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Brief History of the Christmas Celebration

Nativity

Christmas (which translates to Mass of Christ) is an annual holiday held on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central Messiah figure in Christianity. The Nativity of Jesus is the account of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth found in the Bible in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In these accounts, the Messiah was born to the Virgin Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. The birth took place in a stable, according to popular tradition. However, neither the stable nor farm animals are mentioned in the Biblical accounts. A manger is mentioned in Luke 2:7 where it states "She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."

The history of traditions that are typically attributed to Christmas dates back over 4000 years and many centuries before the Christ child was born. The 12 days of Christmas, the Yule log, the bright fires, the giving of gifts, carnivals (parades) with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, along with the church processions and holiday feasts, can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians.

A theory about the evolution of the winter celebrations to being celebrations of the birth of Jesus is that the Roman emperor Constantine, a Christian convert, wanted to incorporate the pagan winter rituals together with the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Constantine hoped that both pagans and Christians could celebrate together. Many believe that this is the reason for celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th, a date previously attributed to Winter Solstice in ancient times.

Today, it is widely believed that Jesus was not actually born on, or even close to, December 25th. Over time the Roman church was almost entirely successful in making the December celebration only about the birth of Christ. Celebrations about honoring any pagan gods were replaced.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia.

1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus

Originating from Western culture, where Christmas is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Father Christmas (also known as Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Jolulupukki and Sinterklaas, among others.) Various interpretations of such a gift giver are used in at least 69 countries.

Another modern Christmas icon, the decorated Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. The English language phrase "Christmas tree" was recorded in 1835 and imported from the German language. Lights and ornaments typically decorate the modern Christmas tree.

In addition to the traditional gift giver and Christmas tree icons, decorations are also used and vary by country and region based upon their unique traditions and available resources. These include decorating the outside of houses with lights, illuminated sleighs, snowpeople and other Christmas figures in North and South America, Australia and the British Isles. In addition to decorating, sending Christmas Cards is a popular tradition. These include kind notes of greetings and well wishes during the holiday and are popular with Christians and non-Christians alike.

 

Christmas Tree

In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote that Christmas was a time where peace and a warm hearted holiday brings groups together across lines of social status or wealth. 

World’s First Commercially Produced Christmas Card by Henry Cole