People from around the world have been observing Christmas traditions and practices for over 2,000 years. Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus of Nazareth was a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of the Christianity. Popular Christmas traditions include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. Christmas Day has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
The Origin of Christmas
The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world.
Long before the birth of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them, and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
The end of December was the best time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter.
For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready to drink.
In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during a middle of the winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful, and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, enslaved people were given temporary freedom and treated as equals. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could participate in the holiday’s festivities.
Around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year.
Is Christmas Really the Day Jesus Was Born?
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday. The birth of Jesus was not celebrated. The Bible does not mention the date for his birth. Pope Julius I chose December 25th. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.
By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated in a carnival-like atmosphere like today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined debt to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens.
When Christmas Was Cancelled
In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26th, 1870.
Best Selling Author Washington Irving Brings Back the Christmas Holiday in America
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas and changed it from a rowdy carnival type of holiday into a more family oriented day of customs and traditions.
During the early 19th century there was a period of class conflict and turmoil. Unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain member of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, kind-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book however was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended; in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually invented tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.
The Origin of Christmas Carols
Also, around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message of charity and good will towards all humankind-struck a powerful chord in the United States and England and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday.
The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish gifts on their children without appearing to spoil them.
As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a family holiday, where traditional customs were celebrated. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift giving.
Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
The Origin of Santa Claus
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas who was born in Turkey around 280 A.D. St. Nicholas gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors.
In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by its first line: “T’was The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys.
The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was commemorated in 1881, when a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast drew on Clark Moore’s poem, creating the image of Santa Clause as we know him today.
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