradition. Think about all the different questions Gorg might ask:

What is Christmas?
Why is Christmas such a big deal?
Why do people give each other presents on Christmas day?
Is December 25 really the day Jesus was born?
Why is there a small evergreen tree in your living room?
Why have you decorated this evergreen with ornaments, lights, fake snow and Mylar plastic tinsel?
Why do you have holly draped over the mantel and staircase?
Why is mistletoe hanging over the front door?
And what about this nativity scene in the corner?
Why is there a big log in the fireplace?
Why are there poinsettias on the hearth?
And what about these fruit cakes?
Why are there oversized socks hanging on your mantel?
Why are Christmas cards scattered all over the coffee table?
Why do I keep hearing the same songs over and over again?
What, exactly, are the 12 days of Christmas?
Why do Christmas carolers walk around the neighborhood singing?
Why is the day before Christmas, Christmas Eve, celebrated?
Who is this Santa Claus person?
What's with this reindeer named Rudolf?
Why do so many people, even Floridians, dream of a white Christmas?
Why is Christmas sometimes spelled Xmas?
Why are stores and malls so geared up about this holiday?

If Gorg can assimilate all of that and make sense of it in a week, then obviously he is a member of a highly advanced species! You may find that you yourself don't know the answers to half of these questions. Where DID Rudolf come from? And why DO we deck the halls with boughs of holly?


Holly is a common Christmas symbol -- but why?
In this article, we will answer all of these questions so that you can understand how Christmas works and where all of these Christmas traditions come from!


What is Christmas?

The word Christmas comes from the words Cristes maesse, or "Christ's Mass." Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus for members of the Christian religion. Most historians peg the first celebration of Christmas to Rome in 336 A.D.

Christmas is both a holiday and a holy day. In America it is one of the biggest event of the year (especially for kids), and for members of the Christian religions it is an important day on the religious calendar.

During the Christmas season in America, many people take their children to a mall where they can "meet Santa."

The federal government, all state governments, all schools/colleges/universities and the vast majority of businesses in America give employees one or two days off at Christmas, making it an important holiday (other federal holidays are: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving). In the Roman Catholic calendar, Christmas is one of six holy feast days celebrated in America, the others being: Circumcision (New Year's Day), Ascension, Assumption (Mary's assumption into heaven, August 15), All Saints (November 1), and the Immaculate Conception (December 8).


Why is Christmas such a big deal?

There are two reasons why Christmas is such a big deal:

According to the 1994 "Britannica Book of the Year," there are 1.8 billion Christians in a total world population of 5.5 billion, making it the largest religion worldwide. In America, 241 million out of a total population of 281 million people are Christians -- that's 85 percent. Because Christians follow Jesus, the birth of Jesus is important to them.

In America, the weeks leading up to Christmas are the biggest shopping weeks of the year. Many retailers make up to 70 percent of their annual revenue in the month preceding Christmas. Therefore, retailers hype the event beyond belief.

The image of Santa is a familiar Christmas sight.

According to Daniel Boorstin in his book "The Americans," Christmas was largely a non-event in America until the 1860s. 1867 was the first year that Macy's department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve. 1874 was the year of the first window displays with a Christmas theme at Macy's. It has snowballed from there.


Why do people give each other presents on Christmas day?

The tradition of gifts seems to have started with the gifts that the wise men (the Magi) brought to Jesus. As recounted in the Bible's book of Matthew, "On coming to the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh."

As mentioned in the previous question, however, no one was really in the habit of exchanging elaborate gifts until late in the 1800s. The Santa Claus story (described later), combined with an amazing retailing phenomenon that has grown since the turn of the century, has made gift giving a central focus of the Christmas tradition.


Is December 25 really the day Jesus was born?

No one really knows. What is known is that Christian leaders in 336 A.D. set the date to December 25 in an attempt to eclipse a popular pagan holiday in Rome (Saturnalia) that celebrated the winter solstice. Originally, the celebration of Christmas involved a simple mass, but over time Christmas has replaced a number of other holidays in many other countries, and a large number of traditions have been absorbed into the celebration in the process (as we will see in later sections).


Why is there a small evergreen tree in the living room?

This is a German tradition, started as early as 700 A.D. In the 1800s the tradition of a Christmas tree was widespread in Germany, then moved to England and then to America through Pennsylvanian German immigrants.


Why is this evergreen decorated?
...with ornaments, lights, fake snow and Mylar plastic tinsel?


In Victorian times, people had already started decorating trees with candies and cakes hung with ribbon. In 1880, Woolworths first sold manufactured Christmas tree ornaments, and they caught on very quickly. Martin Luther, in the 16th century, is credited as being the first person to put candles on a tree, and the first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared in 1882. Calvin Coolidge in 1923 ceremoniously lit the first outdoor tree at the White House, starting that long tradition. Fake snow and tinsel... Who knows? It's probably related to the song "White Christmas" (we'll get to that soon).


Why do you have holly draped over the mantel and staircase?

Mistletoe has apparently been used as a decoration in houses for thousands of years and is also associated with many pagan rituals.

According to the book "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things," by Charles Panati:

The church forbade the use of mistletoe in any form, mindful of its idolatrous associations. As a substitute, it suggested holly. The sharply pointed leaves were to symbolize the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of his blood. Holly became a nativity tradition. The Christian ban on mistletoe was in effect throughout the Middle Ages. Surprisingly, as late as the 20th century, there were churches in England that forbade the wearing of mistletoe sprigs and corsages during services.


Why is mistletoe hanging over the front door?

For Scandinavians, the goddess of love (Frigga) is strongly associated with mistletoe. This link to romance may be where our tradition of kissing under mistletoe comes from.


And what about this nativity scene in the corner?

The star, the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, the angels, the heavenly host and the wise men all come from the books Matthew and Luke in the Bible.


Why is there a big log in the fireplace?

According to the "Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins," by William and Mary Morris:

"Yuletide" for "Christmastime" is a term derived from the yule log, which in olden days was a huge log used as the foundation of the holiday fires. Bringing the yule log in was, as recently as the 19th century, as much a part of the pre-Christmas festivities as putting up an evergreen tree today. "Yule" can be traced back to the Middle English "Yollen" (cry aloud) and is thought to date from early Anglo-Saxon revels in celebration of the discovery (after the winter solstice) that nights were becoming shorter.

The "yule log" is often placed in or near the fireplace.

Up until the 19th century, the custom of burning the Yule log flourished in England, France, Germany and among the South Slavs. Out of oak, families carved a heavy, wood block. They placed it into the floor of their hearth. It glowed throughout the year under the flames of household fires. Gradually it became ash.


Why are there poinsettias on the hearth?

Poinsettias were attached to Christmas starting in 1828.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, then the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, imported the plant from Mexico. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

In warm climates, the poinsettia grows outdoors as a winter-flowering leggy shrub about 3 metres (10 feet) high; as a potted plant in northern areas it rarely grows beyond 1 metre. What appear to be petals are actually coloured leaflike bracts that surround a central cluster of tiny yellow flowers. A milky latex in the stems and leaves can be irritating to persons or animals sensitive to it, but the claim that poinsettias are deadly poisonous is greatly exaggerated.
("Poinsettia," Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.)


And what about these fruitcakes?

According to "The Joy of Cooking," by Irma Rombauer and Marion Becker, "Many people feel that these cakes improve greatly with age. When they are well saturated with alcoholic liquors, which raise the spirits and keep down mold, and are buried in powdered sugar in tightly closed tins, they have been enjoyed as long as 25 years after baking."

No word yet on how they got attached to Christmas...


Why are there oversized socks hanging on your mantel?

According to a very old tradition, the original Saint Nicholas (see the section on Santa) left his very first gifts of gold coins in the stockings of three poor girls who needed the money for their wedding dowries. The girls had hung their stockings by the fire to dry. See this page for a version of this story.

Up until lately, it was traditional to receive small items like fruit, nuts and candy in your stocking, but these have been replaced in the last half-century by more expensive gifts in many homes.

The tradition of a lump of coal in the stockings of naughty children comes from Italy.


Why are Christmas cards scattered all over the coffee table?

Christmas cards started in London in 1843 and in America in 1846.

Lots of people send out holiday greeting cards to friends and family at Christmas time.

Today, about two billion Christmas cards are exchanged every year in the United States.


Why do I keep hearing the same songs over and over again?

There is a set of songs that are played continuously during the Christmas season. Here's a pretty complete list:

Away In A Manger
Carol Of The Bells
Deck The Halls
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Jingle Bells
Joy To The World
Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
I'll Be Home For Christmas
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Little Drummer Boy
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Holy Night
O, Little Town of Bethlehem
O Tannenbaum
Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Silent Night
Silver Bells
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
The First Noel
The Twelve Days of Christmas
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
What Child Is This?
White Christmas
Winter Wonderland

Since this list is relatively short, you tend to hear each song about 700 times over the course of the few weeks leading up to Christmas.


What, exactly, are the 12 days of Christmas?

The 12 days of Christmas are the 12 days that separate Christmas day on December 25 from Epiphany, which is celebrated January 6. Depending on the church, January 6 may mark Christ's baptism (the Catholic tradition), or it may mark the day that the wise men visited the baby Jesus with their gifts.

In the past, there was a tradition of giving gifts throughout the 12 days, rather than stacking them all up on the morning of December 25. That tradition, as you might imagine, has never really caught on in America! We just aren't that patient. The song, however, demonstrates that some people once stretched out their gifts (and gave some fairly elaborate gifts...) over the full 12 days.

Drennon's Twelve Days of Christmas offers some interesting perspectives on the 12 days of Christmas and the song of that same title.


Why do Christmas carolers walk around the neighborhood singing?

In the Middle Ages in England and France, carols were dances accompanied by singing. In the French Midi, for example, the "carol" was a kind of round dance. In time, the word "carol" changed its meaning, referring only to certain kinds of songs. The Anglo-Saxon tradition favoured gathering together small choirs on the village green to sing carols and Christmas songs for the pleasure of passers-by. A number of currently very popular American Christmas carols come directly from France and England.


Why is the day before Christmas, Christmas Eve, celebrated?

Christmas Eve is a big deal for religious reasons, such as the midnight mass, and also for retail reasons. 1867 was the first year that Macy's department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve.

A HowStuffWorks reader was also kind enough to point out the following: "All Jewish holidays start at sundown the evening before (not at calendar midnight). Our holidays start with ceremony the evening before: rituals, candle-lighting, whatever... at sundown and they last until the following sundown, and then they're over."


Who is this Santa Claus person?

Why is Santa characterized as a short, fat and jolly pipe smoker?
Why does Santa wear such outlandish clothes?
Why does he ride around in a sleigh? Pulled by reindeer? That lands on rooftops? So he can climb down the chimney? With a big sack full of toys? Which he leaves under the tree for good girls and boys?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Santa Claus started with a real person, Saint Nicholas, a minor saint from the fourth century:

According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and, when young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and attended the first Council (325) of Nicaea. After his death he was buried in his church at Myra, and by the sixth century his shrine there had become well known. In 1087, Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly increased the saint's popularity in Europe, and Bari became one of the most crowded of all pilgrimage centres. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola, Bari.

Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was reputed to have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution, and he restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a brine tub. In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, Switz., and Moscow. Thousands of European churches were dedicated to him, one as early as the sixth century, built by the Roman emperor Justinian I, at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Nicholas' miracles were a favourite subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays, and his traditional feast day was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread European custom in which a boy was elected bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).

After the Reformation, Nicholas' cult disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country's English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents.

("Nicholas, SAINT", Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.)

It is amazing but true that the common, popular view of Santa that we all have today, along with all the crazy things around Santa like the sleigh, the reindeer and the chimney, all came largely from two publishing events that occurred in the 1800s and one advertising campaign in this century. Clement Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas" in 1822 for his family. It was picked up by a newspaper, then reprinted in magazines and it spread like wildfire. Moore admitted authorship in 1838. If you read the poem you will find that he names the reindeer, invents the sleigh, comes up with the chimney and the bag of toys, etc. Nearly everyone in America has been able to recognize or recite this poem since the 1830s.

Then, between 1863 and 1886, Harper's Weekly (a popular magazine of the time) ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images come the concepts of Santa's workshop, Santa reading letters, Santa checking his list and so on. Coca-Cola also played a role in the Santa image by running a set of paintings by Haddon Sundblom in its ads between 1931 to 1964.

The red and white suit came, actually, from the original Saint Nicholas. Those colors were the colors of the traditional bishop's robes.


Who is this reindeer named Rudolf?

...who guides Santa's sleigh with the biological aberration of a red, glowing nose capable of penetrating thick fog?

The whole story of Rudolf appeared, out of nowhere, in 1939. Santas at Montgomery Ward stores gave away 2.4 million copies of a booklet entitled "Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer." The story was written by a person in the advertising department named Robert May, and the booklet was illustrated by Denver Gillen. The original name of the reindeer was not Rudolf, according to the book "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things," by Charles Panati. The original name was Rollo, but executives did not like that name, nor Reginald. The name Rudolf came from the author's young daughter! In 1949, Gene Autry sang a musical version of the poem and it was a run-away best-seller. The Rudolf song is second only to "White Christmas" in popularity.


Why do so many people, even Floridians, dream of a white Christmas?

The song "(I'm Dreaming of a) White Christmas," written by Irving Berlin for the movie "Holiday Inn" (1942) and sung by Bing Crosby, is one of the best-selling songs of all time.


Why is Christmas sometimes spelled Xmas?
...especially when combined with the word "sale"?


According to the book Did you ever Wonder... by Jeff Rovin, the word for Christ in Greek is Xristos. The use of the shortened form "Xmas" became popular in Europe in the 1500s.

The word Xmas is so common in advertising most likely because "Xmas" and "sale" have the same number of letters, and "Xmas" is significantly shorter than Christmas.


Why are stores and malls so geared up about this holiday?

Why does every mall have a Santa village, and why do kids come sit on Santa's knee?

As mentioned previously, stores and malls have been revved up about Christmas since the late 1800s. In America today, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are, by far, the biggest retail sales weeks of the year. The survival of most retail stores depends on the Christmas buying season. Therefore, retailers do whatever they can to whip people into a Christmas buying spirit and to attract them to their stores. Festive decorations, big ads, Santa's Villages and all the rest are a part of that process.



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The orginal HowStuffWorks article can be found here http://www.howstuffworks.com/christmas.htm/printable



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