When was the first Christmas card sent? Why do we kiss under
the mistletoe? Learn the origins of Christmas and fun facts
about some of our favorite christmas traditions and symbols.
There are lots of Christmas traditions that are practiced
by a number of countries all over the world during the holiday
season. These traditions can be as diverse as the culture
and religious practices of each and every country in the world.
Read about some of the most common christmas traditions her.
Origins of Christmas
From the Old English 'Cristes Mæsse'
~ meaning the 'mass of Christ' ~ the story of Christmas
begins with the birth of a babe in Bethlehem.
It is believed that Christ was born on the 25th, although
the exact month is unknown. December was likely chosen
so the Catholic Church could compete with rival pagan
rituals held at that time of year and because of its
closeness with the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere,
a traditional time of celebration among many ancient
Luke, Chapter Two
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out
a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be
taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor
of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own
city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city
of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is
called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage
of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being
great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there,
the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And
she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling
clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room
for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the
field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the
angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord
shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the
angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you
good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For
unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying
in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God
in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
The origin of Santa Claus begins
in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra,
an area in present day Turkey. By all accounts St. Nicholas
was a generous man, particularly devoted to children.
After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra,
but in 1087 Italian sailors purportedly stole his remains
and removed them to Bari, Italy, greatly increasing
St. Nicholas' popularity throughout Europe.
His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise
to claims he that he could perform miracles and devotion
to him increased. St. Nicholas became the patron saint
of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing
white beard, and bishop's mitre.
In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France
he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of
children and travellers. Thousands of churches across Europe
were dedicated to him and some time around the 12th century
an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast
of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was
marked by gift-giving and charity.
After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas
dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the
Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed
to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes
by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children
by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought
brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century
and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.
In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem A
Visit From Saint Nicholas, published as The Night
Before Christmas as a gift for his children. In it, he
portrays Santa Claus:
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
Other countries feature different gift-bearers for the Christmas
or Advent season: La Befana in Italy ~ The Three Kings in
Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico ~ Christkindl or the Christ
Child in Switzerland and Austria ~ Father Christmas in England
~ and Pere Noël, Father Christmas or the Christ Child
in France. Still, the figure of Santa Claus as a jolly, benevolent,
plump man in a red suit described in Moore's poem remains
with us today and is recognized by children and adults alike
around the world.
Read even more abou christmas traditions andt Santa
In 16th-century Germany fir trees
were decorated, both indoors and out, with apples, roses,
gilded candies, and colored paper. In the Middle Ages,
a popular religous play depicted the story of Adam and
Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
A fir tree hung with apples was used to symbolize
the Garden of Eden -- the Paradise Tree. The play ended
with the prophecy of a saviour coming, and so was often
performed during the Advent season.
It is held that Protestant reformer Martin Luther first
adorned trees with light. While coming home one December
evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the
branches of a fir inspired him to recreate the effect
by placing candles on the branches of a small fir tree
inside his home
The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria's
husband, Prince Albert from his native Germany. The famous
Illustrated News etching in 1848, featuring the Royal
Family of Victoria, Albert and their children gathered around
a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, popularized the tree throughout
Victorian England. Brought to America by the Pennsylvania
Germans, the Christmas tree became by the late 19th century.
Read even more about Christmas Trees
Focus on Christmas Traditions in US
The variations of the Christmas traditions of USA equal the
number active cultures that have settled in the land. These
cultural contributions were given a new lease of life by creative
artists, authors, poets and songwriters, and it was melded
together by the power of secular and commercialized media
in record companies, radio stations, television, cinemas and
now the internet. The unwritten law of media is the presentation
of a seemingly uniform celebration of the Christmas traditions
of USA. This is responsible for the world wide acceptance
of a universal Christmas image which they get from the media.
Nevertheless, the celebrations are peculiar to each region.
According to legend, a kindly nobleman
grew despondent over the death of his beloved wife and
foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three
young daughters without dowries and thus facing a life
The generous St. Nicholas, hearing of the girls' plight,
set forth to help. Wishing to remain anonymous, he rode
his white horse by the nobleman's house and threw three
small pouches of gold coins down the chimney where they
were fortuitously captured by the stockings the young
women had hung by the fireplace to dry. Read more about
Mistletoe was used by Druid
priests 200 years before the birth of Christ
in their winter celebrations. They revered the plant
since it had no roots yet remained green during the
cold months of winter.
The ancient Celtics believed mistletoe to have magical
healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison,
infertility, and to ward of evil spirits. The plant
was also seen as a symbol of peace, and it is said
that among Romans, enemies who met under mistletoe
would lay down their weapons and embrace.
Scandanavians associated the plant with Frigga, their
goddess of love, and it may be from this that we derive
the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. Those who
kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness
and good luck in the following year.
Holly, Ivy and Greenery
In Northern Europe Christmas
occurred during the middle of winter, when ghosts
and demons could be heard howling in the winter winds.
Boughs of holly, believed to have magical powers since
they remained green through the harsh winter, were
often placed over the doors of homes to drive evil
away. Greenery was also brought indoors to freshen
the air and brighten the mood during the long, dreary
Legend also has it that holly sprang from the footsteps
of Christ as he walked the earth. The pointed leaves
were said to represent the crown of thorns Christ
wore while on the cross and the red berries symbolized
the blood he shed.
A native Mexican plant,
poinsettias were named after Joel R. Poinsett, U.S.
ambassador to Mexico who brought the plant to America
in 1828. Poinsettias were likely used by Mexican Franciscans
in their 17th century Christmas celebrations. One
legend has it that a young Mexican boy, on his way
to visit the village Nativity scene, realized he had
no gift for the Christ child. He gathered pretty green
branches from along the road and brought them to the
church. Though the other children mocked him, when
the leaves were laid at the manger, a beautiful star-shaped
flower appeared on each branch. The bright red petals,
often mistaken for flowers, are actually the upper
leaves of the plant.
The Candy cane
It was not long after Europeans
began using Christmas trees that special decorations
were used to adorn them. Food items, such as candies
and cookies, were used predominately and straight
white candy sticks were one of the confections used
as ornamentation. Legend has it that during the 17th
century, craftsmen created the white sticks of candy
in the shape of shephreds' crooks at the suggestion
of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
The candy treats were given to children to keep them
quiet during ceremonies at the living creche, or Nativity
scene, and the custom of passing out the candy crooks
at such ceremonies soon spread throughout Europe.
According to the National Confectioner's Association, in
1847 German immigrant August Imgard used the candy cane
to decorate a Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio. More than
50 years later, Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia supposedly
made candy canes as treats for family, friends and local
shopkeepers. McCormack's brother-in-law, Catholic priest
Gregory Keller, invented a machine in the 1950s that automated
the production of candy canes, thus eliminating the usual
laborious process of creating the treats and the popularity
of the candy cane grew.
More recent explanations of the candy cane's symbolism hold
that the color white represents Christ's purity, the red
the blood he shed, and the presence of three red stripes
the Holy Trinity. While factual evidence for these notions
does not exist, they have become increasingly common and
at times are even represented as fact. Regardless, the candy
cane remains a favorite holiday treat and decoration.
A form of Christmas card began
in England first when young boys practiced their writing
skills by creating Christmas greetings for their parents,
but it is Sir Henry Cole who is credited with creating
the first real Christmas card. The first director
of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry
found himself too busy in the Christmas season of
1843 to compose individual Christmas greetings for
He commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley for the
illustration. The card featured three panels, with
the center panel depicting a family enjoying Christmas
festivities and the card was inscribed with the message
"A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You."
Read more about Christmas Cards
Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
The Chicago-based Montgomery Ward
company, department store operators, had been purchasing
and distributing children's coloring books as Christmas
gifts for their customers for several years. In 1939,
Montgomery Ward tapped one of their own employees
to create a book for them, thus saving money. 34-year
old copywriter Robert L. May wrote the story of Rudolph
the Red-nosed Reindeer in 1939, and 2.4 million copies
were handed out that year. Despite the wartime paper
shortage, over 6 million copies had been distributed
May drew in part on the story "The Ugly Duckling"
and in part from his own experiences as an often taunted,
small, frail youth to create the story of the misfit
reindeer. Though Rollo and Reginald were considered,
May settled on Rudolph as his reindeer's name.
Writing in verse as a series of rhyming couplets, May tested
the story as he went along on his 4-year old daughter Barbara,
who loved the story
Sadly, Robert Mays wife died around the time he was creating
Rudolph, leaving Mays deeply in debt due to medical bills.
However, he was able to persuade Sewell Avery, Montgomery
Ward's corporate president, to turn the copyright over to
him in January 1947, thus ensuring May's financial security.
May's story "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was printed
commercially in 1947 and in 1948 a nine-minute cartoon of
the story was shown in theaters. When May's brother-in-law,
songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote the lyrics and melody for
the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", the Rudolph phenomenon
was born. Turned down by many musical artists afraid to
contend with the legend of Santa Claus, the song was recorded
by Gene Autry in 1949 at the urging of Autry's wife. The
song sold two million copies that year, going on to become
one of the best-selling songs of all time, second only to
Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". The 1964 television special
about Rudolph, narrated by Burl Ives, remains a holiday
favorite to this day and Rudolph himself has become a much-loved
Commencing on the 25th day of
the Hebrew month Kislev, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday
commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple
in Jerusalem after its desecration by the Syrians.
In 168 BC, members of the Jewish family Maccabee led
a revolt against the Greek Syrians due to the policies
of Syrian King Antiochus IV which were aimed at nullifying
the Jewish faith. Part of this strategem included
changing the Beit HaMikdash - the Holy Temple
in Jerusalem - to a Greek temple complete with idolatry.
Led by Judah Maccabee, the Jews won victory over the
Syrians in 165 BC and reclaimed their temple.
After cleansing the temple and preparing for its rededication,
it was found there was not enough oil to light the
N'er Tamid, an oil lamp present in Jewish houses
of worship which represents eternal light. Once lit,
the lamp should never be extinguished.
A search of the temple produced a small vial of undefiled
oil -- enough for only one day. Miraculously, the Temple
lights burned for eight days until a new supply of oil was
brought. In remembrance of this miracle, one candle of the
Menorah - an eight branched candelabra - is lit each
of the eight days of Hanukkah. Hanukkah, which means dedication,
is a Hebrew word when translated is commonly spelled Hanukah,
Chanukah, and Hannukah due to different translations
The tradition of receiving gifts on each of the eight days
of Hanukkah is relatively new and due in part to the celebration's
proximity to the Christmas season.
Doctor Maulana Karenga, a Professor
at California State University in Long Beach, California,
created Kwanzaa in 1966. It is a holiday celebrated
by millions of African-Americans around the world,
encouraging them to remember their African heritage
and consider their current place in America today.
Kwanzaa is celebrated fom December 26 to January 1
and involves seven principles called Nguzo Saba:
Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination),
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa
(Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity),
and Imani (Faith).
In the Kwanzaa ritual, seven candles called Mishumaa
Saba are placed in a Kinara, or candleholder,
which is then set upon the Mikeka, a mat usually
made of straw.
Three green candles are placed on the left, three red
candles on the right and a black candle in the center, each
candle representing one of the seven principles of the celebration.
One candle is lit each day of the Kwanzaa celebration, beginning
from left to right The colors of Kwanzaa ~ black, red and
green ~ also have a special significance. Black symbolizes
the faces of the African people, Red symbolizes the blood
they have shed, and Green represents hope and the color
of the motherland. The name itself - Kwanzaa - is a Swahili
word meaning "fruits of the harvest."
THINGS CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS: Members of the All
Things Christmas List at eGroups share their favorite Family
Traditions for the Holiday season.
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