Among all peoples of the world, the most common times for celebration are the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Considering that the austerity and bleakness of Winter (in contrast to the relative abundance and warmth of Summer) would be so impactful upon the lives of primitive peoples living in temperate climates these festival times — and even Sun-worship — should come as no surprise. Stonehenge and hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout the world were constructed to receive a shaft of sunlight in their central chamber at solstice dawn.
December feasts were common in Europe because it was necessary to slaughter cattle that could not be fed during the winter and because the meat could be preserved by the cold weather. With the completion of the harvest and snow on the ground, farmers were loaded with provisions. There was not much work that could be done, so there was time to relax, to feast, to celebrate and to engage in social activities.
The word Yule may come from the Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast), applied to December (geola, feast month). Or it may come from a Norse-Saxon word meaning wheel, referring to the seasonal cycles of the sun. Or it could have come from the Scandinavian Jule (Jul), who was the god of sex and fertility. ("Tide" as in "yuletide" may have come from an Old English word meaning time, occasion or season.)
Midwinter sun festivals were celebrated in ancient Britain & Scandinavia. In Germanic & Scandinavian countries a huge log was carried into the house to serve as the foundation for holiday fires. The Yule log at Jultid (Yuletide) would burn for twelve days, and a different sacrifice would be made on each of the twelve days. Lighted candles and winter fires were used by sun-worshippers to encourage the rebirth of the Sun (as if some feared that days would continue to get shorter until the Sun ceased to return). Similarly tying fruit to the branches of trees was intended to encourage the coming of Spring.
During the midwinter festival Makar Sankranti, Hindus bathe in rivers such as the Ganges (Ganga) and offer water to the Sun god. Makar (Makara) means Capricorn and Sankranti means transition, so the festival celebrates the transition of the Sun from Sagittarius to Capricorn, and the ascendancy of the Sun god into the Northern Hemisphere. It is the Sun god who transcends time and who rotates the Wheel of Time. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges can result in forgiveness of sins and help in the attainment of salvation. In mid-autumn Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs celebrate Diwali, the "festival of lights" signifying the victory of light over darkness (and of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair).
The Chinese Dongzhi ("extreme of winter") Festival is viewed within the Yang and Yin philosophy as a time of returning of positive energy associated with lengthening daylight hours. The Sun is associated with yang (male), whereas the Moon & Earth are associated with yin (female). Family gatherings and reunions with feasting are the traditional means of celebration.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice occurs around December 21st, when the Sun is at its greatest distance below the celestial equator. The Spring Equinox occurs around March 21st when the sun crosses the celestial equator and days have the same duration as nights ("equinox" comes from a Latin word meaning "time of equal days and nights"). The Spring Equinox marks the beginning of Spring, and for the ancient Mesopotamians was the beginning of their new year festival. The Mesopotamians believed that their god Marduk did battle with monsters of chaos at the end of the year. Their own king was to be slain so that he could assist Marduk in the spirit world. But to preserve the king, a criminal was made into a mock king, who was treated as if he was a king until he was slain. Year-end celebrations in which masters acted as slaves and slaves acted as if they were masters became popular in several regions of the Mediterranean. The festival was transformed into the Persian Yalda ("birth") winter solstice celebration, which remains a social occasion in present-day Islamic Iran.
The constellation (Zodiac sign) visible at dawn on the day of the Spring Equinox has been regarded as of special significance (currently changing from Pisces to Aquarius due to the 26,000 year precession of the Earth — the advent of "the Age of Aquarius"). The chief holiday for the ancient Hebrews was celebrated at the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Although this holiday was originally a celebration of Spring, it was later celebrated in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt and was called Passover. The holiday entered Christian celebration by the fact that Christ was reputedly arrested and crucified at Passover. Because Christians insisted that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday, the Council of Nicea decreed that Easter be the first Sunday after the fourteenth day of a lunar month (Paschal Full Moon, which is approximately the first full moon) following the date of the Spring Equinox (which is assumed to be March 21st, often incorrectly). Easter can occur on any date from March 22nd to April 25th. In the first centuries of Christianity Easter was by far the most significant Christian holiday (holy day) and Christmas was not a holiday at all.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the passion (suffering before fatal dismemberment) of the god Osiris, and celebrated his resurrection in the Spring, coinciding with the flooding of the Nile (and rebirth of vegetation). The Greek god Dionysus was also a god of fertility whose resurrection was celebrated in the Spring. In the ancient Mediterranean Osiris-Dionysus mystery religions celebrated life, death and rebirth through secret rites involving sacramental wine.
The word for "Easter" in most of the Romance Languages is a variant of the Hebrew "Passover", but the English word is unrelated to these forms. Possibly, the English word "Easter" is derived from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, "Eostre" (source of the word "estrogen"). Or it may have come from "Ishtar/Astarte" the Babylonian/Chaldean Venus who was the consort of the sun-god. Or it may have come from the same root as "east", associating the source of the rising sun with the resurrection ("rising") of Christ. Sunrise service, painted eggs and rabbits have all symbolized rebirth and fertility in Spring celebrations from ancient times. Celebration of motherhood (mother's day) is also most often in the Spring, another possible association with fertility.
The Summer Solstice was widely celebrated with late June "midsummer festivals" throughout ancient (pagan) Europe. The celebration of the Nativity of John the Baptist at that time is believed by some scholars to be another example of attempts by the Catholic Church to assimilate pagan holidays for the purpose of converting pagans to Christianity during the first millenium A.D.
The Autumn Equinox occurs around the 23rd of September, but it is over a month later that the impact of falling leaves and dying vegetation is most noticeable. Ancient Aztec autumn celebrations of the memory of their deceased ancestors resembles European pagans honoring the souls of the dead and their ghosts at the end of October. The Roman Catholic Church may have assimilated pagan traditions by declaring November 1st to be All Saints' Day (revering saints & martyrs) and November 2nd to be All Souls' Day (revering all faithful deceased). Halloween is believed to have originated from the Celtic belief that the spirit world is closest to the world of the living on October 31st. The Armistice that ended the first World War was signed on November 11th, giving rise to another occasion to honor the dead in mid-Autumn.
Possibly because desert nomads preferred to travel by night rather than under the oppressive fiery Sun, the primary god of the ancient Arabians was the moon god Hubal. Mount Sinai was reputedly named after the semitic lunar deity Sin. The crescent associated with Islam originated from Artemis (Diana), who displaced Selene as the goddess of the moon, and who was the patron goddess of the city which became Constantinople. Emperor Constantine added the star symbol (representing the Virgin Mary). The Ottoman Turks later spread the star and crescent symbol of Constantinople over the Islamic world.
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Claims of divinity were commonly associated with virgin birth in the ancient world. The Hindu god Krishna, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, Gautama Buddha and Zoroaster were reputedly the product of virgin births. Alexander the Great, Constantine and Nero claimed to have virgin births. Admirers of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Pythagoras claimed virgin births for these sages. In the ancient world virgin birth was a sign of distinction.
In ancient Egypt, Osiris and his wife Isis were reputed to have been divine secular rulers of Egypt until Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth. Seth cut the body of Osiris into 14 pieces and strew them about the land. Isis gathered up the pieces — with the exception of the genitals, which had been eaten by a fish — and restored Osiris to life. Osiris then dwelled in the underworld as the king & judge of the dead. Isis nonetheless gave birth to the divine child "Horus the younger" (presumably a virgin birth). In fourth-century Alexandria, "Madonna" could have been a reference to the mother goddess Isis or Saint Mary. The last Egyptian Temple of Isis was converted to a Christian Church in the sixth century AD.
Some claim that the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that "the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son" is a Greek mistranslation — that the original Hebrew reads "young woman"(alma), not "virgin"(bethulah). Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56 refer to the brothers & sisters of Jesus, which some find difficult to reconcile with the idea that Mary remained a virgin. Either they were not the literal siblings of Christ or the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" implies that procreation is not sinful. Luke 1:36 can be interpreted to imply that Mary's cousin Elizabeth also had a virgin birth.
In the first chapter of Matthew and in the third chapter of Luke there are lengthy genealogies of Christ, possibly to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of being descended from David. The genealogies differ, even concerning the ancestors of David. Luke calls Jesus the son of Joseph. According to Matthew, Joseph is the husband of Mary, rather than the father of Jesus. Insofar as both writers declare a virgin birth, the ancestry of Jesus based on the ancestors of Joseph can only be symbolic.
Mary is described in the Gospels in connection with the Nativity or as the mother of Christ, and is mentioned only in passing in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospels. The rise of the prominence of Mary after the first centuries of Christianity may have contributed to the acceptance of the observance of Christ's birthday. The mother of Constantine, who searched for religious relics in the Holy Land, promoted the importance of Mary and the Nativity. The Council of Ephesus was called in 431 A.D. to resolve the dissention caused by the Patriarch Nestorius, who said that Mary had given birth to the human part of Jesus rather than the divine part. Nestorius called Mary the "Mother of Christ". The Council declared Mary to be "Mother of God" and Nestorius was exiled. Notably, Ephesus was the location of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Temple of Artemis — the site of the cult of goddess-worship honoring the Greek virgin goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans) who was the protector of both chastity and childbirth. In Rome the Vestal Virgins served the virgin goddess Vesta.
By the 8th century European churches were celebrating March 25th as the Annunciation, the date when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. Sainthood originally was only conferred upon martyrs who had died for Christ, but early in the second millennium the Blessed Virgin Mary became the chief saint of the Roman Catholic Church. (Canonization was not formalized in the Catholic Church until the end of the first millennium.) The Immaculate Conception does not refer to the virgin birth of Christ, but is a Catholic doctrine published in 1854 by Pope Pius IX that the Virgin Mary was born immune from original sin and remained free from sin her entire life. The Immaculate Conception, December 8th, is a Holy Day of Obligation in which Roman Catholics are required to attend mass. In 1950 the Pope made an infallible declaration affirming the Assumption of Mary: that the body of Mary went directly to Heaven upon her earthly death. The Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists elevate Mary to an even higher position by identifying her with the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit), making her the feminine principle of the Holy Trinity. But according to Matthew 1:20 Mary had been impregnated by the Holy Ghost.
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The birth of Christ is described in only two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke, which were written independently not long after the year 60 A.D. Both Matthew and Luke evidently borrowed from the writings of Mark, but had no knowledge of each other. The common features of the two accounts of the birth of Jesus are the location in Bethlehem, the father named Joseph and the virginity of Mary. Both of the evangelists probably wrote in Greek. The birth of a Godly Father who would be the Prince of Peace was prophesized by the Old Testament (Isaiah 9:6). The birth of Christ in Bethlehem was said to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), but the "Bethlehem Ephratah" referred to in Micah was a person (1 Chronicles 4:4), not a town. Luke and Matthew agree that "Jesus of Nazareth" grew up in Nazareth, but give different explanations for the Bethlehem birth.
According to Matthew, after Joseph discovered his betrothed was pregnant he was visited in his sleep by an angel who informed him that his wife would give birth to a son named Jesus (Matthew 1:21-23). The angel told Joseph that his wife had been impregnated by the Holy Ghost and that he should go ahead with the marriage. Joseph and Mary may have been living in Bethlehem as their city of residence. Only Matthew mentions wise men and the Star of Bethlehem. Matthew 2:11 describes the wise men as entering a house rather than a stable, and finding a child rather than an infant. The wise men were apparently not present at the time of birth. King Herod ordered the execution of all children under the age of two (not just newborns), so Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with Jesus. After Herod died, the couple relocated to Nazareth because they did not think it was safe to return to the Bethlehem area again. There is no mention of a census.
According to Luke Mary was visited in her sleep by the angel Gabriel, who informed Mary that she would give birth to an infant named Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). Joseph may have also been visited by an angel, as reported by Matthew. Joseph and Mary were living in their home in Nazareth at the time, but were required to go to Bethlehem because of a census for taxes. They could find no inn in Bethlehem, so Jesus was born in a stable and visited by shepherds, not wise men. Then they returned to their home in Nazareth. There is no mention of a flight to Egypt, of wise men or of a massacre of babies.
Matthew does not mention the number of wise men or their means of transport (by camel, by foot, etc.) to Bethlehem. The idea that there were three Magi evidently came from the third century theologian Origen, possibly associated with the three gifts. The Syrian church claimed there were twelve Magi. Sometimes the Magi are described as "kings". Not only may have there been more or less than three Magi, but some or all of them could have been women. The reference to three kings could be a fulfillment of Psalms 72:10, but this would not be consistent with the ancient Persian words, Majusian = Magi (priest of Zarathustra).
Magi were a class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Persia who practiced astrology, medicine and magic — and were renowned in the ancient world for their wisdom. A legend of wise men honoring the baby Jesus was the equivalent of academic certification, despite the fact that astrology was forbidden among the Jews. The wise men gave to the Christ child gold, frankincense (a tree resin producing fragrant smoke when burned) and myrrh (a tree resin perfume with antiseptic & pain-killing properties) — the first Christmas presents. All were luxury items that only the rich could afford. This was a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:6 of the Gentiles coming with camels to bring "gold and incense in praise of the Lord." The revelation of the Divinity of Christ to the Gentiles (the Wise Men) was an Epiphany (a word now associated with a sudden realization of a fundamental truth). Epiphany is now widely celebrated in many Western countries as "Three Kings Day" or "The Twelfth Day" based on the tradition that the Magi found Jesus twelve days after his birth. (Joseph and Mary might not be expected to remain in a stable for 12 days.)
Early in Medieval times legends arose of the Three Wise Men in art & literature which described them in detail. These legends are the product of artistic imagination without grounding in historical documentation, but are treated as seriously as other Christmas traditions. Melchior was an elderly Arabian king with a long white beard who brought gold. Balthasar was a young Moor (North African from the Algeria/Morocco area) who brought myrrh. Caspar (or Gaspar) was a man from the Far East bringing frankincense. Sometimes Caspar represents Europe, Balthasar represents Africa and Melchior represents Asia. There is great variation in the identities of these three, as to which one symbolizes a particular race, age or culture. This romantic image could symbolize that Christ was a gift to all Gentiles of the known world. But according to Matthew 2:1, they all came to Jerusalem from the East.
In the 4th century AD the mother of Constantine brought bones purportedly belonging to the three wise men to Constantinople. In 1158 A.D. three bodies were found in an ancient chapel in Milan, Italy, which were believe to have been come from Constantinople and assumed to have been the remains of the Magi. Because Milan was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the archbishop of Cologne, Germany took possession. The bones currently reside in a Cathedral in Cologne. Some relics were returned to Milan in 1903.
The Star of Bethlehem has been presumed to be a fulfillment of the prophecy in Numbers 24:17 of a "Star out of Jacob". Stars had also signalled the birth of Krishna, Lao-Tze, Moses and Abraham. Several attempts have been made to give explanations for the Star of Bethlehem. In the 14th century Albert Magnus (teacher of Thomas Aquinas) noted that the constellation Virgo rose above the horizon at midnight on December 24th at the reputed time of Christ's birth. In 1606 the German astronomer Johann Kepler suggested that the "star" was the conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn on May 22nd, October 6th and December 1st, 7 B.C. But Jupiter & Saturn would have been separated by a relative distance greater than two diameters of the moon — so they could not have appeared as a single star. Jupiter & Venus actually overlapped on June 17th, 2 B.C., but this would have been after the estimated 4 B.C. death of King Herod. A supernova explosion occurred in the constellation Capricorn in 5 B.C. and Halley's comet was visible in 11-12 B.C. Chinese astronomers of the Han Dynasty recorded a comet visible for seventy days in 5 B.C.
Natural explanations cannot account for a star being directly above a 20-meter radius on the surface of the earth such that it could be followed to such a specific location, unless the star was not high above the earth: "... and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." (Matthew 2:9). A natural explanation for a supernatural event may undermine the claim that there was anything supernatural about the event at all.
If shepherds near Bethlehem were watching their flocks at night during the birth of Jesus, then the birth would not have been in a winter month like December. If John the Baptist (cousin of Jesus) was really born in late March and Christ was six months younger, then Jesus would have been born in September.
It was the 6th century monk Dionysius Exiguus who created the B.C./A.D. system of dating based on the birthdate of Christ. His calculations were not very good. Dionysius had Christ born on December 25, 1 B.C., seven days before January 1, 1 A.D. (no year zero). Luke 3:23 says that Christ was age 30 in the 15th year (about 27 A.D.) of the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1). Modern scholars now date Christ's birth between 7 BC and 4 BC. Few historians believe that the census for taxation described in Luke 2:1-5 is a reliable guide to the date of Christ's birth. Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar had a census in 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and 14 A.D. — but these were only for Roman citizens. There is a record of a census in Judea in 6 A.D. If the Bible is taken as written by fallible human journalists (who misremember & embellish) rather than the literal Word of God, then such information can only be regarded as possible clues.
Some historians doubt that the story of Christ in the New Testament is really a description of the activities of a single man. There were likely many, perhaps even hundreds, of individuals claiming to be saviors and prophets during that period. Thus, the Gospels could have been a compilation of stories and folklore that arose around the activities of many such persons.
(For a "modern version", see The Digital Story of the Nativity.)
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Harvest festivals are typically celebrated later in warmer countries. Thanksgiving is celebrated in October in Canada, in November in the United States and was celebrated in December in ancient Rome. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, after whom Saturday is named. Saturnalia was the most popular of Roman holidays, with "Mardi-Gras"-like street celebrations. Originally it began with a celebration on December 17th (birthday of Saturn), but this was later extended to a week (December 17 to 23), and finally extended to end with feasting on December 25th (Sol Invictus). Halls were decked with evergreens. There was an exchange of gifts, principally wax candles and little clay dolls. Authority figures, however, were given tribute in the form of urns, jewelry, coins or gold. Romans parading in the streets wearing masks and animal skins during Saturnalia began a tradition which continued later in Europe in the form of "mummers".
Similar celebrations were held at Kalends, the Roman new year festival held January 1st to January 5th. People stayed up on Kalend's Eve to celebrate the new year with drinking and singing. Gambling was normally illegal in Rome, but was permitted and enthusiastically practiced during these festivals. People spent lavishly on gifts for others as well as for self-indulgence. Slaves were relieved of their duties and partied as equals with their masters. Social inversions ("mock rulers") were part of the entertainment, inspired by earlier Mesopotamian traditions.
In 64 AD the Roman emperor Nero is believed to have started a fire in Rome, which conveniently cleared ground for the expansion of his palaces. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire, beginning a Roman policy of persecution that lasted more than two centuries. To avoid persecution the Christians decked their homes with holly and the second bishop of Rome (circa 130 AD) declared that the Nativity of Christ should be celebrated during the Saturnalia period. (It was a "movable feast", a single day was not specified.)
The ancient polytheistic religions of Egypt, Persia, Babylonia and eventually Rome increasingly consolidated their pantheons of deities under a single primary god, usually a Sun-god. The Egyptians believed in a transubstantiation of their Sun-god Ra into a disk-shaped wafer that could be eaten in a sacred ritual. The Persian Mithra (Roman Mithras) held special prominence as god of day (light) and the only son of the God of Heaven. But some time before the 5th century B.C. the Persian prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) taught a dualism based on the conflict between the God of Heaven and the God of Evil. Humans could choose between good (light) or evil (darkness) and on judgment day be sent to Heaven or Hell based on their choices. Mithras was identified as the redeemer prophesied by Zoroaster: the sun-god who would appear as a human being at the end of time.
Mithras was a divine being borne of a human virgin on December 25th (the Winter Solstice by the Roman Julian calendar), his birth watched and worshipped by shepherds. As an adult, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox Mithras had a last supper with 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac). Mithraism included Zoroastrian beliefs in the struggle between good & evil, symbolized as light & darkness. This militaristic black-and-white morality (including a final judgment affecting an afterlife of heaven or hell) probably accounted for the popularity of Mithraism among Roman soldiers. Mithraism was like an ancient fraternity: a mystery cult open only to men which had seven degrees of initiation — including the ritual of baptism and a sacred meal of bread & wine representing the body & blood of Mithras. Late in the second century AD Commodus became the first Roman emperor to be initiated into Mithraism. The priests of Mithraism were called Father — Christians at the time were forbidden to use "Rabbi" or "Father" in reference to church leaders based on the admonition in Matthew 23:8−9.
Around 220 AD the unpopular Syrian-born Roman emperor Elagabalus attempted to replace Jupiter with Sol invictus ("unconquerable Sun") as the head of the Roman pantheon. In 270 AD a professional army officer named Aurelian rose to be emperor and was able to reunite the Roman Empire through military might. In 274 AD he attempted to unite the religions of the empire under the state cult of Sol invictus. Aurelian's new temple enshrined the Sun gods of Babylonia (Baal, Bel or Marduk). Although Mithras was not formally acknowledged, Natalis solis invicti ("birth of the unconquered sun") was, nonetheless, on December 25th. By the time of the reign of the military despot Diocletian (284−305 AD) ten percent of the Roman Empire was Christian. The attempts by Diocletian to impose the state religion on everyone led to the last and most terrible of all persecutions. But many people saw the state as a greater enemy than the Christians, who were respected for their willingness to die for their beliefs. Slaves & upper-class women (who were excluded from other religions) were drawn to a god with a human face who espoused justice & love.
Despite the intense persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire, Christianity continued to win many converts from paganism. Many of the former pagans were unwilling to relinquish their traditional winter solstice celebrations. When Constantine replaced Diocletian as Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 305 AD he ended all of the persecutions. Constantine was said to have accepted Christianity in 312 AD on the eve of a battle when he had a vision of a cross of light superimposed upon the sun. Persecution of Christians ended in both the Eastern & Western Empires in 313 AD when Constantine & Licinius issued the Edict of Milan. Constantine sought to unify Sun-worship and Christianity into a single monotheistic state religion. (Although Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, this was not an indication of his insincerity — it was a common practice of early Christians to delay baptism so as to die without sin.)
Although the Bible sanctifies Saturday as the Sabbath, many Christians regarded Sunday (the day of the resurrection of Christ) as the new holy day — especially because this distanced Christianity from Judaism. In 321 AD Constantine made Sunday rather than Saturday (Saturn's Day) the weekly holiday of the state religion of Sun-worship. Christian art began to adopt the pagan practice of depicting holy figures with crowns of sun rays (the crown of Mithras or Sol invictus), or with a halo. (The Statue of Liberty wears a crown of sun rays.) The revolt of the Jews & the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the rejection of the Hebrew calendar and the increasing pre-eminence of the bishop of Rome were all part of the Romanization of Christianity which accompanied the Christianization of Rome.
Constantine regarded himself to be the supreme spiritual leader of both the Sun-cults and of Christianity. Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, a city he immodestly renamed after himself. Constantine called himself "first of the apostles" and he did not recognize the papacy of the bishop of Rome. In 325 AD Constantine called the first Council of Nicea (Nicaea) to resolve controversy and establish Christian orthodoxy. The Council established the Unity of the Holy Trinity, the date of Easter and a doctrinal statement of Christian belief (the Nicene Creed). The Council of Nicea was the first ecumenical conference of Christian bishops, the nucleus of the institution which was to become the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, dominated by celibate male priests. (Celibate priests had not been part of the teachings of Jesus — many of his apostles, including Peter, were married.) The Council sanctioned the efforts of Irenaeus, Eusebius and others who were establishing certain scriptures as the infallible canon of the New Testament, while declaring other scriptures to be heresy — notably Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas, which support the idea that Mary Magdalene was an apostle and that salvation is possible without a church. With orthodox Christianity incorporated into the monolithic state religion Christian "heretics" were heavily persecuted.
Also in 325 Constantine declared December 25th to be an Immovable Feast for the whole Roman Empire. The bishop of Rome may have accepted December 25th as the date of birth of Jesus Christ as early as 320 AD, but historical documents provide no evidence for a date earlier than 336 AD. The Church was pushed by political forces and pulled by the desire to co-opt a popular pagan holiday, despite a lack of evidence that Christ was born in December. Constantine built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the oldest continually operating churches in the world (currently administered by a coalition of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clerics).
In Egypt, January 6th was the birthday celebration of the child-god Aeon, borne of the virgin goddess Kore — celebrated in the Temple of Kore at Alexandria. Egyptian Gnostic Christians celebrated January 6 as the date of Christ's baptism ("spiritual birth"). (Gnostics believed that spiritual is more important than physical, that the knowledge Christ brought to the world is far more important than his physical birth or crucifixion and that direct personal experience of God is of greater importance than churches or other institutions.) Later the Eastern Christian Churches celebrated January 6th as the date of both the Nativity and the Epiphany (Greek for manifestation) — the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (the wise men) as well as Christ's baptism by John the Baptist. (The rebirth of the Greek god Dionysus had been celebrated on January 6th.)
In the 4th century, the Eastern Orthodox Churches began to accept December 25th as the date of Christ's birth and the Roman Church began to introduce the January 6th feast of Epiphany. (Only the Armenian Orthodox Church refused to abandon January 6 as the date of the Nativity.) Epiphany for Western churches means the visit of the Magi, whereas for the Eastern churches Epiphany is the anniversary of Christ's baptism. The 567 AD Council of Tours proclaimed the duty of Advent feast and established the period between December 25th and January 6th as a 12-day holy festival — the Twelve Days of Christmas (if the first day is the day after Christmas, the twelfth day of Christmas is Epiphany).
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A wealthy orphan whose parents died in an epidemic, Saint Nicholas became a bishop at age 17. At age 30 he became the bishop of Myra (now the city of Demre on the south coast of Turkey) near the beginning of the fourth century. Soon after his appointment, the government of the Eastern Roman Empire jailed all Christian bishops who did not publicly sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Nicholas remained in prison for nearly ten years until Constantine conquered the East — ending the persecution of Christians. So many Christians had defected that the sacrament of confession was created, so that the "traitors" could cleanse their souls before re-entering the Christian Church.
Nicholas was a vigorous opponent of Arianism, the belief of the Alexandrian bishop Arius that Christ was created by God and therefore independent of God and inferior to God — a form of polytheism intended to explain how Christ could be both human and divine. According to Arius, Jesus Christ had not existed before God created Him, and Jesus prayed to his Father in Heaven, to whom He was subordinate. Constantine wanted the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to resolve the bitter conflict in the Eastern Church over Arianism. Nicholas reputedly not only attended Nicea, but physically accosted Arius there. The Nicene Creed supported the unity of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost as a single Being (with God and Christ equally divine, but of the same divine substance), thereby affirming the monotheism of Christianity. Constantine exiled Arius and ordered his books to be burned.
Saint Nicholas became the subject of many legends. A sailor who fell overboard was reputedly saved by Nicholas when the saint walked on water, retrieved the sailor and carried him back to the ship. After an innkeeper had robbed & dismembered some students, Nicholas reputedly re-assembled them and restored them to life. Nicholas took pity on a poverty-stricken family with 3 daughters who faced the threat of being forced into prostitution because they had no wedding dowries. For two daughters he crept-up to their house at night and threw bags of gold through a bedroom window. For the last daughter, he threw a bag of gold down the chimney — which landed in a stocking she had set by the fireplace for drying. The traditional association of chimneys & stockings with Santa Claus comes from this story. Nicholas was also noted for his generosity with children — he would reward them with treats if they had studied their catechism & behaved well. Nicholas was therefore patron saint of schoolchildren & sailors.
The bones of Saint Nicholas lay in his tomb in Myra until 1087. Because the Turks had taken Antioch in 1084, and Myra was no longer Christian, three ships of sailors & merchants raided the tomb, confiscated the bones and took them to the Italian seaport of Bari. In 1089 Pope Urban II consecrated a shrine for the relics of Saint Nicholas in a newly constructed crypt. The Basilica di San Nicola was completed in the middle of the 12th century where the crypt was located.
The legend of Nicholas made him so popular that more European churches bore his name than that of any of the apostles. He was made patron saint of Greece and Russia. He was also made patron saint of banking & pawnbroking at a time when the two trades were closely related. The 3-ball symbol of pawnshops represents the three bags of gold he threw as dowries. On February 14, 1969 the Pope removed Nicholas from the calendar of saints — there are no records of Nicholas ever having been canonized. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to recognize the sainthood of Nicholas.
The date of Nicholas's death — reputedly on December 6th, 326 AD — was widely celebrated as the feast of Saint Nicholas. The fact that the date coincided with the completion of farm-work, the slaughtering of animals for the winter and a period of idleness, abundant food and celebration may actually be the real reason why it was celebrated with such enthusiasm. But the feast of Saint Nicholas was abolished in many European countries as part of Martin Luther's effort to stop the veneration of saints. In keeping with the idea that Christ is the source of all good things, German Protestants had a tall Christ child (Christkindl) distributing presents on December 25th. In English-speaking countries Kris Kringle became another name for Santa Claus.
But in the Netherlands celebration of Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th) continued, despite the rise of Protestantism. Amsterdam has historically been a great seaport, and Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) as the protector of sailors has been its patron saint. Saint Nicholas — with his long white beard, and wearing his red & white bishop's robes — would ride down streets on his white horse distributing gifts to children. Even today, December 6th is the day children in Holland receive their gifts — although Saint Nicholas travels from Spain rather than the North Pole and may be accompanied by one or more assistants ("black Peters", who are either Moors or people who were blackened by climbing up and down chimneys). (In Germany the assistant of St. Nicholas was Knecht Ruprecht, a "wild man" who was condemned as a manifestation of the devil by the Catholic Church.)
The transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus happened largely in America — with inspiration from the Dutch. In the early days of Dutch New York, Sinterklaas became known among the English-speaking as "Santa Claus" (or "Saint Nick"). In 1809 Washington Irving, a member of the New York Historical Society (which promoted a Dutch Saint Nicholas as its patron saint), created a tale of a chubby, pipe-smoking little Saint Nicholas who road a magic horse through the air visiting all houses in New York. The elfish figure was small enough to climb down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones.
The 1823 poem "The Night Before Christmas" ("A Visit from Saint Nicholas", reputedly by Clement Moore) replaced the horse with a sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer. (Moore may have been inspired by the Finnish legend of Old Man Winter, who drove reindeer down from the mountain, bringing the snow.) Following Irving's example, Moore's St. Nick was more an elf than a bishop. Unlike the earlier St. Nicks, this one brought no birch switches, only presents. And it was Moore who established that St. Nick brings presents on the night before Christmas rather than on Saint Nicholas Day or any other time.
Thomas Nast — head cartoonist for Harper's Weekly magazine (the man who invented both the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant) — depicted Santa Claus from 1863 to 1886 as an unaging, jolly, bearded fat man who lived at the North Pole and wore a furry suit & elfish sleeping cap. Nast transformed Santa into a full-sized human who somehow retained the ability to climb through chimneys, but who had a team of elf assistants. By 1881 Nast had drawn Santa as a large man with a white beard in a red suit trimmed with white fur. Although other artists continued to use more elfish depictions, red-suited Santas continued the long tradition inspired by the red & white bishop's robes of Saint Nicholas.
The standardization of Santa's image was probably due to Coca-Cola artist Haddon Sundblom who (in 1931) depicted Santa as a portly, jolly grandfatherly figure with a ruddy complexion and white-fur-trimmed red coat & cap — replacing the pipe with a bottle of Coke. Thirty-five years of annual advertising by the Coca-Cola company using Sundblom's Santa solidified the contemporary image of Santa Claus (but without the Coke). (It was a fortunate coincidence that the red & white colors matched those used by Coca-Cola.)
The first department store Santa Claus was at J.W. Parkinson's store in Philadelphia in 1881. Kriss Kringle dramatically came down a chimney for the children and Parkinson's became "Kriss Kringle Headquarters". The second department store to feature a Santa was in Massachusetts in 1890. By 1900 dozens of American department stores had Santas.
In 1905 Eaton's department store sponsored its first Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, Canada, which remains the largest in North America. In the 1920s Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia, Macy's in New York, Hudson's in Detroit and many other department stores sponsored Thanksgiving parades that featured Santa Claus. In response to lobbying by department stores President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from November 30 to November 23 in 1939 to extend the shopping season. "Franksgiving" was observed in about half the states. As a compromise, a 1941 act of Congress established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.
Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer was invented in 1939 by a staff copywriter for Montgomery Ward. The story was patterned after The Ugly Duckling, turning a genetically defective glowing nose into a foggy-night navigation asset. Originally distributed to children as an illustrated story, a decade later it became the theme of a song which was sung by Gene Autry, the "Singing Cowboy".
Katherine Lee Bates (who wrote the song "America the Beautiful") is credited with the invention of Mrs. Santa Claus in a poem written in 1899. Since that time Mrs. Claus has often been depicted as a cheerful portly woman who spends her time at the north pole preparing Christmas foods.
In England, as elsewhere, many churches had been dedicated to Saint Nicholas, but with the elimination of Catholicism "Father Christmas" reverted to associations with a green-clad elfish figure associated with pagan mid-winter festivals. Father Christmas did not distribute gifts and he was often the master of ceremonies for mummer's plays. Although "Father Christmas" rather than "Santa Claus" is still the name of choice in the United Kingdom, his appearance & conduct has become indistinguishable from his American counterpart. Similarly, France has a "Pere Noel" and Brazil has a "Papai Noel".
In the fall of 1897 an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun asking if Santa Claus really exists. Francis Church, one of the Sun's editorial writers wrote a "Yes, Virginia" reply which has become a classic example for adults fostering children's belief in Santa Claus.
According to one study, 85% of 4-year-olds believe in Santa Claus. Belief drops to 65% by age 6 and to 25% by age 8. As children begin to question how Santa can visit every house, how a large man can fit in a chimney, how Santa can be in so many shopping malls at the same time, etc — many parents resort to increasingly strained explanations to maintain the fiction. The uncritical belief of children can be touchingly cute. The temptation to build a poetic fantasy-world in formative minds — removed from the harsh realities of life — can be great. Potential damage can result from erosion of trust when parents seriously try to convince their children that Santa Claus is a fact rather than a fairy tale. But if a parent can experience sentimental enchantment and love attached to the "game" of Santa Claus it would be hard to find much intention to deceive when no effort is made to mislead a child who begins to question.
Some Christians can become uncomfortable with the God-like qualities of Santa Claus. He is all-knowing, has magical powers and distributes reward or punishment (but nearly always reward, irrespective of how good or bad the child has been). For parents to lie to children to encourage them to believe in a false god in a red suit is viewed as a blasphemous substitute for recognition of the true God.
Men interested in playing Santa Claus at Christmas-time are coming under increasing scrutiny. Some municipalities & organizations (such as the Rotary Clubs) have issued regulations or guidelines concerning Santa hygiene and behavior. In some cases Santa is prohibited from being in the company of a child without a third adult (apart from the parent) being present. Santa must not make promises to a child. Santa must keep both hands in plain view at all times. And Santa must not straddle a child on the knee — or perhaps not touch a child at all. Background checks and sensitivity training for aspiring Santas are increasing. Schools have been instituted to train those who wish to be professional Santas.
Children all over the world can send letters for Santa to: Santa Claus; North Pole H0H 0H0; Canada. The boundaries of Canada extend to the Geographic North Pole, but there is no land at that location — only sea ice. The letters are delivered to Montreal where they are answered in over 20 languages with replies printed in "Santa's handwriting" on "Santa's personal stationary".
Letters for Santa are also sent to Finland: Santa Claus Park; Arctic Circle; 999 Finland; Europe. Children in Finland believe that Father Christmas lives in Lapland, part of Finland north of the Arctic Circle. There is a theme park called "Santa Claus Village" in Korvatunturi, Lapland which tourist agencies promote as being Santa's home.
The Danes have Santa living in Greenland, where his letters are forwarded. In Norway Santa has a postal station in the city of Drobak. Austrian children send their mail to the village of Christkindl, whereas letters to the German Christ Child go to the "Celestial Post Office" in Augsburg. The Santa Claus World Congress is held annually in Denmark in July. Santas come to the Congress from over a hundred different countries (excluding Finland, which does not recognize the authority of the organization).
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) — a joint organization between Canada and the United States providing aerospace warning & defense — continues a tradition established in 1955 of tracking Santa Claus between 6 a.m. EST December 24 and 5 a.m. EST December 25. Santa goes from the North Pole to Auckland, New Zealand and continues his trip around the world, ending in Hawaii. NORAD reports that the bright red nose of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer provides an infrared signature that can be detected by NORAD satellites. Since 1998 NORAD tracking of Santa's journey has been internet-accessible on the NORADSanta website.
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Celebration of birthdays — even including that of Christ — was rejected as a pagan tradition by most Christians during the first three hundred years of Christianity, but the matter became increasingly controversial. Partly in reaction to the claims by Gnostics that Jesus had not been mortal, Christians began to emphasize the Nativity. The Incarnate God as a lovable infant born to a holy mother evoked powerful instinctive emotions. The third century Christian writer Tertullian supported observance of Christ's birthday, but condemned the inclusion of Saturnalia customs such as exchanging of gifts and decorating homes with evergreens. Chapter 10 of the Book of Jeremiah begins by condemning the heathen practice of cutting a tree from the forest to "deck it with silver and gold".
The Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe was associated with a profound rejection of the Roman Church and a return to scripture as the ultimate source of spiritual authority. There was no scriptural support to be found for celebration of Christmas, no commandment that Christ's birthday be observed and no date of birth had been given that could be used for the celebration. Martin Luther called Rome a modern "Babylon" — parallels could be drawn with the mother-goddess worship of the ancient Babylon. The birthday of Mithras and the festivals of Saturnalia for the celebration of Christ would be symptoms of the paganism upon which the Romans had built the Catholic Church.
In 1583 the Presbyterian Church suppressed the observation of Christmas in Scotland because there are no biblical references to Christmas celebrations nor any biblical commandments to celebrate the birthday of Christ. The Church of Scotland continued to discourage the celebration of Christmas, which remained a normal working day in Scotland until 1958. Hogmanay (December 31) was the main day of Scottish celebration.
English Puritanism was probably the most extreme manifestation of the Protestant reaction against the Roman Church. Exodus 20:4 could be taken to indicate that God does not want to be worshiped the way pagans worship their gods — with idolatry such as Christmas trees and Nativity Scenes (much less revelry, drinking and gluttony). Oliver Cromwell campaigned against the heathen practices of feasting, decorating and singing, which he felt desecrated the spirit of Christ. Christmas was called such names as "the Papist's Massing Day" and "Old Heathen Feasting Day". Cromwell's government abolished English Christmas celebration by an act of Parliament in 1647, and the ban was not lifted until Cromwell lost power in 1660. But the tradition of caroling at Christmastime did not resume again in England until the 1800s.
Massachusetts Pilgrims (Congregationalists) passed a similar law forbidding Christmas celebration in New England in 1659 (repealed in 1681). Thanksgiving was the most important festivity for the Puritans. Wassailing (a door-to-door visiting of neighbors, drinking at each stop) was condemned as a source of public disorder. Wassail is a hot spiced wine punch with tiny roasted apples or clove-studded oranges floating on top. "Wes hal" is Saxon/Old English for "be hale" or "be of good health". The fact that toast sometimes floated in wassail bowls has been given as an explanation for "toasting to health".
Although Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England until 1852, it was popular in the American South beginning with the Anglican settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Virginian colonists were the first to establish eggnog as a holiday beverage. ("Nog" may come from the word grog, meaning any drink made with rum.) Dutch influence in the settlement of New York City (New Amsterdam) helped make New York a mostly pro-Christmas state, although there was still an anti-Christmas New England influence. In 1836 Alabama became the first State to recognize Christmas, which finally became a federal holiday in 1870.
Modern Jehovah's Witnesses and other fundamentalists still regard Christmas to be an un-Christian pagan holiday, which they do not celebrate. Such groups note that Christ did not admonish Christians to celebrate his birthday in his Sermon on the Mount. In Boston, a fundamentalist religious group has run advertisements in the subway proclaiming that early Christians did not "believe in lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, elves and drunken parties." The Xmas is Evil website has a similar theme, although it was reputedly created by Muslims seeking to encourage devout Christians to see the superior value of Islam.
The very word Christmas is regarded by some fundamentalist Christians as using the Lord's name in vain (Exodus 20:7) or, at least, an invocation of the "popish" idolatry of the Catholic Church ("Mass of Christ"). According to one fundamentalist group: "Santa Claus is a pagan mockery of God the Father with white hair, grandfatherly image..., omniscient of children's behavior..." And some fundamentalists — aware that Christ could not have been born in December and that that the timing is rooted in sun-worship — invoke such scriptures as Deuteronomy 17:3 against the December 25th sun-worshipping holiday.
Christmas was discouraged in the officially atheist Soviet Union, but a Festival of Winter was celebrated. "Grandfather Frost" and the "Snow Maiden" would bring gifts to children at the New Year. (Many Slavic countries have had a long tradition of Grandfather Frost riding a sleigh drawn by three horses to deliver gifts to children.)
Fidel Castro declared Cuba to be atheist in 1962, but did not prohibit the celebration of Christmas until 1969. Castro restored the holiday in December, 1997 preceding January, 1998 when Pope John Paul II was permitted to visit the country.
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Ancient Egyptians used palms in their Winter Solstice festivals — and the Romans used firs — in anticipation of the lush greenery of Spring with the return of the Sun. Bringing an evergreen tree into the house during winter solstice festivals was a tradition among the Germans from at least 700 AD. According to legend, Martin Luther added candles to the tree decorations. Like the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath and its candles are of German origin — although candles were common gifts during Saturnalia and candles have a long tradition in pagan rituals.
"Miracle (Mystery) plays" depicting biblical stories performed during medieval times probably also contributed to the use of Christmas trees. One of the most popular of these plays featured Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The only prop would be an evergreen tree (the "Paradise Tree") to which was affixed a red apple. Most commonly the Paradise Play was performed on December 24th, because this was the feast day of Adam and Eve on the old Christian calendar. Because "immoral behavior" sometimes occurred during this play, it was forbidden by the Church in the fifteenth century, but many continued the practice of having a Paradise Tree in their home on December 24th.
Victoria became Queen of England in 1837 at age 18. She proposed to the German Prince Albert and married him in 1840. Albert provided the first Christmas tree, well decorated, to his family at Windsor Castle for the Christmas of 1841. Albert distributed Christmas trees to schools and army barracks to foster his childhood love of the seasonal tree in his adopted country. Newspaper illustrations in 1848 showing the royal family with a Christmas tree decorated with glass-blown ornaments, candles and ribbons in Windsor Castle excited the popular imagination in Britain, a sentiment not shared by Americans.
German immigrants to eastern Pennsylvania ("Pennsylvania Dutch") were decorating Christmas trees in their homes at least as early as the 1820s. (Christmas trees were limited to the Strasbourg area of Germany prior to 1750, and only became popular throughout Germany in the 19th century.) In 1851 when some Pennsylvania Germans placed a Christmas tree outside their church, others in the community told the minister to remove the pagan symbol. The first printed image of a Christmas tree in the Unites States was in a 1836 Gift Book. Christmas trees did not gain popularity in the US until late in the 19th century. The German song "O Tannenbaum" became translated into the American "O Christmas Tree" (and is the melody for the state songs of Maryland, Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey).
The placing of tinsel on Christmas trees began in Germany — originally as beaten silver strips. According to legend a poor woman's tree was covered with spiderwebs and this saddened the Christ Child so much that He turned the webs into silver. The Germans also decorated their trees with fruits, pastries, candies, colored paper figures, tin angels and other ornaments. In the United States F.W. Woodworth unexpectedly made a fortune in the 1880s selling German-made Christmas tree ornaments which he had reluctantly stocked in his five-and-dime stores.
In 1882 Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, became the first person to light a Christmas tree with electric light — using a string of 80 small bulbs. Because they are such a fire hazard, candles were traditionally only placed on a tree on Christmas Eve. With electric lights trees could be illuminated safely for longer periods, but they were only affordable by the wealthy until 1903 when the Ever-Ready Company offered the first string of ready-made lights. Lighting trees outdoors was made practical by electricity. Decorating houses & landscapes with strings of multicolored lights at Christmastime became popular early in the 20th century. Electricity has allowed some homes to become an extravaganza of light and sound at Christmastime. Candles had traditionally been placed in windows to help Christmas travelers to find and identify houses — and to create holiday cheer.
The first American President to have a Christmas tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce in 1856. Theodore Roosevelt interrupted the tradition in 1900 out of concern over national consumption of evergreen trees, but Woodrow Wilson presided over the first national Christmas tree in 1913. About 20% of American homes had decorated Christmas trees at the beginning of the 20th century and about 85% had decorated trees near that end of that century.
In December 2010 the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi (capital and largest city of the United Arab Emirates) boasted having a Christmas tree decorated with $11 million worth of jewelry. The hotel's intention was not only have the world's most expensive Christmas tree, but to show the high level of hotel security that would allow the tree to sit safely in the lobby.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to trees, never touches the ground and can bear fruit in the winter. The Druids regarded mistletoe as sacred. The Scandinavians associated it with the goddess of love. Ancient Babylonian legend regarded mistletoe as a divine branch from heaven which was grafted to earthly trees. Mistletoe was a token of peace & reconciliation — with a kiss symbolizing pardon. Kissing under mistletoe was a Roman custom. The unholy & pagan associations with mistletoe (and the adulterous temptations) caused the church to ban its use and substitute holly wreaths, which could represent Christ's crown of thorns (with the blood-red berries). (Puritans later condemned holly wreaths as a pagan symbol of sun-worship — the shape symbolizing the sun.)
With its large red & white leaves (the colored upper leaves are often mistaken for flowers), the poinsettia has become the Christmas "flower". Eighty-five percent of potted plants sold at Christmastime are poinsettias. Poinsettia leaves can turn from green to brilliant red in the month of December. The flowers were brought to the United States by physician, statesman and botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett upon his return as American Ambassador to Mexico in 1828. Poinsett cultivated the Aztec plants in his South Carolina greenhouse. In Mexico the poinsettia is called "flower of the Holy Night".
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Organ music and church hymns sung only in church were probably the first examples of Christmas music. Some of this music was sung outside of church and became intermingled with folk music (carols) having a religious theme. Wassailing carols (Christmas drinking songs) had secular Christmas themes. Christmas music now includes classical pieces, oratorios, popular tunes, rock music — every form of music.
The word carol derives from the Middle English carole (ring, a ring-dance with a song) — but the tradition may have begun in Greece with the choraulein dance to flute music. The medieval church discouraged dancing to music. Originally carols were primarily folk songs for celebrations. Christmas became the holiday of carols in the 16th century, but condemnation of caroling by the Puritans in the 17th century dampened the tradition in England for over 160 years. Carols can include both religious songs, such as "Silent Night" & "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" as well as the nonreligious "Jingle Bells" & "White Christmas", although some distinguish between carols and popular songs.
Early hymns written for church use that became popular as carols included "Joy to the World" and "O Come All Ye Faithful". Early secular carols included "Deck the Halls" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".
The "Twelve Days of Christmas" has been seen as a fanciful English folk song without hidden symbolic meanings. It was probably used to teach children how to count. A legend holds that the song was symbolic for English Catholics when their religion was forbidden in England (prior to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829).
Handel's Messiah is an oratorio (musical composition with orchestra and thematic singing, but lacking in the costumes and acting of an opera) that is performed primarily at Christmastime. The oratorio is primarily concerned with the birth and crucifixion of Christ. Handel composed the piece for Easter performances before Christmas became the predominant Christian holiday.
"Silent Night" (the most popular of all Christmas carols) was first written as a poem in Germany in 1816 by a young priest named Joseph Mohr who was assigned to an Austrian pilgrimage church. The church organ was too rusted to play for the 1818 Midnight Mass so Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber (a local teacher) to compose a tune. Mohr and Gruber sang the song together, with Gruber playing a guitar. The piece might been forgotten except that a visiting musician took the music and it grew in popularity as it was played throughout Austria & Germany.
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" had long been a popular folksong before being published in 1833 in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern by William Sandys. Few people nowadays notice the placement of the comma — imagining that the title refers to "Merry Gentlemen". In fact, the title is an exhortation for gentlemen to "rest ye merry" in the same somewhat obsolete use of the word "rest" as occurs in the phrase "rest assured" — "remain merry".
"Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" was written as a poem by Phillip Brooks, a Philadelphia pastor who ministered to Union soldiers during the Civil War. The poem was set to music three years later in 1868 and was sung by a children's choir in Brooks's church, but was unknown outside his parish for a decade. "Jingle Bells" was composed in 1857 by James Pierpoint, who became a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Although Pierpoint never rose out of poverty, his nephew James Pierpoint Morgan (J.P.Morgan) became one of the wealthiest businessmen in America.
Nutcracker Ballet is a traditional Christmas performance which was set to music by the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It represents the Christmas Eve dreams of a girl whose nutcracker doll leads a squadron of toy soldiers against an army of mice around a Christmas tree. She also dreams of snowflakes, the Kingdom of Sweets and a Sugarplum Fairy. The dreamy fantasy setting allows for the creation of fantastic costumes, dancing and special effects — making it the most popular ballet in the world.
In 1938 a Melbourne, Australia radio announcer organized a Christmas Eve sing-along concert which became a radio sensation. "Carols by Candlelight" has become an annual tradition all over Australia as well as in other countries.
The song "White Christmas" was composed by Irving Berlin, a Jew, for the movie "Holiday Inn" and received an Academy Award in 1942. Bing Crosby sang the song to troops who were moved by memories of what their homeland was before the war — and would be after the war. Sentimental association of snow with Christmas has long been a tradition of the season. "White Christmas" is the biggest selling Christmas song of all time.
From the late 1920s Hollywood Boulevard has been renamed Santa Claus Lane every December for a Christmas Parade that includes many movie stars. In 1946 singing cowboy Gene Autry rode his horse in the parade and was thereby inspired to write "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)".
Other popular Christmas songs that would not be called carols include "Frosty the Snowman", "Silver Bells", "Jingle Bell Rock", "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth". A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (an album of secular Christmas songs) was released in 1963 on the day of President Kennedy's assassination. Despite the poor reception initially, it has become a holiday classic. Do They Know It's Christmas was written in 1984 to raise money for famine relief, becoming the best selling single in the history of the United Kingdom.
Mumming arose from a pagan tradition where men & women swapped clothes, dressed in animal skins, wore masks and visited neighbors for merry-making (a tradition still observed in rural Newfoundland) — although the mummers also trace their origins to the Roman Saturnalia & Kalends festivals. Plays were sometimes performed with masked, costumed mimes (who could be "mum"). Mummers' costumes sometimes provided opportunity to disguise malicious mischief and criminal acts. The drinking, rowdiness and often unwelcome visits of mummers did much to give Christmas a bad name. Philadelphia repeatedly attempted to ban mumming until 1901 when the first New Year's Mummers' Parade tamed the energies of the noisy revelers into a more manageable form.
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From the time of the ancient Egyptians, goose was the main course of Winter Solstice feasts. Henry VIII of England is credited with replacing goose with turkey, which is more meaty & flavorful. Turkeys were first introduced to Europe in 1519 by the Spanish, who learned of turkeys from the Aztecs (who domesticated the birds). Fruit from an exotic American plant — the cranberry — was also added to Christmas dinners.
Christmas ham may originate from Norse traditions of eating wild boar in midwinter feasts. The ancient Romans ate boar during Saturnalia in honor of the god Adonis who was slain by a boar and whose birthday was December 25th. The oldest existing printed Christmas carol is "The Boar's Head Carol" (printed 1521), which was sung in England at Christmas dinner while a boar's head was carried on a platter. The custom is still observed every Christmas at Queen's College, Oxford — a possible relic of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Humble pie was made from the "humbles" of deer (heart, liver, brain and other organs) by the servants of nobility who feasted on the more choice cuts of meat. By the 17th century humble pie had become such a traditional Christmas dish that it was outlawed by the Puritan Cromwell government in England.
Mincemeat pie was originally mainly minced meat preserved with sugar & spices. Fruits were often used as a less expensive preservative and flavoring agent than sugar. Meat was increasingly omitted (except for beef fat) and additional fruits were included.
Plum pudding was originally a soup made by boiling beef & mutton with dried plums (prunes), wines and spices. The prunes & meats were later removed, raisins added and the pudding was thickened with eggs & breadcrumbs to be more like a steamed or broiled cake. So "plum pudding" is not a pudding and contains no plums.
In the 17th century the word "plum" was commonly used to refer to any dried fruit. A "sugarplum" was any candied fruit (dried & sugared) — and could be a plum, apricot, cherry, etc. Prior to the age of chocolate children yearned for sugarplums, which is why "visions of sugarplums" danced through the heads of children in Clement Moore's poem — and why the Sugarplum Fairy was a prominent character in "The Nutcracker".
Apples were a tempting ornament of the first Christmas trees in Germany, later augmented with cookies, nuts and other fruits. Americans added strings of popcorn. Children looked forward to dismantling the Christmas tree and gobbling-up the treats.
Candy canes are edible ornaments which originated in Germany in the late 1600s. Originally made as straight white sticks, a German choirmaster bent the sticks so as to represent a shepherd's staff — and distributed them to children during Nativity services (at least partly to keep them quiet by giving them something to suck on). Not until the year 1900 did candy canes become striped with the red-and-white Christmas colors or become flavored with peppermint or wintergreen. Some people have the idea that the J-shape is a reference to J-esus and that the red & white symbolize the blood & purity of Christ.
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The 567 AD Council of Tours proclaimed Advent, a season from November 11 to December 24 characterized by the spirit of anticipating the birth of Christ. ("Adventists" are Christians who prepare for the imminent Second Coming of Christ.) The faithful were forbidden from being absent from regular church attendance during the period and were to fast as strictly as during Lent. Although the Orthodox Church still begins Advent on November 11, near 600 AD Pope Gregory I shortened the season to the four Sundays before Christmas. Later the requirements for fasting & abstention were relaxed, but Advent remains a season of spiritual preparation.
The Advent wreath is decorated with four candles, one of which is to be lit on each of the four Sundays. Advent is observed festively in Nuremberg, Germany where the season is begun with a gala opening of the Christkindl Markt (Christ child shopping market) on the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas markets of stalls selling Christmas specialties in open plazas are popular not only in Germany, but in Italy and Belgium.
Los Posados is a Mexican custom that has spread to several central American countries as well as to the Philippines. During the nine days preceding Christmas a nightly procession ("los posados") enacts Joseph and Mary searching for shelter in Bethlehem. According to tradition they must be refused at least once before an innkeeper lets them in.
Midnight Mass is the first of three masses held at Christmas by the Roman Catholic Church, each mass characterized by a distinctive liturgy. For many people Midnight Mass is the most important of Christmas masses because of a popular belief that Jesus was born at midnight. Midnight Mass from St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome and from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is broadly televised.
St. Stephen's Day (December 26th) commemorates the first Christian martyr Stephen, who was stoned to death for his religious beliefs in 35 A.D. In the Middle Ages priests opened the church alms-box on St. Stephen's Day to distribute deposited coins to the needy. St. Stephen's Day became Boxing Day in Britain and is a recognized holiday not only in Britain, but in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In British tradition, Christmas was a day of exchanging gifts whereas the day following Christmas was a day in which people of less fortunate station (servants, tradespeople and the poor) received gifts from the more fortunate — often in boxes — without the expectation of anything being given in return. The custom declined, partly because tradespeople became too demanding of their annual "tips".
Holy Innocents' Day (December 28th) commemorates the slaughter of the boy babies of Bethlehem by King Herod. In England this day was the occasion for ritual beating of children, but in continental Europe it was more common for children to be given license to whip adults. The English did allow "boy bishops" to deliver sermons on December 28. In Spain and in many Latin American countries Innocents' Day is celebrated like April Fools' Day — the victims of the practical jokes are the "innocents".
The time between the holy season of Christmas and the holy season of Lent (the 46 days
before Easter Sunday, in remembrance of Christ's 40 days in the wilderness) is sometimes called
carnival (Latin for "farewell to meat", in reference to the fasting
of Lent). Starting on the day after
Epiphany, the peak day of partying with abandonment is the day before Ash Wednesday (the
first day of Lent), namely Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") — although
the days of celebration can include the entire carnival period.
Christmas Cards were introduced in 1843 (the same year A CHRISTMAS CAROL was first published) by Sir Henry Cole, an English businessman and patron of art. The card was designed by John Calcott Horsley, and helped popularize the expression "Merry Christmas". Cole printed a thousand cards and sold them as a means to simplify the sending of Christmas greetings. Postage for the cards was one penny in the 1840s. Within a few years after the introduction of the halfpenny rate for mailing cards in the 1870s, the British Post Office was flooded with annual card mailings. Christmas cards in the United States were first produced for businesses to send to their customers as a form of advertising.
Christmas Island was named on December 25, 1643 by the British East India Company captain who arrived there on that Christmas. The island is a self-governing Territory of Australia located 1,466 miles northeast of Perth in the Indian Ocean. Postage stamps have been issued since 1958.
The first Christmas stamp was printed by the Canadian post office in 1898, but another national Christmas stamp wasn't produced until Austria issued two in 1937. The practice of regularly issuing Christmas stamps was begun in Australia and a few other countries in the 1950s. The United States began the practice in the 1960s, also issuing stamps commemorating Hanukkah, Eid and Kwanzaa.
The first Christmas Seal (which has no postage value) was issued in Denmark at the turn of the 20th century to raise money for tuberculosis. Christmas seals in the United States raise money for the American Lung Association. (Although tuberculosis is not common in the United States, drug-resistant strains have emerged. Tuberculosis remains one of the most common deadly infectious diseases in the world, with 1.7 million deaths in 2004.)
El Niño (Spanish for "the small boy", ie, the Christ child) was originally a term used by peoples of the west coast of South America to describe the warming ocean countercurrent which occurs annually during the Christmas season. But every 3 to 7 years the effect is abnormally strong and is associated with dramatic climactic effects all over the world, including drought in some areas, flooding in other areas and unusually warm or cold winter temperatures. The most severe El Niño on record was in 1982-1983, but the phenomenon has not been studied by scientists for much longer than fifty years.
St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and founder of the Franciscan Order (clerics for the masses rather than for the aristocrats), is said to have been the first to depict a Nativity Scene (crèche) in Greccio, Italy, around 1223 AD — using life-size wooden figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds. The word "creche" comes from the French word for "manger", which in turn comes from the Italian word "Greccio", the name of the town having the first nativity manger scene.
The Greek transliteration of the word Christ is Xristos, the first letter of which is the Greek letter "chi". The shortening of Christmas to Xmas by educated persons who knew Greek has been common since the sixteenth century, with the "X" often symbolizing a cross. "Xmas" was an ecclesiastical abbreviation used by churchmen in tables & charts. More recently the use of "X" has been associated with irreverent commercialism, leading to the saying "Put the 'Christ' back into Xmas". The American profanity "Jesus H. Christ", may come from the second letter of "chi" ("Christos" for "Xristos"), and has been in the use in the United States at least since 1850.
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Christmas is called Noel in France, which is why "Joyeux Noel" is the season's greeting in French. The word "noel" may come from "les bonnes nouvelles", meaning "the good news" (gospel is Greek for "good news"). (The "First Noel" was the proclamation of the news of Christ's birth.) In France children put their shoes in front of the fireplace so Pere Noel (Father Christmas) can fill them with gifts. Adults exchange gifts on New Year's Day.
In Spain Navidad (Christmas) is a season that lasts nearly a month, beginning December 8th with the feast of the Immaculate Conception (the Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Spain) and ending January 6 with Epiphany. The season emphasizes religious rather than the secular traditions celebrated so much elsewhere. Much time is spent in church. Most homes have mangers. Festive aspects include special dances, bonfires and a Christmas dinner (featuring seafood). On Epiphany Eve children fill their shoes with grass, straw or grain for the camels of the Wise Men and place them on the doorstep. On the morning of Epiphany (Three Kings Day) the children find the gifts left by the Wise Men. The Wise Men play a role similar to Santa Claus — they visit hospitals, appear in parades and children write them letters requesting special gifts. The Christmas lottery in Spain is the largest in the world. The winning numbers are sung by orphan schoolchildren on December 22. Another lottery, the Christ Child, is drawn on January 7th.
In Sweden the Christmas season begins with St. Lucia's Day on December 13. "Lucia" is Latin for "light", and the "festival of lights" probably has its roots in pagan solstice celebrations. Homes commonly have four-candle Advent candelabras, one candle being lit on each Sunday after Advent. Saint Lucia is said to be a third century Roman Christian woman who refused to marry a pagan nobleman. The nobleman reported her adherence to the illegal Christian faith to the authorities, who killed her in prison as a result of her intransigence. Swedish girls dress in bridal white to honor Saint Lucia. St. Lucy's Day is also observed in Finland & Italy (especially in Sicily).
Italy, like Spain, emphasizes Nativity scenes and religious aspects of the season in its Christmas observances. People fast and pray prior to Christmas dinner. Epiphany is similarly the day for gifts, but the gifts are left by an elderly woman (La Befana) who had intended to help the wise men find the young Jesus — but had been busy cleaning. Children write letters to La Befana requesting toys. Dressed in black she flies on the broom she had been using for sweeping and slides down the chimney on Epiphany Eve to fill the good children's stockings with gifts and to leave a lump of coal in the stockings of bad children. A large Christmas tree is ceremoniously presented at the Vatican by the Pope, much the way the National Christmas tree presented by the American President. The Pope blesses crowds in Vatican square at noon on Christmas Day.
In Russia Babouschka is the name of the elderly woman who failed to provide food & shelter to the Wise Men. She wanders searching for the Christ child, leaving gifts for children. Christmas dinner is a meatless meal eaten on January 6th (Christmas by the Julian calendar) following a period of fasting. In Ukraine the meatless Christmas dinner is served in twelve courses to honor the 12 apostles.
In Greece, the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th is a celebration of the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. Boats are decorated with blue and white lights (colors of the Greek flag) and become places to have parties. St. Basil is the Greek "Santa Claus" (not St. Nicholas), and St. Basil's Day (January 1st) is the time for gift-giving. The main symbol of Christmas in Greek homes is a wooden bowl full of water that nurtures basil wrapped around a cross. The Christmas season ends on Epiphany (January 6th) celebrating the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem.
In Egypt Christians belonging to the Orthodox Coptic Church constitute about 7% of the population. Religious holidays are determined by the Coptic calendar, which puts Christmas at January 7th. Christmas is preceded by a 43-day Advent fasting period which prohibits eating between midnight and 3pm, and in which meals are vegetarian or fish. Advent ends at Midnight Mass at Christmas. A basilica is built on a cave in which the Holy Family were believed to have stayed upon fleeing Bethlehem.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church follows the Coptic calendar in celebrating Christmas on January 7th and Epiphany twelve days later. About 40% of Ethiopians are Christian. Christmas is celebrated by playing genna (a game resembling hockey) rather than by exchanging gifts. A 3-day celebration of the baptism of Jesus begins on January 19th.
The Armenian Orthodox Church (the world's oldest national church) not only refused to move the Nativity from January 6 to December 25, it continues to use the Julian calendar as the basis for determining religious holidays. Thus, Christmas in Armenia is celebrated on January 19th. Armenians fast on the week preceding Christmas, avoiding meat, eggs and dairy products. On Christmas Eve children climb to rooftops where they sing Christmas carols.
Bethlehem is five miles south of Jerusalem in the Israeli-held Palestinian West Bank. There an Eastern Orthodox Shrine, the Church of the Nativity, is built on the site where Jesus was reputedly born. A cave underneath the church (the "Grotto of the Nativity") has a large silver star on the floor marking the spot where Mary was said to have given birth. The Grotto is shared by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church, which celebrate the Nativity on December 24, January 7 and January 18, respectively. (Although the Eastern Church accepted December 25 as the date of the Nativity in the first millennium AD, it retained the Julian calendar for calculating religious holidays, which places the Nativity on January 7th by the Gregorian calendar.)
In Latin America Nativity scenes rather than Christmas trees are the decorative centerpiece of Navidad — often containing elaborate ornaments, figurines and electric lights (although Christmas trees are popular in Argentina). In Chile Old Man Christmas climbs through open summer windows with his bag of toys. In Brazil Papai Noel arrives in a helicopter at a large soccer stadium in Rio wearing a fir-trimmed red suit. In Mexico children break cardboard or paper mache pinatas hung by rope to be rained-upon with candies & small toys. Mexican children re-enact Joseph and Mary searching for shelter by leading a procession that goes from house to house. In Guatemala Midnight Mass is followed by a Christmas dinner featuring tamales, and the occasion is marked by firecrackers. Guatemalans incorporate traditional Mayan flying pole dancing into the Feast of the apostle St. Thomas on December 21st.
People in the British West Indies have a Christmas celebration called Jonkonna, which is a combination of English mumming and African traditions. The festival involves elaborate costumes, music, dancing and mumming.
Christmas in Australia & New Zealand is celebrated with beach parties & outdoor barbecues — along with caroling and other religious observances. Christmas marks the beginning of summer holidays at the end of the school year, so students have an additional reason to celebrate. The Christmas tree in New Zealand is the Pohutukawa, which has brilliant red flowers prior to Christmas. The Australian Father Christmas brings gifts by boat or helicopter rather than in a sleigh, and leaves them on the breakfast table or in pillowcases rather than under a tree.
Christmas is a national secular holiday in India, where the Hindus & Muslims celebrate in the secular traditions. Poinsettias & tropical plants are used for decoration and mango & banana trees receive Christmas ornaments. Tribal Christians in the Northeast & West go to church & sing carols. In the South clay oil lamps are lit on roofs and the tops of walls in the evening.
The Philippines is the only Asian nation with a Christian majority. The five-pointed Star of Bethlehem (parol) is seen everywhere at Christmastime. At the San Fernando lantern festival some parols are so large they are transported on trucks. Philippinos follow the Hispanic tradition of pranks on Holy Innocents' Day and the Mexican tradition of Posados. Roman Catholic Masses are held frequently on Christmas Day.
In most Middle Eastern countries signs of fellow Muslims celebrating Christmas are viewed with scorn, so forms of Christmas celebration are rarely found among the non-Christians. Christians from all over the world come to Israel & Palestine to visit the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and other sacred sites of historical significance to Christians. The St. Nicholas festival is celebrated in Myra, Turkey.
In Zimbabwe Kisimusi (Christmas) church services feature feasts & the singing of gospel songs. Fathers give gifts to wives & children, usually clothes & candy. Wearing new clothes to church on Christmas day is a common tradition among African Christians.
About one-tenth of the population of Vietnam is Roman Catholic. Catholic children enact Nativity scenes at Christmastime.
Christmas is increasingly celebrated in China, where coastal factories are the largest suppliers of Christmas paraphernalia to the American market. In China, the Communist Party does not regard Christmas as a religious threat because it is celebrated entirely as a fun occasion for exchanging gifts and for partying with family & friends — against a backdrop of Christmas trees, greetings, and melodies. China is adopting Christmas in much the way it has adopted Western music, clothing and videos.
The Japanese traditionally celebrated oseibo, a gift-giving season in December, but the main holiday season is around the New Year. Although gifts were given to friends, coworkers and relatives, expensive gifts were given to bosses, seemingly as tribute. Less than 1% of Japanese are Christian, but many of the secular aspects of Christmas celebration have become increasingly popular, especially in cities. Images of Santa Claus & decorated Christmas trees have become very common, along with Western Christmas holiday music. Christmas gift-giving is less family-oriented and more romantic, like Valentine's Day (possibly related to the fact that younger people are quicker to adapt foreign customs as a fad).
Conveniently, December 25th was the date of the signing of the Constitution of the Republic of China in 1947, so December 25th is an official holiday in Taiwan — which is celebrated like Christmas.
Lists of ways to say "Merry Christmas" or "Season's Greetings" in different languages can be found on InfoPlease and Christmas in Hawaii.
Hanukkah(Chanukah, the Festival of Lights) is not a major Jewish holiday like Passover (celebrating the Exodus) or Yom Kipper (celebrating God's forgiveness in the second Tablet of Commandments). In 167 BC the Jewish people were horribly oppressed by a descendent of a general of Alexander the Great. Observance of Jewish faith was punishable by death and Jews were forced to adopt Greek names & practice Greek culture. Although greatly outnumbered, the Jews rebelled (led by Judah Maccabee) and by 165 BC were able to capture Jerusalem. The Temple of Jerusalem (which had been defiled with the sacrifice of pigs on a pagan altar) was rededicated to Judaism. Although there was only had enough oil to burn for one day, their lamp miraculously burned for eight days. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days conveniently close to the Christmas season — involving exchanging of gifts, house decorations and family feasting. The exact dates are determined by the Hebrew calendar, so the first day of Hanukkah varies year-to-year on the Gregorian calendar — ranging from November 25 to December 26. The most distinctive ceremony is the lighting of an additional candle on the menorah (candelabra) each evening of the holiday. Increasing numbers of municipal court cases have been fought over the right of Jewish organizations to place a menorah in public places alongside Christmas trees and other holiday displays. Some orthodox Jews take offense at the idea that "Happy Hanukkah" is a way to wish a Jew "Merry Christmas". Less orthodox Jews have attempted to merge Christmas and Hanukkah into "Chrismuuka". (The pressures & temptations of Jews to celebrate Christmas might be reminiscent of the pressures & temptations of early Christians to celebrate Saturnalia.)
Eid (Eid Ul Fitr) is a time of feasting, celebration and gift-giving (to children or the needy) that is sometimes taken as an Islamic equivalent of Christmas. The date of the holiday, however, is not constant on the Gregorian calendar because it is celebrated on the first three days following the ninth Islamic month (ie, following Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk to honor the month in which the Koran was revealed). The Islamic calendar year consists of 12 lunar months and is therefore about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar year. The holiday only begins when the crescent of the new moon of the tenth month is sighted — and this can be a matter of regional difference or controversy among Muslims. (The crescent only became became a symbol of Islam with the founding of the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. The crescent had appeared on the city's flag from before the time of Christ, but the symbol was adopted by the Ottoman's and subsequently by all Muslims.)
In the 1960s an activist California professor of Black Studies created the holiday of Kwanzaa in reaction against Christmas as an institution of commercialism & exploitation not relevant to African-Americans. The word "Kwanzaa" comes from a phrase meaning "first fruits" in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language. In the seven days from December 26th to January 1st the seven communitarian African values are strengthened & celebrated: Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.
Some non-religious people have attempted to combine conformity and rebellion by celebrating Isaac Newton's birthday — Newtonmas (emphasizing apple decorations, particularly for people who have outdoor apple trees). Newton was born on December 25, 1642 according to the old Julian calendar, but by the Gregorian calendar (the one in current use) his birthday was January 4, 1643. Both calendar systems were in use during Newton's lifetime. As a birthday gift, Newton was made Master of the British Mint on December 25, 1699/January 4, 1700. (According to one legend Isaac's Anglican parents listed December 25th on the birth certificates of all their children as a protest against the anti-Christmas Cromwell government.) The selection of Sir Isaac Newton as an icon for atheism has a certain irony insofar as Newton read the Bible every day and wrote more about scripture than he did about science. Some secularists have suggested the word "Giftmas".
Other non-Christians who celebrate the Winter Solstice are Pagans — including Wiccans (witches), Druids and followers of Norse traditions — honor Solstice celebrations. (But the most important Pagan ceremony is the new year at Hallowe'en.) Some pagans protest that Christians have stolen their seasonal festivities.
(See also Christmas Greetings from Around the World.)
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Christmas as celebrated by Catholics and early Protestants a few hundred years ago was not the secular holiday we recognize today. It was a "Christes Maesee" (Old English for Christ's Mass) or Nativity service.
In 18th century England & America non-puritans who celebrated Christmas did so by churchgoing, holly in windows, caroling, mumming, some dancing, adult visiting and dinner parties featuring mince pie, fruitcake & other seasonal foods. Children and exchanging of gifts were not featured in Christmas celebration. Charles Dickens and the transformation of the Dutch Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus changed the spirit of Christmas.
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the same year that the first Christmas card was published. Both the book and the card helped popularize the phrase "Merry Christmas". Dickens' popular book had an extremely powerful influence on undermining opposition to Christmas, especially among those influenced by Puritans in England and New England. Dickens used Scrooge to symbolize the idea that those who don't celebrate Christmas are uncharitable, twisted, mean-spirited and socially isolated. Dickens depicted Christmas as a one-day family event held in the home rather than a 12-day public holiday — thus contributing to changing the way Christmas was celebrated. Central to the Dickens Christmas celebration was a lavish family dinner.
In 1957 Dr. Seuss reinforced the negative image of those who don't want to celebrate Christmas with his picture-book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch — a nasty mountain hermit — steals Christmas paraphernalia and plans to destroy it. But his heart is touched by the sound of Christmas carols, and he becomes transformed (as happened to Scrooge).
The World War I Christmas Truce of 1914 has often been romanticized as an example of how Christmas love can triumph over the savagery & killing of war. But it is no exaggeration to say that the occasion of Christmas evoked shared sentiments, empathy and goodwill among the British & German troops who enjoyed the relief of fraternizing from the stress of shooting & dodging shells.
Gallop polls have shown that over 90% of Americans regard Christmas to be their favorite holiday. Many love the fun of giving and receiving presents. Christmas has become, above all, a celebration of family. For most, the feelings of sharing, togetherness and love experienced at Christmas-time is a special joy. But the expectations some family members project upon other members often have the character of "familial moral duty". The season thus frequently occasions reopening old hurts and conflicts. This forces many people to re-examine their lives, especially because Christmas is a period which interrupts routing daily living. Resolutions for the New Year are often the result.
Perhaps no modern institution apart from Christmas elicits such ritualistic behavior from so many people. And the pressures to conform to these rituals can be very great. When others are celebrating with friends & family, those without friends & family (especially due to death of a loved-one) can feel their loss intensified. But Christmas can also be a time of great social support. Popular magazines frequently report high suicide rates at Christmas, but scientific studies have consistently shown that suicide as a cause of death declines immediately prior-to and on Christmas day — only becoming higher than normal on the days after Christmas [ARCHIVES OF GENERAL PSYCHIATRY 38(12):1377-1381 (1981) and AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY 142(6):782 (1985)].
Many Christmas parties are held in the weeks of early December. Hard liquor sales are 30% greater in December than in September. Although toasting with alcoholic beverages is part of the holiday tradition, a large number of consecutive non-working days appeals to some people as a drinking opportunity. (There is no historical support for the claim that America may owe its independence to Christmas drinking because George Washington was able to cross the Delaware on Christmas of 1776 and catch the drunken German Hessian soldiers by surprise.) Queen Elisabeth says "Happy Christmas" rather than "Merry Christmas" because of her association of the term "Merry" with alcoholic revelry.
The modern celebration of Christmas tends to emphasize commercial and other non-religious aspects of the holiday. The time to Christmas is measured by "shopping days" rather than "prayer days". (The expression "shopping days until Christmas" originated from the American retailer Henry Selfridge in the late 19th century.) For retailers, it is "the season to be jolly" (except when their expectations are too high). An estimated one-sixth of retail sales in the United States are Christmas purchases.
Gift-giving at Christmastime was rare in Europe or America prior to the 19th century. The first advertisements for Christmas gifts in the United States were primarily for children's books. In the 19th century gifts tended to be fabricated by the giver and were practical (eg, mittens or food). But modern gifts tend to be more frivolous, fun or luxurious. Half of the year's sale of diamonds, furs and luxury watches happen in December.
The greatest shift from homemade to manufactured Christmas gifts in America occurred between 1880 and 1920, mostly as a result of the "industrial revolution" in manufactured goods. In 1880 retailers began wrapping Christmas presents in decorative paper to emphasize gift status, and this gimmick was very effective in boosting sales.
SCROOGE (Society to Curtail Ridiculous, Outrageous and Ostentatious Gift Exchanges) is attempting to reduce Christmas spending to less than 1% of income and to promote the giving of smoke alarms, first aid kits and other practical gifts. The Christmas Resistance Movement is dedicated to opposing the "holiday hysteria" of "compulsory consumption".
Christmas.com claims to be the world's largest Christmas Internet portal. The site features its own "Christmas.com store" and other commercial links along with some links related to more secular aspects of Christmas culture. The christmas.org and christmas.net websites are strictly commercial with no obvious connection to Christmas.
Christmas shopping is increasingly procrastinated. Since 1990 the busiest shopping day of the year has shifted from the day after Thanksgiving to the Saturday before Christmas. The average American adult with a credit card adds about $1,000 in debt at Christmas-time ($2,000 per 2-parent family). Holiday sales in the week prior to Christmas increased from 24% in 1999 to 34% in 2001. A 2002 American Express survey found that 22% do not complete their shopping until Christmas Eve. The gift-certificate industry has grown 15-20% per year, increasing the number of post-Christmas shoppers with vacation time who are able to benefit from the price markdowns.
Some people restrict their Christmas gift-giving to children, who are usually the most enthusiastic and uncomplicated gift-recipients. Gift-giving can be a way of expressing love, gratitude or of having fun, but it can also create feelings of obligation in the recipient — often with no such intention on the part of the giver. Sometimes there is an intention to create obligation, however, because some people give in order to motivate, manipulate, "suck-up" or otherwise have influence on others.
Deciding who amongst cousins, in-laws, friends, co-workers and other associates to give a gift, the expense of the gift and the appropriateness of the gift can be a daunting task. Knowing how to graciously receive an inappropriate gift can be as worrisome as deciding what to give. Young relatives can be given the uncomplicated (and invariably welcome) gift of money. Older relatives and friends can be given gift-cards.
From an economic point of view, Christmas is an inefficient use of resources. People do a better job of buying for themselves than for others. Much time & anxiety is spent on decisions about appropriate gifts for others. When relief from social pressure for the buyer is the main utility of the purchase, the transaction seems wasteful. Christmas gifts are often immediately exchanged, re-gifted or given to charity — thereby increasing the social utility of the gifts. Insincere expressions of gratitude for inappropriate gifts has become part of the Christmas spirit. Nonetheless, pleasant surprises do happen when appropriate gifts are given that even the receiver would not have imagined. And there are pleasures of giving and receiving that go beyond measures of economic utility of the gifts.
Workplaces often attempt to adopt formalized rituals to make the process of gift-giving simpler and less burdensome. Giving a gift to a randomly-selected person makes the process more of a task and less of an expression of feeling — the cost of simplification.
Even in otherwise egalitarian families with two married, opposite-sex, working adults the chores of shopping and gift-selection still usually falls on the woman (who usually has more willingness to do the task). With the increasing trend toward single adult or unmarried adult households, there is an increasing tendency to pare-down the number of gift recipients.
Greater social diversity, reduced pressure to conform to out-dated norms and more open expression of individual preferences increasingly relieves people of unwanted & unnecessary duties that might be associated with Christmas. Increasingly there is open communication & negotiation concerning how to handle expectations of the season — when this does not undermine the fun that can be experienced from the element of surprise. The sending & receiving of cards (and e-mails) remains a less stressful and more popular means of keeping in touch with a network of friends, relatives and associates — although it can be more superficial, mechanical and be done out of nothing more than reciprocity.
In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5−4 (Lynch v Donnelly) that a city-owned Christmas display including a Christian nativity scene was not a violation of separation of Church & State as required by the First Amendment of the Constitution ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."). The court ruled that the symbols served a secular purpose by depicting the historical origins of Christmas. In 1999 a U.S. District Court dismissed a law-suit by a Jewish lawyer who claimed that observance of Christmas as a holiday by the federal government violates the First Amendment, which prohibits establishment of a national religion. The ruling was based on grounds that "the Christian holiday has become largely secularized." Ironically, those who complain about the secularization of Christmas are indebted to secularization for Christmas being recognized as a national holiday.
Many Christian groups now object to retailers who use the terms "Holidays" and "Holiday Season" rather than "Christmas" in their Christmas season advertising. In an ironical twist to the protest that a religious holiday is being commercialized, the American Family Association advocates a boycott of retailers who do not use the word "Christmas" in their seasonal advertising. American politicians who use the word "Holidays" where they could say "Christmas" have faced similar criticisms. Although the replacement of "Christmas Trees" with "Holiday Trees" appears to be a secularization, retailers and politicians have defended themselves by saying that they simply were seeking to use a generic term which encompasses Christmas, New Year's, Hanukkah and other seasonal celebrations.
In reaction to commercial advertising at Christmas a coalition of British religious denominations formed the Christian Advertising Network to increase church attendance. One advertisement showed the Three Wise Men along with the caption, "You're a virgin, you've just given birth, and now three kings have shown up — find out the happy ending at a church near you."
Many atheists celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. Cafe Press has a large collection of atheist greeting cards.
A Christian legal group called the Alliance Defense Fund has a large number of cooperating attorneys who have volunteered to handle complaints about "improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property." The American Civil Liberties Union has appeared to some people to be on different sides of the issue, in some cases fighting displays with religious themes on public property and on other occasions defending the "right of religious free speech". The ACLU has taken the position that schools may celebrate secular aspects of Christmas and "objectively teach about their religious aspects", but not observe them as religious events.
Growing numbers of non-Christian immigrants exposed to Christmas traditions find it easier to adapt when the religious aspects of Christmas are de-emphasized. As all elements of society become increasingly politicized — with particular emphasis on acknowledgement of ethnic diversity — it seems probable that the non-religious aspects of Christmas will predominate and that the holiday will become increasingly standardized and internationalized.
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