||History of Christmas
The word comes from the Old English term Cristes maesse, meaning "Christ's mass." This was the name for the festival service of worship held on December 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus. Although it is accepted that Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem a few miles south of Jerusalem, there is no certain information on the date of His birth, not even of the year (see Jesus Christ). One reason for this uncertainty is that the stories of His birth, recorded in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, were written several decades after the event, and those who wrote of it gave no specific dates for it.
For several centuries the Christian church itself paid little attention to the celebration of Jesus' birth. The major Christian festival was Easter, the day of His Resurrection. Only gradually, as the church developed a calendar to commemorate the major events of the life of Jesus, did it celebrate His birth.
Because there was no knowledge about the date of Jesus' birth, a day had to be selected. The Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Rite churches within the Roman Catholic church chose January 6. The day was named Epiphany, meaning "appearance," the day of Jesus' manifestation. The Western church, based in Rome, chose December 25. It is known from a notice in an ancient Roman almanac that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome as early as AD 336.
In the latter half of the 4th century, the Eastern and Western churches adopted each other's festivals, thus establishing the modern Christian 12-day celebration from Christmas to Epiphany. In some places the 12th day is called the festival of the three kings because it is believed that the three wise men, or magi, visited the infant Jesus on that day, bringing Him gifts.
Today Christmas is more than a one-day celebration or a 12-day festival. In the United States the holiday season begins on Thanksgiving Day and ends on January 1. Sweden starts its celebration on December 13, St. Lucia Day, with a special family breakfast served by the oldest daughter. Community gatherings later in the day feature parades and songs of praise. Festivities in all countries do not go past January 6, Epiphany.
The reason for this extended holiday period is that Christmas is no longer only a religious festival. It is also the most popular holiday period for everyone in countries where Christianity has become the dominant religion. Even in Japan, where Christianity is a minority religion, Christmas has become a festive, gift-giving holiday time.
Customs and Traditions
People who live in the cold winter climates of North America and Europe look forward to a "white Christmas," because snow is one of the features associated with the holiday season. Christmas, however, is also celebrated in countries in the Southern Hemisphere, including South America, Australia, and New Zealand--places where it is summer at Christmastime--and also in places with year-round warm climates. Each place where the holiday is celebrated has developed its own attitudes toward the occasion and has created customs that try in many ways to express the meaning of the day. In Brazil, for example, some churches set up a colorful altar and hold midnight Mass outside.
Over the centuries a significant number of customs and traditional observances have emerged to make the Christmas season one of the most colorful and festive times of the year. Probably the most universal custom is gift giving, frequently associated with the person of Santa Claus (see Santa Claus). Other customs have to do with decorations (including evergreen trees, lights, wreaths, and holly), the sending of cards, good and plentiful food and drink, and the singing of carols and other songs.
Gift giving is one of the oldest customs associated with Christmas: it is actually older than the holiday itself. When the date of Christmas was set to fall in December, it was done at least in part to compete with ancient pagan festivals that occurred about the same time. The Romans, for example, celebrated the Saturnalia on December 17. It was a winter feast of merrymaking and gift exchanging. Two weeks later, on the Roman New Year--January 1--houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. As the Germanic tribes of Europe accepted Christianity and began to celebrate Christmas, they also gave gifts.
Traditionally, in some countries, such as Italy and Spain, children do not receive gifts until January 5, the eve of Epiphany. According to Italian folklore, an old woman named Befana goes down chimneys and delivers presents to children on that night, just as the three wise men brought gifts to the infant Jesus. In Spain, children leave their shoes outside filled with straw and barley for the magi's animals and hope that presents will be left by the wise man Balthazar.
In several Northern European nations gifts are given on December 6, which is the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Legend holds that the kindly man leaves gifts for those who have been good.
Boxing Day, celebrated on December 26 or the first weekday following Christmas, is a legal holiday in Canada, Great Britain, and some other countries. Its name probably comes from the old custom of giving boxes of gifts on this day to people who render services to the public, such as mail carriers. It is also the day on which churches open the boxes of money and goods for the poor donated by parishioners.
The exchange of gifts has remained a central feature of the holiday season the world over. It has become so significant that most merchants count on making a very large proportion of their annual sales during the period from late November to December 24. So important has the Christmas selling period become that many stores fail to show a profit at the end of the year if Christmas sales are low.
Trees and decorations. Ancient, pre-Christian winter festivals used greenery, lights, and fires to symbolize life and warmth in the midst of winter's cold and darkness. These usages, like gift giving, have persisted. The most splendid symbol of a modern Christmas is the brilliantly decorated evergreen tree with strings of multicolored lights.
The use of evergreens and wreaths as symbols of life was an ancient custom of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews, among other peoples. Tree veneration was a common feature of religion among the Teutonic and Scandinavian peoples of Northern Europe before their conversion to Christianity. They decorated houses and barns with evergreens at the turn of the new year to scare away demons, and they often set up trees for the birds in winter. For these Northern Europeans, this winter celebration was the happiest time of the year because it signified that the shortest day of the year--occurring on about December 21--had passed. They knew the days would start to get longer and brighter. The month during which this festival took place was named Jol, from which the word yule is derived. The word yule has come to mean Christmas in some countries.
The modern Christmas tree seems to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. A main prop in a medieval play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples. Called the "Paradise tree," it represented the Garden of Eden. German families set up a Paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. On it they hung wafers, symbolizing the bread distributed in churches at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, or communion. Because the Christmas holiday followed immediately, candles representing Jesus as the light of the world were often added to the tree. Eventually cookies and other sweets were hung instead of wafers.
In the same room as the tree, Germans kept a Christmas pyramid made of wood, with shelves to hold figurines. The pyramid was also decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the pyramid and the Paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree popular today.
The Christmas tree was introduced into England early in the 19th century, and it was popularized by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria. The trees were decorated with candles, candies, paper chains, and fancy cakes that were hung from the branches on ribbons.
German settlers brought the Christmas tree custom to the American Colonies in the 17th century. By the 19th century its use was quite widespread. Trees were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Holland. In China and Japan, Christian missionaries introduced Christmas trees in the 19th and 20th centuries. There they were decorated with intricately designed paper decorations.
The use of evergreens for wreaths and other decorations arose in Northern Europe. Italy, Spain, and some other nations use flowers instead. Holly, with its prickly leaves and red berries, came into holiday use because it reminded people of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion--the berries symbolizing droplets of blood.
The custom of hanging mistletoe during the Christmas season originated in England during the 18th century. It was once believed that a woman who was kissed by her suitor beneath this plant would marry the following year. In modern times, anyone caught standing underneath the mistletoe is subject to a friendly kiss.
Another plant often used for decoration during the holidays is the poinsettia. Mexican legend holds that these beautiful red flowers, thought to resemble the shape of the Star of Bethlehem, first grew miraculously for a poor child who wanted to bring a gift to the manger scene at the village church but did not have any money. Poinsettias were introduced to the United States in the early 19th century by Joel Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico.
Christmas cards. The first Christmas greeting card is believed to have been designed in England in 1843 by an artist named John C. Horsley for a friend, Sir Henry Cole. The design showed a family party, beneath which the words "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You" were inscribed. The practice of sending Christmas cards soon became popular in all English-speaking countries and is most widespread in the United States. The first Christmas postage stamp was issued in Denmark in 1904, and other countries later adopted the idea.
Food and drink. People throughout the world prepare special things to eat and drink during the holiday season. Meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day tend to be among the most elaborate of the year. People in English-speaking countries often roast turkey, goose, or beef, while fish is popular among many European cultures. Specialty breads, such as the Norwegian mashed-potato flat bread known as lefse, often accompany the main dish along with vegetables and other side dishes. Mincemeat pie and plum pudding are among the traditional desserts in Britain. In France, many make buche de Noel, a log-shaped sponge cake commonly topped with a sweet liqueur.
Many families enjoy gathering together to bake Christmas cookies. Anise-flavored cookies called pizzelle are traditional in Italy, while German households often make the sweet and spicy ginger biscuit known as Pfeffernuss. People in Mexico like to make bunuelos, fried tortillas covered with syrup and cinnamon sugar. Sugar cookies shaped like holiday symbols and decorated with frosting, sprinkles, or candy pieces are popular in the United States, where many children leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk as a snack for Santa Claus during his Christmas Eve visit.
Eggnog--a concoction of eggs, sugar, milk or cream, and sometimes liquor--is a drink frequently made at Christmastime. Hot, spicy punches such as glogg and wassail are common in Sweden and Britain, respectively.
Music. The range of Christmas music, both sacred and secular, is large--from the majestic oratorio 'Messiah' by George Frideric Handel to the lighthearted song 'Here Comes Santa Claus.' The most popular of nonreligious tunes is probably Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', written for the movie 'Holiday Inn', released in 1942.
The most traditional Christmas songs are carols. The word carol was associated with dance and the open air. It later came to mean simply a joyful religious song. In France the term is noel, and in Britain, nowell. Best known of modern carols is 'Silent Night, Holy Night', composed in Austria by Franz Gruber in the 19th century. Other popular carols include 'The First Nowell', 'Hark, the Herald Angels Sing', 'Away in a Manger', and 'O Little Town of Bethlehem'.
Manger scenes. A custom that originated in Southern Europe is the manger scene, often referred to by its French name, creche. This is a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, containing figures of Mary, Joseph, the Infant, shepherds, farm animals, and the three wise men and their gifts. Sometimes the wise men figurines are put off to the side and moved a bit closer each day after Christmas until they arrive at the scene on Epiphany.
The custom of recreating the Holy Night is said to have been started by St. Francis of Assisi. On a Christmas Eve in 1224 he is supposed to have set up a stable in a corner of a church in his native village with real persons and animals to represent those of the first Christmas.
Christmas in the Holy Land
Apart from the many ingredients that go into making the Christmas season a festive and happy time for people around the world, the day itself and the religious observances that highlight it remain the focal points. One of the most colorful and solemn celebrations of the holiday takes place in the village of Bethlehem. On Christmas Eve a long line of people winds through the narrow streets. At its head march church dignitaries, priests, and attendants, all in magnificent robes. They carry a tiny, gilded wicker cradle containing a wax image of the infant Jesus. At the old fortresslike Church of the Nativity they pause as the worshippers stoop to enter the low door into the sanctuary. The people gather in the Roman Catholic chapel of St. Catherine for the celebration of a midnight Mass. Pilgrims from all parts of the world participate. The ceremony ends when the patriarch of Jerusalem carries the image of the infant Jesus to the ornate glass and marble manger in the Grotto of the Nativity under the church.
Christmas in Art, Literature, and Film
Few themes have inspired so many great paintings, poems, and stories as the Christmas narrative and the ways in which it is commemorated. The manger scene has been the favorite subject of such master painters as Fra Angelico, Giotto, and Sandro Botticelli.
The religious theme inspired John Milton's poem 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity'. The Santa Claus story was put into verse in 1822 by an American, Clement Moore. Entitled 'A Visit from St. Nicholas', it is more commonly known by its first line, " 'Twas the night before Christmas."
The American short-story writer O. Henry (the pen name of William S. Porter) wrote a touching Christmas tale about a young husband and wife entitled "The Gift of the Magi." In a more humorous vein, the children's writer Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodore Seuss Geisel) wrote 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas'. The story was made into a animated motion picture and is usually televised in the United States every holiday season.
There is a story by the 19th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann entitled "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," which inspired a ballet, 'The Nutcracker', with music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. It is often performed during the Christmas season.
Of all the secular stories relating to Christmas, none is better known or more popular than Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. As a book, it has been read and reread by millions of people since its publication in 1843. It has also been turned into a drama performed on stage, radio, and television every year. The last name of its leading character, Ebenezer Scrooge, has come to stand for unloving, selfish, and miserly individuals. The ending of the story, after Scrooge has mended his ways, presents a meaningful combination of the religious and nonreligious themes of Christmas.
Perhaps the most famous film of the holiday season is Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946), a story about a small-town man who thinks himself a failure until his guardian angel appears on Christmas Eve to show him the value of his life. Another film frequently watched during the Christmas season is 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947), in which Santa Claus goes on trial to prove he is real.
Adams, Adrienne. The Christmas Party (Scribner, 1978). Anglund, J.W. A Christmas Book (Random, 1983). Baker, Betty. Santa Rat (Greenwillow, 1980). Barrett, John. Christmas Comes to Monster Mountain (Childrens, 1981). Bishop, C.H., ed. Happy Christmas: Tales for Boys and Girls (Ungar, 1956). Capote, Truman. A Christmas Memory (Children's Book, 1983). Carlson, A.L. The Mouse Family's Christmas (Karwyn, 1983). Carty, M.F. Christmas in Vermont: Three Stories (New England Press, 1983). Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol (Buccaneer, 1981). Fenner, P.R., ed. Keeping Christmas: Stories of the Joyous Season (Morrow, 1979). Gackenbach, Dick. Claude the Dog (Scholastic, 1976). Gammell, Stephen. Wake Up, Bear . . . It's Christmas! (Lothrop, 1981). Henry, O. Gift of the Magi (Bobbs, 1978). Johnson, L.S., ed. Christmas Stories Round The World (Rand, 1970). Jurie, Jeri. Bizzy Bubbles: Santa's Littlest Elf (Al Fresco, 1977). Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas (Random, 1984). Peet, Bill. Countdown to Christmas (Childrens, 1972). Schulz, C.M. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Random, 1977). Seuss, Dr. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Random, 1957). Wiseman, Bernard. Christmas with Morris and Boris (Little, 1983).
Barth, Edna. Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights: The Story of the Christmas Symbols (Houghton, 1981). Bohrs, M.A. Getting Ready for Christmas (Judson, 1976). Fowler, Virginie. Christmas Crafts & Customs Around The World (Simon & Schuster, 1988). Kennedy, Pamela. A Christmas Celebration: Traditions and Customs from Around the World (Ideals, 1992). Lee, Sharon. Joyous Days: A Collection of Advent and Christmas Activities (Winston Press, 1984). Naythons, Matthew. Christmas Around the World (Collins, 1996). Robbins, Maria, and Charlton, Jim. A Christmas Companion: Recipes, Traditions, and Customs from Around the World (Perigee, 1989) Slawter, Linda. Christmas Activity Book (Carson-Dellos, 1982). Wilson, R.B. Merry Christmas! Children at Christmastime Around the World (Putnam, 1983).
Berry, Linda. Christmas Plays for Older Children (Broadman, 1981). Kamerman, S.E., ed. Christmas Play Favorites for Young People (Plays, 1982). Lahr, G.L. Merry Holiday Plays (Vantage, 1979). Miller, S.W. Christmas Drama for Youth (Broadman, 1976).
If you suspect a misspelling, omission or other error in the above, please contact us describing the suspected error so that we can correct it.
If you're seeking help with locating a Holiday favorite, we invite you to join our Christmas Community Forums, where you can post a request for assistance in Christmas Stories, Poetry and Humor.
More resources can be found under Stories & Poetry and Humor in our Christmas Directory.
|Like this site? Share it.|