What is the Traditional Christmas?
Growing up in the United States I thought that the rest of the world celebrated Christmas the same way we do, but as I grew up I eventually realized that everyone, not just people in my own country but all over the world do have their own traditions. In 2010, I spent most of the year (July 2010-January 2011) in the United Kingdom. When I was there I learned that, even though many Americans are descended from the British, we both have our own traditions as well. When I started getting to know people from different cultures around the world, such as Germany, Finland and France; through Facebook and other social media, I also learned that they too have their own traditions. I will start this post sharing what many Americans do, for those that aren’t familiar with our traditions.
Traditions of the United States
In America, there are so many different cultures that have “come together” to make a culture full of different traditions, and these many traditions came from many different countries as well. Most people in the United States that celebrate Christmas, celebrate it on the 25th of December. The holiday is officially recognized as a federal holiday by the United States government and the holiday season begins around the end of November, with a major shopping kickoff being the day after Thanksgiving and known as Black Friday.
Many people put up decorations both inside and outside of their homes and businesses
. Decorations are hung and music is played in stores, sometimes extending into the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Many schools and work places are closed during the time of Christmas and New Year’s Day and the time off is usually spent with family. After Christmas people will return unwanted gifts to stores and also shop after-Christmas sales. Most decorations are taken down by New Years or Epiphany. Other observances that are considered part of the season, and potentially included in non-denominational greetings like “Happy Holidays” include: Hanukkah, Yule, Epiphany, Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice.
The inside and outside of homes are decorated during the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. There are Christmas tree farms in the United States and in Canada, where workers provide families with live trees for their homes, however, many people opt to have artificial trees, so that they do not have to deal with the mess of a live tree or having to care for it to keep it alive for the whole season. A Christmas tree is usually put up in the center of the home and then decorated with ornaments, tinsel, lights, and an angel or star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem on top.
Christmas Eve is popularly described as “the night before Christmas” which comes from the poem actually titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. St. Nicholas is better known as Santa Claus and is said to visit homes as children are sleeping from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Fireplaces in many homes have been replaced by electric fireplaces, but a yule log has remained a tradition. Christmas stockings are hung on the mantelpiece for Santa to fill with small gifts, known as stocking stuffers. It is traditional in America for children to leave out a glass of milk and a plate of Christmas cookies for Santa as well.
As for the presents that families exchange, they are wrapped and placed under the tree on Christmas Eve, including those to be given to pets. Friends tend to exchange their wrapped gifts and tell one another “Do not open before Christmas!”. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and occasionally guests from out of town are entertained in the home. Presents are most commonly opened on Christmas morning. Some families choose to open all, or some, of their presents on Christmas Eve and minor children usually open theirs on Christmas morning. Other people will follow a tradition of opening family-exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve night, followed by opening presents brought by Santa on Christmas morning. Children are normally allowed to play with their new toys and games afterwards.
Most Americans will then have a traditional Christmas dinner. This dinner usually consists of a ham, roast beef or Yorkshire puddings, as well as vegetables such as potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, and cranberry sauce. These are all served alongside tonics and sherries and a variety of sweet pastries and eggnog sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg. Certain dishes like casseroles and desserts are also prepared with family recipes that are usually kept a secret. At times, families also partake in religious traditions, such as the consumption of a Christmas wafer, which is familiar among Christian families of European ancestry. As snacks people will enjoy fruits, nuts, cheeses and chocolates.
Other traditions among Americans could include a special church service on the Sunday before Christmas. Some attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Candlelight services are also held earlier in the evening for families with children. A re-enactment of the Nativity of Jesus, called the Nativity play is yet another tradition.
Traditions of Great Britain
In the United Kingdom, decorations are put up in shops and town centers sometime in early November. Many towns and cities have a public event involving local or regional celebrities to mark the turning on of Christmas lights. Some towns in America have also started this tradition. Usually in America there is a Christmas parade, where the town’s holiday lights are turned on as fire and police departments drive down the road throwing candy to children and showing off their emergency vehicles and also bringing Santa Claus to children.
Decorations in homes in the United Kingdom are usually put up sometime in early December, traditionally including the family Christmas tree, cards, and lights. Every year, Norway will donate a giant Christmas tree to the capital of London as a sign of thanks for the country’s help during the Second World War. The tree is put on display in Trafalgar Square for all to see. Christmas carolers will sing around the tree on various evenings until Christmas Eve. Decorations are usually left up until the evening of January 5th, the night before Epiphany. It is actually considered to be bad luck to have decorations up after this date. In practice, many Christmas traditions, such as the playing of Christmas music, is largely stopped after Christmas Day.
Mince pies are traditionally sold during the festive season and are a popular food for the holiday. It is common in households for children and adults to put up an advent calendar in their home, which may either contain chocolates or Christmas scenes behind their doors.
A common feature of the season is the Nativity play, which is practiced in most primary and some secondary schools across the entire country. However, this is becoming a less common practice. Christmas pantomimes may be performed instead.
Midnight mass is also celebrated. Services take place in nearly all Church of England parishes on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is when presents are supposedly delivered in stockings and under the tree by Father Christmas, who had previously been something like the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol”, written in 1843. Father Christmas has now become mainly conflated with Santa Claus. The two names are now used interchangeably and are now equally known to the British people, but some distinctive features still remain. Many families will tell their children stories about Father Christmas and his reindeer. One tradition is to put out a plate of carrots for the reindeer and mince pies and sherry for Father Christmas, so as to help them on their way around the world.
The majority of families will open their presents on the morning of Christmas Day. The Royal family has come to be a notable exception of this tradition. They will open their presents on Christmas Eve, following the German tradition that was introduced to them by the Hanoverians. Queen Victoria, as a child, had made note of this tradition in her diary entry for Christmas Eve of 1832. The delighted thirteen-year-old would write:
“After dinner…we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room…There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees…”
Since the first commercial Christmas card was produced in London in 1843, cards have been sent in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Many will contain the English festive greeting “Merry Christmas”.
Christmas Day is a public holiday in the United Kingdom, and nearly the whole population has the day off to be with their family and friends to gather together for the traditional Christmas dinner. This dinner usually consists of a turkey, cranberries, brussel sprouts, parsnips, and roast potatoes; quite like a Sunday roast, followed by Christmas pudding. During the meal, Christmas crackers are pulled which contain toys, jokes and a paper hat.
The attendance at a Christmas Day church service has become less popular in modern times, with fewer than three million people now attending a Christmas Day Church of England service. Another tradition among many British families is watching the Queen’s Speech on television. This tradition can be important to some households on Christmas Day. Typically, the Queen’s Speech will average about seven million viewers, but is declining in its popularity, about two million will still listen to the monarch speak over the radio.
Boxing Day is also celebrated the day after Christmas Day. This is a tradition in the UK as well as in Canada, and is considered a bank holiday. If it falls on a weekend then a special Bank Holiday Monday will occur. Depending on the day of the week, it is often a day when football matches are played in the professional leagues and many people will go to watch their favorite team play.
Other traditions this time of year include carol singing. Many carols are sung by children on the doorsteps of families around town, as well as professional choirs. Christmas cards are also sent out, and in public there are decorations and lights in most shops, especially those in town centers, even in Indian and Chinese restaurants. Cathedrals and churches hold masses, with many going to midnight mass or a service on Christmas morning, as previously stated. Even though church attendance throughout the year has been falling over the decades, some who don’t go to church very often still think that it is important to go at Christmas, thus during this time of year Church attendance increases.
Most theaters have the tradition of putting on a Christmas pantomime for children. Pantomime stories traditionally are based on popular stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Aladdin”, rather than directly being concerned with Christmas, although there are sometimes a link. Television is widely watched around Christmas as many television channels consider Christmas the most important day of the year in terms of ratings. Public transportation and vital transport services are closed down on Christmas Day, and will remain closed to do essential maintenance work until the New Year. Christmas wind-down, as it is called, starts early, with the last trains running out of major cities as early as 19:00 (7:00pm) on the 24th of December. Bus, night bus and underground (subway) services are also unavailable from about 21:00 hours (9:00pm). Individual transport companies will start making an announcement from as early as October as to when their services will close. While one train operating company may choose to run no trains on Boxing Day, another may run a limited Saturday service but still close major stations.
In England, the telling of ghost stories is a centuries-old tradition. Stories will include local legends or other strange, bizarre, and fantastic “winter stories”. William Shakespeare had contributed to these stories with “The Winter’s Tale” in 1623, but this was well known even before his time. This tradition is usually held by Ireland, Scotland and the United States during Halloween instead.
In Scotland, Christmas was traditionally observed very quietly. This was due to the Church of Scotland; the Presbyterian Church, never placing much emphasis on the Christmas festival. However, in Catholic areas, people would attend Midnight Mass or early morning Mass before they headed off to work. This tradition derives from the Church of Scotland’s origins including St. Columba’s monastic tradition, which says that every day is God’s day and there’s none more special than another. The Kirk and State were closely linked in Scotland during the Late Middle Ages and even in the Early Modern period.
Christmas Day was commonly a normal working day until the 1960s and even into the 1970s in some areas. The New Year’s Eve festivity, Hogmanay, was by far the largest celebration in Scotland. Gift-giving, public holidays and feasting that are associated with mid-winter were traditionally held between the 11th of December and the 6th of January. However, since the 1980s, fading of the Church’s influence and increased influences from the rest of the United Kingdom and elsewhere, have led to Christmas and related festivities now nearly on par with Hogmanay and “Ne’erday”.
The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, now has a traditional German Christmas market that occurs from late November to Christmas Eve and on the first Sunday in Advent. A nativity scene is blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop in the main square during this time. Christmas Day for some means bonfires and dances around them with the playing of bagpipes. Bannock cakes, which are made from oatmeal, are traditionally eaten at Christmas time.
Traditions of Ireland
In Ireland, Christmas is the largest celebration on the calendar. The holiday season lasts from the 24th of December until the 6th of January, although many view the 8th of December as being the start of the season. Schools used to close on this day, making a traditional Christmas shopping time, but this no longer is compulsory and many stay open.
Almost the entire workforce is finished on Christmas Eve, or often a few days beforehand. Both Christmas Day and St. Stephen’s Day are public holidays and many don’t return to work until after New Year’s Day. The Irish spend more and more money every year on the celebration of Christmas. In 2006, the total amount spent in Ireland to celebrate was sixteen billion Euros, averaging about 4,000 Euros for every single person in the country.
It’s extremely popular on Christmas Eve to go for “the Christmas drink” in one’s local pub, where regular punters are usually offered a Christmas drink. Many neighbors and friends will attend each other’s houses, drink and pastries are served on the days leading up to and after Christmas Day. Although religious devotion in Ireland today is considerably less than it used to be, as it is in other countries, there are huge attendances at religious services, with Midnight Mass being a popular choice. Most families will arrange for deceased relatives to be prayed for at these Masses, as it is a time for remembering the dead in Ireland. The decorating of graves with a wreath made of holly and ivy is done at this time as well.
Even in most undevout homes in the country, a traditional crib takes center stage along a Christmas tree as part of the family’s decorations. Some will light candles signifying the symbolic hospitality for Mary and Joseph, therefore, it is not unusual to see white candles or candle sets placed in several windows around homes. The candle is a way of saying there was room for Jesus’ parents in these homes, even if there was none in Bethlehem.
Traditionally, the Irish will leave a mince pie and bottle or glass of Guinness for Santa along with a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve. Santa is often known to the Irish simply as Santy or Daidi na Nollag in the Irish language. He brings presents to children and those presents are opened on Christmas morning. Family and friends will also give each other gifts at Christmas. The traditional Christmas dinner consists of a turkey or goose and ham, with a selection of vegetables and variety of potatoes, as potatoes still act as a staple food in Ireland, despite the popularization of staples such as rice and pasta. Dessert is consists of a very rich selection of Christmas pudding, Christmas cake or mince pies, with equally rich sauces, such as brandy butter.
Irish celebrations finish with the celebration of Little Christmas, also known as Oiche Nollaig na mBan in Irish. This is on the 6th of January and the festival coincides with Epiphany, also known as Women’s Christmas in Cork and Kerry.
Traditions of Nigeria
Christmas Day in Nigeria is a public holiday. It is always marked by the emptying of towns and cities, as Nigerians that have been successful return to their ancestral villages to be with family and share blessings with those less fortunate. As towns and cities empty, people jam into West African markets to buy and transport live chickens, goats and cows that will be needed for Christmas meals.
On Christmas Eve, traditional meals are prepared according to the traditions of each region. Rather than having candy and cakes, Nigerians tend to prepare various meats in large quantities. In the South, a dish called Jollof rice is served along with stews of various meats and boiled beans and friend plantains. In the North, rice and stew, as well as Tuwon Shinkafa, a rice pudding, served with various meat stews is preferred. Several local desserts are also prepared, which is hardly ever found in other parts of Nigeria.
An alternative in both regions, but more favored in the South, is a pepper soup with fish, goat or beef, which may also be served with Fufu, which is pounded yam. Served along with this, is an array of mainly alcoholic drinks like the traditional palm wine or various local and imported beers and wines. Children and women may be served locally-made soft drink equivalents instead.
Gift giving in Nigeria often involves money and a flow of gifts from more fortunate to the less fortunate. After “successful” visitors have come from their towns, cities and even overseas, they are given some time to settle in. Once settled in, local relatives begin approaching them, asking for assistance of some sort, whether financial or not. Financial donations and elaborately wrapped gifts may be given out at lavish parties, weddings and ceremonies. At times, money is scattered into the air to be grabbed by others or stuck onto sweaty foreheads of those dancing.
Religion in Nigeria is about equally divided between the Christians and the Muslims. There are occasions where there are religious conflicts. The Islamic sect Boko Haram had attacked Christian churches with bombings on Christmas in 2011.
Traditions of China
The 25th of December is not a legal holiday in China. However, it’s still designated a a public holiday in special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Both being former colonies of Western powers with nominal Christian cultural heritage.
In the mainland, the small amount of Chinese who consider themselves to be Christians unofficially, and usually privately, observe Christmas. Many other individuals celebrate Christmas-like festivities, even though they don’t consider themselves to be Christians.
Many customs include sending of cards, exchanging of gifts and hanging stockings, which is very similar to Western celebrations. Commercial Christmas decorations, signs, and other symbolic items have become increasingly prevalent during the month of December in large urban centers of mainland China, reflecting a cultural interest in the Western phenomenon, and at times retail marketing campaigns as well.
Traditions of Germany
The Christmas traditions in Germany vary by region. Until reformation, Saint Nicholas’ Day, on the 6th of December, Saint Nicholas was the main provider of presents. He still puts goodies in the shoes of children on this day. Sometimes, St. Nicholas visit children in kindergarten, schools or at public events. The children have to recite a short poem or sing a song to get their sweets or a small gift. “Knecht Ruprecht”, the servant who sometimes accompanies St. Nicholas is dressed in dark clothing with devil-like traits, usually noted as a long, bright red tongue and with a stick or small whip in hand. His duty is to punish those who have been naughty during the year, but usually he doesn’t have very much to do. Ruprechty normally just stands near St. Nicholas as a warning to be good and polite.
Nicholas, as well for some Gluhwein for adults, are some of the traditions connected with local firefighters, riders associations and church congregations. The Sorbs, a minority in Saxony and parts of Brandenburg, with their language being similar to that of the Polish, have specific traditions. In Janschwalde, the Bescherkind Jansojski bog, “presents kid”, visits the neighbors. The presents kid is a girl that is dressed in local costume and a veil goes around with two companions on the Wednesday before Christmas. She provides smaller presents like sweets, similar to Nikolaus, and provides blessings, stays however silent.
Another tradition in Saxony is related to the wooden toy making in the Ore Mountains, especially Seiffen. They also provide Christmas related decorations like a Christmas pyramid and toys around the year. Christmas letters may also be addressed. For example, to Engelskirchen, the Angel’s Church, or Himmelpfoten, Heaven’s Gate, or some other in municipalities with matching names. After privatization, Deutsche Post kept the tradition of the dedicated Christmas offices. One in each state will answer letters and requests from children.
Today, actual Christmas gift-giving, or in German: Bescherung, usually takes place on Christmas Eve. This tradition was introduced by the Reformator, Martin Luther, as he was of the opinion that one should put an emphasis on Christ’s birth and not on Saint’s Day and thus do away with the connotation that gifts have to be earned by good behavior. He felt that gifts should be seen as a symbol for the gift of God’s grace in Christ. This tradition had quickly became common in the predominantly Catholic regions as well.
Gifts may be brought by Weihnachtsmann, Christmas man in English, and resembles either St. Nicholas or the American Santa Claus, or by Christkindl, a spirit-like child who may or may not represent the baby Jesus. Until 1930, there was sort of a South/North divide between the realms of Southern and Silesian Christkind and Nordic Weihnachtsmann. After gifts are opened, children often stay up as late as they would like, often times until the early hours of the morning.
A Christmas tree in Germany is first put up and decorated on the morning of the 24th of December. Gifts are then placed under the tree and Christmas services in the church serve as well to exchange greetings with neighbors and friends. After an evening meal, one of the parents usually goes into the room where the tree stands, lights the candles and rings a little bell. At that time, children are allowed to go into the candlelit room. In many families it is still a custom to sing Christmas songs around the tree before opening presents. Some families attend a midnight church service known as “Christmette” after the evening meal and gift-giving.
The culinary feast either takes place at supper on Christmas Eve or on the first day of Christmas. Traditions for what is eaten varies from region to region, but carp is eaten in many parts of the country. Potato salad with frankfurter or wiener-sausages is popular in some families as well. Another simple meal, which some families favor, especially those in regions where Christmas Eve still has the character of a fast day is vegetable or pea soup. In some regions, especially Schleswig-Holstein, where Danish influence is noticeable, a roasted duck or goose filled with plums, apples and raisins is a family tradition. In areas such as Mecklenburg and Pomerania, many families prefer kale with boiled potatoes and special sausages and ham. Many families have developed a new tradition for themselves and eat meals like meat fondue or raclette. In almost all families in all regions of the country one can find a wide variety of Christmas cookies baked according to recipes that are typical for the family and region they reside.
One other tradition, known as Luttenweihnachten, describes the hunting and forestry custom of providing a Christmas tree that is decorated for animals.
Traditions of Russia
As is the case in some other Eastern Orthodox countries and due to a thirteen day difference between newer Gregorian and older Julian Calendars, Christmas in Russia is celebrated on the 7th of January. Unlike it’s Western counterparts, Christmas is mainly a religious event in the country.
Christmas Eve, on the 6th of January, there are several long church services, including the Royal Hours and Vespers combined with Divine Liturgy. Families will then return home for the traditional Christmas Eve “Holy Supper”. The supper consists of twelve dishes, one to honor each of the Twelve Apostles. Devout families will then return to the church for the All Night Vigil. Then on Christmas morning they return yet again for Divine Liturgy of the Nativity.
Since 1992, Christmas became a national holiday in Russia, as part of a ten-day holiday that starts at the beginning of every new year. During the Soviet period, religious celebrations were discouraged by the officially atheist state. Christmas trees and related celebrations were gradually eradicated after the October Revolution. In 1935, in a surprising turn of state politics, the Christmas tradition was adopted as part of the secular New Year celebration. This would include the decoration of a tree or a spruce, festive decorations, family gatherings, and visits by gift-giving “Grandfather Frost” and his granddaughter The Snow Maiden. Many of these traditions were brought to Russia by Peter the Great, after his western travels in the late 17th Century.
Where Did Our Christmas Traditions Come From?
The practice of putting up special decorations at Christmas time has a long history. In the 15th Century, it was recorded that in London it was a custom at Christmas for every house and all parish churches to be “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green.” The heart shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolize the coming to Earth of Jesus. Holly was seen as a form of protection against pagans and witches.
Nativity scenes are known to have started in the tenth century in Rome. They were popularized by Saint Francis of Asissi in 1223 and had quickly spread across Europe. Other types of decorations would develop across the Christian world, dependent on local tradition and available resources. They can vary from simple representations of a crib to far more elaborate sets. The first commercially produced decorations had appeared in Germany during the 1860s, inspired by paper chains that were made by children.
Christmas greenery, which often includes the hanging of various greens such as Christmas trees, mistletoe, holly and poinsettias had mainly originated in the Druid, Celt, Norse and Roman civilizations. These civilizations had also celebrated winter solstice around the 21st of December. Since green had represented eternal life, plants that had remained green through the year had played an important role in their celebrations.
The Romans celebrated the solstice with the mid-winter holiday called Saturnalia. This holiday honored the Roman god Saturn. They would light candles in their homes, spend time with their friends and family, decorated their homes with wreaths and garlands, exchanged gifts and feasted.
As the pagan cultures converted to Christianity they brought with them many traditions of the winter solstice. Since the use of greenery had pagan origins, the early church leaders had often objected to its use. However, these traditions were so deeply ingrained that the customs still continued, but from the Christian frame of reference.
Although the Romans had used a spruce or fir tree that would be decorated with lighted candles and trinkets during Saturnalia rituals, the Christmas tree as we know it today is a German tradition. It is believed by some to have originated in the 8th Century with Winfred, an English missionary that would later be known as St. Boniface.
Others attribute the origin of the Christmas tree to Martin Luther during the 16th Century. He was inspired by the beauty of the stars on Christmas Eve night. Luther is said to have cut an evergreen and put lit candles on it to represent the starry sky above the stable on the night that Christ was born. By the early 1600s, trees would be decorated with candies, fruits and paper roses and were part of the holiday decorations in German homes.
In 1841, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, had celebrated the birth of their first son with a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. The English court would adopt the custom and it soon spread throughout England. During the Victorian times, people would decorate the trees with berries, popcorn and Christmas gifts for the family.
The ancient cultures thought that bringing in green branches would ensure the return of vegetation at the end of winter. They would use mistletoe and holly in pagan religious rituals and decorated their homes with them. For several centuries after the birth of Christ, the Romans had continued to celebrate Saturnalia. Christians started to celebrate the birth of Christ in December, while the Romans were holding their pagan celebrations. The early Christian church had associated holly with the various legends about its role in Christ’s crucifixion. According to one legend, Christ’s crown of thorns was formed from holly. The legend also claims that holly berries were originally white, but had been stained red by the blood of Christ. Therefore, for the ancient Christians, sharply pointed holly leaves had became the symbol of thorns in Christ’s crown and red berries the drops of His blood.
Mistletoe also played a role in various cultures. The druids thought that the plant was sacred and had healing powers. It was also an important element in the Norse legend of Balder, the sun god. The Romans had considered it a symbol of hope and peace. Therefore, in the Roman era, the enemies would reconcile under mistletoe. During the Victorian times in England, holiday decorations included an ornate, “kissing ring”, which had sprigs of mistletoe fastened to it, a ring would be suspended from the ceiling and girls were kissed under it.
For many centuries, wreaths have represented the unending cycle of life and have been symbols of victory and honor. The ancient Druids and the Romans both used evergreen branches in their winter solstice celebrations. In as early as 1444, evergreen boughs had been used as Christmas decorations in London. During the 16th century, in Germany, the evergreen branch was intertwined in a circular shape to symbolize God’s love, having no beginning and no end.
Poinsettia’s are called the “flower of the Holy Night” because of their red bracts, which are said to represent the flaming Star of Bethlehem. These flowers are native to Mexico and was cultivated by the Aztecs. In the 17th Century, Franciscan priests in Mexico had used the plant as a part of their Nativity celebration because it had bloomed during the Advent season. Worshipers would place poinsettias around a manger that was built at the church altar. The plant is named after Dr. Joel Poinsett, an American ambassador to Mexico from 1825 until 1829. He was so taken with the flower that he had sent the cuttings back to his home in South Carolina, where they would flourish in his greenhouse. A man by the name of Albert Ecke was first credited with the developing of the sale of poinsettias. He was a Swiss farmer who had lived near Los Angeles, California in the 1890s. His family would become the leading producers of poinsettias in the United States.
According to tradition, the original Saint Nicholas had left gifts of gold coins for three poor girls who had needed money for their wedding dowries. One of the bags of gold coins is said to have landed in a stocking that was hung by a chimney to dry. This brought on the tradition of receiving small gifts in stockings that we hang from fireplace mantels.
For nearly two centuries, American writers have reflected on the cherished reminder of childhood. Among these writers was one Washington Irving, who had referred to “hanging up a stocking on the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve” in the Knickerbocker History of New York. During 1883 a tongue-in-cheek editorial in The New York Times had promoted the use of Smith Christmas Stocking,. This was an elastic stocking, which was “suited to the circumstances of every family”.
As for the tradition of sending cards, it probably comes first from the English
“schoolpieces” or “Christmas pieces”. This was a simple pen-and-ink design on sheets of writing paper. The first formal card was designed by the Englishman, J.C. Horsley in 1843. It was first lithographed on stiff, dark cardboard and depicted in color, a party of grownups and children with glasses raised in the air in a toast, over the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”.
Americans had relied on the expensive import of Christmas cards until 1874, when the Boston lithographer Louis Prang had offered a selection of cards that featured the reproduction of contemporary paintings with printed sentiments on the reverse side. Within the following ten years, Prang’s print shop was producing more than five million cards every year.
At about the same time, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, was the illustrator of Harper’s Weekly. In 1862, being fascinated with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Visit of St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)”, Mr. Nast visually depicted Moore’s Christmas fantasy. It would include the first portrayal of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly, white-whiskered old man that we recognize today. Mr. Nast is the one responsible for the first illustrations of Santa’s North Pole workshop, as well as Claus in his sleigh and opening his mail and making a record of children that were naughty or nice. His illustrations dramatically influenced the nature of Christmas cards in his day and on into our own.
It is from those early beginnings that the exchange of Christmas cards has grown to the astonishing proportion that card sending is today. Americans typically exchange more than two billion cards every year.
The tradition of giving gifts is at times said to have started with the three wise-men who had visited Jesus and gave him his gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. The true origin lies within Pagan beliefs however. During the Saturnalia, children would often be given gifts of wax dolls. This was an act with a rather macabre history itself. The dolls would be used to represent human sacrifices that Rome had given to Saturn in the past as a payment for good harvests. The boughs of certain trees and other plant matter were also common gifts during Saturnalia. They were used to represent the bounty and good harvests.
Due to the danger of fire, in 1895, Ralph Morris, an American telephonist decided to invent the first electric Christmas lights, similar to those that we use today. Ten years earlier, a hospital in Chicago had burned down because of the use of candles on a Christmas tree. In 1908, insurance companies in the United States tried to get a law made that would ban the use of candles on Christmas trees, also because of the risk of fire.
Artificial trees weren’t really popular until the early 20th Century. In the Edwardian period they were made from ostrich feathers and were popular at ‘fashionable’ parties. Around 1900, there was even a short fashion of white Christmas trees. Over the years, artificial trees have been made from paper mache, metal, glass and many different types of plastic.
The colors that are traditional to Christmas decorations are red, green and gold. Red is a symbol of the blood that Jesus had shed in his crucifixion. Green stands to symbolize eternal life and in particular the evergreen tree, which doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter. Gold is the first color that was associated with Christmas, as it was one of the three gifts of the magi, symbolizing royalty.
Why is Christmas Generally on December 25th?
In early church writings, a wide variety of dates had been suggested for the nativity, those of which included: May 20th, April 18th or 19th, March 25th, January 2nd, November 17th, or November 20th. However, various factors contributed to the selection of the 25th of December. This was the date of winter solstice on the Roman calendar and was also nine months after March 25th, the date linked to the conception of Jesus. This date was also that of the Roman pagan festival held in honor of the sun god Sol Invictus.
December 25th, as said before, was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. According to an early sermon by Augustine, Jesus had chosen to be born on the shortest day of the year for symbolic reasons. The Augustine sermon states:
“Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
The linking to Jesus to the Sun was supported by various Biblical passages. Jesus was considered to be the “Sun of righteousness” prophesied by Malachi. John would describe him as “the light of the world”. Such solar symbolism could also support more than one date of birth. A work known as “De Pascha Computus”, by an anonymous author, that is linked to the idea that creation began at Spring Equinox, which was on the 25th of March, with the conception or birth (the word nascor can mean either) of Jesus was on the 28th of March, the day of the creation of the sun in the Genesis account. One translation reads:
“O the splendid and divine providence of the Lord, that on that day, the very day, on which the sun was made, the 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born. For this reason Malachi the prophet, speaking about him to the people, fittingly said, ‘Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings.’”
During the 17th Century, Isaac Newton had argued that the date of Christmas was actually selected to correspond with the solstice. According to Steven Hijmans of the University of Alberta “It is cosmic symbolism…which inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the southern solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the northern solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinox as their respective dates of conception.”
Another idea of why it’s celebrated on the 25th of December is the calculation hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that the earlier holiday that was held on the 25th of March had become associated with Incarnation. Modern scholars refer to this feast as the Quatrodecimal, Christmas was then calculated to be nine months later, and the hypothesis was proposed by the French writer Louis Duchesne in 1889. In modern times, the 25th of March is celebrated as the Annunciation. This holiday was created during the seventh century and was assigned to a date nine months before Christmas.
In addition to being the traditional date of equinox, the 25th of December is unrelated to Quatrodecimal, which had been forgotten by the seventh century. The early Christians had celebrated the life of Jesus on a date considered equivalent to 14 Nisan, which is now Passover on our calendars. Since Passover was held on the 14th of the month, this feast is referred to as Quartodecimal. All major events of the life of Christ, especially the passion, were celebrated on the same date.
In a letter to the Corinthians, by Paul, he mentions the Passover, and presumably it being celebrated according to the local calendar in Corinth. Tertullian, who had died in 220, who had lived in the Latin speaking part of North Africa, gives the date of celebration as the 25th of March. However, in the East, which used the Macedonian calendar, the date of the celebration was on the 6th of April, which was when Pope Soter created Easter by reassigning Resurrection to a Sunday.
According to the Calculation Hypothesis, the celebration of Quartodecimal had continued in some areas and the feast became associated with the Incarnation, while Christmas was nine months after the 25th of March, Epiphany was on the 6th of January, which was nine months after the 6th of April. Both Christmas and Epiphany have been celebrated widely as the date of birth of Christ. However, the Armenian church continues to celebrate His birth on Epiphany.
Some of you may have already known some of what was covered in this post, but I hope that there are some things that you did get to learn. Also if you would like please, in the comments section share what your family does for the holidays, as I am interested in knowing more traditions from all over the world that those of you participate in.
To those of you whom do celebrate Christmas I wish you all a happy, safe, and great day. To those who celebrate other holidays at this time of year I wish for you to all have a happy, safe and great day. Thank you all for reading and your continued support and I look forward to writing more for you in 2017. Since I may not get to post again before the start of the new year I also wish everyone of you a happy and safe New Years Eve and New Years Day. Take care of yourself and yours.
(Feature Photo is from Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)~ bing.com