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Christmas & Christmas Traditions

Updated on August 17, 2015

The Christian festival of Christmas, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, is an international holiday observed annually on 25 December.

All but one of the Christian Churches celebrate on this date, the exception being the Armenian Church which observes 6 January, also known as Epiphany, as Christmas Day.

Christmas as we know it is a rich mixture of revelry, festivals and solemn rite drawn from cultures and religion as early as the Celtic Druids and the ancient Romans. Some practices, such as the modern image of Santa Claus, have been developed only during the past 200 years.

Nevertheless, Christmas continues to entrance children and adults alike, uniting the world in a festive spirit.

Photo by Robert Linder

Origins

The name 'Christmas' comes from the Old English Christes Maesse, first used in around the twelfth century. In Germany the festival is known as Weihnacht (Holy Night), while in many countries, the name has developed from the Latin Dies natalis Domini, and in France as Noel.

The actual Christmas holiday is uncertain in its beginnings, although it is known that the early Christian Church chose the date to correspond with pagan festivals of the winter solstice. North European tribes, including the Germanic people, celebrated the rebirth of the Sun as the giver of light and life on 25 December. The Roman Saturnalia, dedicated to the god Saturn, was also held in this period. With the rise to power of the Christian Church Christ was portrayed as the giver of light in order to ease the transition between pagan and Christian beliefs. In Norse custom there was a legend that the gods of Asgard walked the Earth from 25 December to 6 January.

The Egyptians were known to hold a religious commemoration of Christ's birth in about AD 200 but the Church of Rome did not set the 25 December date until the mid fourth century. Many Christians denied celebration and kept this date as a purely solemn occasion.

In England the season was usually devoted to banquets and frivolity but in 1642 the Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned such festive activities as anti-religious.

The Puritans brought this stern attitude to the American colonies where Christmas was not a legal holiday until 1856.

General Customs

The Christmas tree is generally thought to have originated from the pagan worship of the evergreen tree as a symbol of everlasting life. Martin Luther, the German religious reformer, is credited with beginning the fashion of decorated evergreens in the home in the early sixteenth century. From Germany the custom spread to Europe and was introduced to England by Prince Albert of Saxony, husband of Queen Victoria in 1841. Mistletoe was highly valued by the Celtic Druids who ascribed to it magical powers. The Romans regarded mistletoe as a symbol of peace and the tradition was that a truce would be declared whenever enemies met under it. From this comes our present custom of kissing under the mistletoe. Candles as decoration may come from the Jewish feast of the Hanukkah, where the custom is that a candle be placed on a laurel wreath.

Christmas carols originated in the solemn hymns of the early Christian Church. The earliest known carol is Jesus refulsit omnium (Jesus, Light of all nations), written by St Hilary of Poi tiers in the fourth century. More jovial carols were first introduced to Italy by St Francis of Assisi, who is also credited with introducing the nativity scene at the manger. The earliest custom of giving presents at Christmas comes from the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Strenae were good luck gifts of pastry or gold that Romans gave to their friends on New Year's Day. Strenae also referred to the contribution boxes hung in churches, which would be distributed among the poor and needy on the day after the principal feast (this day eventually coming to be called Boxing Day). In Germany they are known as Christbundles and in Spain they are received on Epiphany.

Santa Claus is a character based upon St Nicholas, a fourth century bishop of Asia Minor. His feast day on 6 December was a time for giving presents, a custom that spread throughout Europe, being taken to the American colonies by the Dutch. The English adapted the Dutch name Sinter Klaas, gradually associating him with the spirit of the festive season. The image of Santa Claus as a large, jolly, old man was made famous in American literature in 1822, when Clement Moore composed A Visit from St Nicholas, containing the well known line:' 'Twas the night before Christmas'.

Today the image of Santa Claus delivering presents on Christmas Eve is as much a part of the season as the Christ child in the manger.

National Customs

Many countries still retain traditional customs. For example, in Central America children play a game in which a clay jug, the pinata, is filled with sweets and gifts and then hung from the ceiling. Each child who breaks the jug is the Christmas hero and the gifts are shared among all.

Italian children receive a visit from La Befena, a female Santa Claus. Dutch children are entertained by Sint Nikolaas and his small companion Black Peter. Wooden shoes called sabots are filled with straw especially for Santa's horse

What is your special Christmas tradition?

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