A history of the celebration of Christmas

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A history of the celebration of Christmas

Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the early church until the fourth century. In the fourth century, the church decided to try to redeem a Roman pagan winter solstice festival: the festival of Saturnalia. This December holiday was considered the "birthday of the unconquered sun." Romans danced in the streets with gifts under their arms and greenery atop their heads.

Based on Biblical evidence Jesus of Nazareth was probably born in the fall near the Jewish feast of Tabernacles or in the spring around the time of Passover. Sometime before 336 the Church in Rome, unable to stamp out the pagan festival of Saturnalia, spiritualized it as the "Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness." December 25th was chosen for the celebration of his birth by Pope Julius I. The practice was adopted by the Christian church in Antioch around 374. By 380 it was being observed in Constantinople, and by 430 in Alexandria.

Germanic tribes of Northern Europe also celebrated mid-winter with feasting, drinking, religious rituals and the lighting of the yule log. During the Middle Ages, Catholic priests sought connections between biblical teachings and pagan traditions - believing that a convergence of customs would lead more individuals to Christianity. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was melded into other age-old practices and became known as the "Christ mass." Firelight represented the light of Christ. Gift giving was linked to the presents of the wise men. Trees were decorated with apples associated with the biblical Garden of Eden.

The Christmas Tree

The tradition of decorating trees occurs among many different people. The Celts for example decorated trees with apples and nuts during the winter solstice (around December 21), encouraging the sun to return to bring spring. Other European people had tree decorating rituals.

In the 7th century a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the Word of God. He did many good works there, and spent much time in Thuringia, an area which was to become the cradle of the Christmas Decoration Industry. Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God’s Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.The first record of the Christmas tree (as we know it) dates back to Riga in Latvia, in 1510. In the last quarter of the 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas Tree with candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night. Decorated trees became very popular during the German Yuletide. In 1841, Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Germany. Albert brought the Christmas tree custom to England and hence, to the English speaking world. Many citizens were eager to embrace the traditions of the English royalty.

Santa Claus

The ancient inhabitants of northern Europe believed a powerful pagan god, cloaked in red fur, galloped across the winter sky. These myths combined with the legends of the real life figure of Bishop Nicholas. Dutch children would put shoes by the fireplace for St. Nicholas or "Sinter Klaas" and leave food out for his horse. He’d gallop on his horse between the rooftops and drop candy down the chimneys into the children’s shoes. Meanwhile, his assistant, Black Peter, was the one who popped down the chimneys to leave gifts behind.

Dutch settlers brought the legend of Sinter Klaas to North America -- where we came to know him as Santa Claus. Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History (1809) described Santa Claus as a stern, ascetic personage traditionally clothed in dark robes. It was a character we would scarcely recognize as the Santa Claus we know today, apart from his annual mission of delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve.

The next mention of Santa Claus is found in a Christmas poem published in 1821 called "The Children’s Friend." This poem for young people, harkened from the same tradition but also added some new elements to the "Santeclaus" myth.

 

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