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Christmas is celebrated all over the world, as a religious holiday or as a time of celebration by Christians and non-Christians alike. The traditions are different from country to country, but they nearly always include a feast, giving gifts or cards, and enjoying church or public festivities such as singing Christmas carols and songs. Santa Claus is a tradition in many countries of the world.

Some of the traditions that are used for Christmas are older than Christmas, or come from other non-Christian traditions such as Yule. Modern traditions of Christmas often focus on the giving of gifts. The season for retail stores to sell gifts, food, greeting cards, Christmas trees, and decorations begins the day about a month before Christmas Day.

The origin of Christmas:

The word “Christmas” means “Mass of Christ,” later shortened to “Christ-Mass.” The even shorter form “Xmas” – first used in Europe in the 1500s – is derived from the Greek alphabet, in which X is the first letter of Christ’s name: Xristos, therefore “X-Mass.”

Christmas in the Gospels:

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. The story of how this happened is told in part of the Bible known as the Gospels.The Gospels say that many years before Jesus’ birth, prophets had told a promise to the Jewish people that God would send them a Messiah, or holy teacher. Christians believe that the promised Messiah was Jesus. Long ago, about 2000 years, when King Herod ruled Judea (now part of Israel), God sent the angel Gabriel to a young women who lived in the northern town of Nazareth. The girl’s name was Mary and she was engaged to marry Joseph.

The angel Gabriel visited Mary and said: ‘Peace be with you! God has blessed you and is pleased with you.’ Mary was very surprised by this and wondered what the angel meant. The angel said to her ‘Don’t be afraid, God has been very kind to you. You will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a baby boy and you will call him Jesus which means ‘Saviour’ because he would save people, he will be God’s own Son and his kingdom will never end.’ Mary was very afraid but she trusted God. ‘Let it happen as God chooses.’ She replied to the angel. Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he was wondering what he should do, when an angel came from God to tell him the fact.

At this time, the Middle East was ruled by the Romans. An order came that all the people had to travel back to their home town, to put their names on the taxation lists. Joseph took his new wife to Bethlehem. There was nowhere for them to stay, except a stable where the animals slept. This is where the baby was born. Joseph called him Jesus, as the angel had said.

The baby Jesus had two lots of visitors. On the night he was born, angels told some shepherds in the fields that they would find a newborn king lying in an animals’ feed bin (or manger). Jesus’ other visitors were some wise men who saw a new star in the sky and followed it, until they found the house where the family was now living and gave the young child expensive gifts of gold, incense and a precious herb called myrrh.

The figure of Father Christmas (Santa Claus) is based on the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas (270-310AD), who became one of the youngest bishops ever at age 17. At age 30 he became the Bishop of Myra, a port town on the Mediterranean Sea, that is part of modern-day Turkey. He hailed from a rich home and became well known for supporting the needy. He would often be seen, clad in red and white bishop’s robes and riding on a donkey, handing out gifts to children.

During the Middle Ages, many churches were built in honor of Saint Nicholas. In the 11th century, his remains were enshrined in a church in the Italian city of Bari. It is told that the first Crusaders visited Bari and carried stories about Nicholas to their homelands. The anniversary of his death, 6 December, became a day to exchange gifts.

Santa Claus

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Martin Luther tried to stop the venerating of saints and the feast of Saint Nicholas was abolished in some European countries. The gift giver took on other names: in Germany, he became Der Weinachtsmann (“Christmas Man”), Pre Nol in France, Father Christmas in Britain and the colonies, and many other names.

The Dutch, under Peter Stuyvesant, founded New York – named New Amsterdam under the Dutch and renamed when the British took over the colony – and brought with them the celebrations of Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus is the American pronunciation of Sinterklaas.

Thomas Nast, the illustrator and caricaturist who created the donkey and elephant images to depict the US Democratic and Republican parties, contributed his own vision of Santa for Harper’s Weekly magazine from 1860 until the late 1880s. Nast depicted Santa in a red, fur-trimmed suit and a wide leather belt. Each year he added more details to his version of the Santa legend, including the home-workshop at the North Pole and the Naughty & Nice list.

In 1925, it was discovered that there are no reindeer at the North Pole. There are, however, lots of reindeer in Lapland, Finland. In 1927, the great secret of Santa’s address was revealed by Markus Rautio (“Uncle Markus”) who compered the popular “Children’s hour” on Finnish public radio. He declared that Father Christmas lives on Lapland’s Korvatunturi Mountain.

Korvatunturi – literally “Mount Ear” is in the Savukoski county, Lapland, Finland, on the Finnish-Russian border. At 500 m (1,640 ft) high, it actually is only a big hill. But its three summits points to the answer the children of the world had been asking for years: “Yes, there really is a Father Christmas (Santa Claus).” And his official Post Office is in the town of Napapiiri, near Rovaniemi, near the Korvatunturi mountain. The mountain itself is out of bounds to people. The figure of Father Christmas (Santa Claus) that we know today was introduced by artist Haddon Sundblom in advertisements for the Coca-Cola Company.

History of the Christmas tree:

It is told that Saint Boniface, a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, England who established Christian churches in France and Germany in the 7th Century, one day came upon a group of pagans gathered around a big oak tree about to sacrifice a child to the god Thor. To stop the sacrifice and save the child’s life Boniface felled the tree with one mighty blow of his fist. In its place grew a small fir tree. The saint told the pagan worshipers that the tiny fir was the Tree of Life and stood for the eternal life of Christ.

Christmas tree

Xmas tree It is also told that Saint Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. By the 12th Century, Christmas trees were hung from ceilings as a symbol of Christianity. However, in that time, for a reason no one could yet explain, the trees were hung upside down.

Trees were a symbol of life long before Christianity:

Ancient Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December as a symbol of life’s triumph over death. Ancient Finns used sacred groves instead of temples. Romans adorned their homes with evergreens during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honour of Saturnus, their god of agriculture. Druid priests decorated oak trees with golden apples for their winter solstice festivities. During December in the Middle Ages, trees were hung with red apples as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve, and called the Paradise Tree. The first reference of a fir tree decorated for Christmas is at Riga in Latvia in 1510. There also is a printed reference to Christmas trees in Germany, dated 1531.

The Christmas tree was introduced to the United States by German settlers and by Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804, US soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their barracks. Britain was introduced to the Christmas tree in 1841, when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert brought a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal family. The custom of of the Christmas tree spread quickly to the middle class, to working people, and throughout the colonies.

Christmas tree decorations:

Trees were decorated with apples, cakes and candies for many centuries. Martin Luther was the first to use candles on trees in the late 16th Century. In 1842, Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees to the US in Williamsburg, Virginia. Martin Luther is said to be the first to have decorated a Christmas tree with candles to show children how the stars twinkled through the dark night.

In 1850s, German company Lauscha, based in Thuringia, began to produce shaped glass bead garlands for Christmas trees. They also introduced the Rauschgoldengel, the Tingled-angel’, dressed in pure gilded tin. The glass ornaments reached Britain in the 1870s, and North America around 1880.

In 1882, ornaments were complimented by electric Christmas lights. Edward Johnson, a colleague of Thomas Edison, lit a Christmas tree with a string of 80 small electric light bulbs which he had made himself. By 1890, the Christmas light strings were mass-produced. By 1900, stores put up large illuminated trees to lure the customers.

When to put up the Christmas tree:

Traditionally, Christmas trees are put up 12 days before Christmas day, thus on the December 13th, and taken down 12 days after Christmas. But some put up the Christmas tree on December 6th in honor of the day Saint Nicholas died and take it down on Epiphany, January 6th. In Catholic tradition, Christmas trees are put up after noon on Christmas evening.

Modern tradition is to put up the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving (which is the fourth Thursday in November), thus on Black Friday, one of the world’s busiest shopping days.

Christmas factoids:

Christmas tree angels were introduced in the 1850s. In 1851, Mark Carr hauled two sleds loaded with trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York and opened the first retail tree lot in the US. The popular Goose Feather Tree was invented in the 1880s in Germany to combat the damage being done to fir trees at Christmas time. The first brush trees were created in the US by the Addis Brush Company. The Tom Smith Cracker Company – named after the inventor of Christmas crackers – also produced artificial Christmas trees for a while.

Every year since 1947 the people in Oslo have given a Christmas tree to the city of Westminster. The gift is an expression of goodwill and gratitude for Britain’s help to Norway during WWII. The US tradition of National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn was started in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge.

Legend of Christmas tree tinsel:

The legend of the tinsel on the Christmas tree tells about a woman who had to care for a large family of children after her husband died. One Christmas, she prepared a tree to surprise the children. But because she worked alone to bring food to the table, she often had to work late into the night. When she wanted to bring the Christmas tree out, she saw that spiders had made webs all over it, from branch to branch. The Christ Child saw it and to spare her from sorrow, He changed the spiders’ webs into shining silver.

The Magi and The Christmas Gift Givers:

In 735 AD, St. Bede identified the magi in a work called the Excerpta et Collectanea: “The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard, who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Gaspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned, honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar… by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die.” An excerpt from a Medieval saints calendar printed in Cologne reads: “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the Gospel, the three wise men met at Sewa (Sebaste in Armenia) in 54 (AD) to celebrate the feast of Christmas. Thereupon, after the celebration of Mass, they died: St. Melchior on 1st of January, aged 116; St. Balthasar on 6th of January, aged 112; and St. Gaspar on 11th of January, aged 109.” The Roman martyrology also lists these dates as the Magi’s feast days. The 12 days of Christmas ends on 6 January with the Feast of Epiphany also called “The Adoration of the Magi” or the day of the Three Kings.

The Bible clearly states that the visit of the Magi to Jesus was not on the night of his birth, unlike the shepherds’ visit to the manger, but occurred later when Jesus was staying in a house in Bethlehem.

The most famous gift giver is Father Christmas (Santa Claus or Sinterklaas), based on the character of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. But because the celebration of Christmas was not always appreciated, and because the origin of Christmas festivities are found in pagan festivals, there are many other gift givers. In communist Russia, where Christianity was outlawed, St. Nicholas became Grandfather Frost, dressed in blue instead of the traditional Christmas red. In early Europe, where old pagan traditions survived before they gradually took on the Christian meaning, festivities were held to ward of evil spirits. The Yule Buck, for instance, did not give presents but demanded them. Italy had a female Santa, called La Befana. In parts of Russia, gifts were distributed by Babouschka, a grandmotherly figure. In Germany, the Christkind, an angelic messenger from Jesus, a beautiful fair haired girl with a shining crown of candles, delivered the gifts.

In some countries, the baby Jesus delivers the gifts, in others, the three wise men. But in most countries, the jolly round Father Christmas (Santa Claus) does the honors.

Matthew 2: 1-2: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

The three gifts of the Magi had a prophetic meaning: gold, the gift for a king; incense, the gift for a priest; and myrrh, a burial ointment as a gift for one who would die. In Bavaria and Austria, beginning with New Years and through January 6, children dress as kings, and holding up a large star, go from door to door, carolling and singing a Three Kings song, for which they receive money or sweets.

The Festival of the Star is also held in Poland. Right after the Christmas Eve meal, the village priest, acts as the “Star Man” and tests the children’s knowledge of religion. In Alaska, boys and girls carry a star shaped figure from house to house, singing carols. In Hungary, a star-shaped pattern is carved in a half of an apple and is supposed to bring good luck.

The oldest Christmas carols:

The Apostles sang songs of praise, many based on the Psalms. As founders of the churches, their enthusiasm inspired their new congregations into song. But unfortunately they did not leave us any copies of the musical scores.

One of the earliest known Christmas songs is from the 4th Century, Jesus refulsit omnium, composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers. During the 12th Century, St Francis of Assisi formally introduced Christmas carols to church services. Many of the Christmas carols that we know today are not quoted directly from the Bible and were composed fairly recently.

Perhaps the best known Christmas carol is Silent Night, written in 1818 by an Austrian assistant priest Joseph Mohr. He was told the day before Christmas that the church organ was broken and would not be repaired in time for Christmas Day. Saddened, he sat down to write three stanzas that could be sung by choir to guitar music. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” was heard for the first time at that Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. The congregation listened as the voices of the Fr. Joseph Mohr and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Fr. Mohr’s guitar. Today, Silent Night, Holy Night is sung in more than 180 languages by millions of people.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1834. Dickens was one of the first to show his readers a new way of celebrating the old Yule holiday in modern ways. He adapted the 12-day Yule feast to a one-day party any family could hold in their own home instead of gathering together an entire village, as was the tradition. Dickens introduced the “nuclear family” of Fred, the Cratchits, and Scrooge into a rewarding Christmas environment. A Christmas Carol is filled with magic, mystery, and song. The joyous carol had come home.

The most popular Christian carols:

  • Silent Night, Holy Night
  • O Come All Ye Faithful
  • O Holy Night
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  • Little Town of Bethlehem
  • Angels From the Realms of Glory
  • The twelfth day of Christmas
  • Santa Claus is coming to town
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain
  • Away in a manger
  • Joy To the World
  • What Child Is This
  • The First Noel

Most popular secular carols:

  • White Christmas
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
  • We Wish You A Merry Christmas
  • Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas (made famous during WWII)

Lyrics of Christmas Carols:

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Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth


Dashing through the snow
On a one-horse open sleigh,
Over the fields we go,
Laughing all the way;
Bells on bob-tail ring,
making spirits bright,
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
jingle all the way!
O what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh

A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side;
The horse was lean and lank;
Misfortune seemed his lot;
He got into a drifted bank,
And we, we got upsot.
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle all the way!
What fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bob-tailed bay
two-forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle all the way!
What fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.


We wish you a Merry Christmas – (3)
And a Happy New Year
Good tidings we bring
To you and your kin.
Good tidings for Christmas
And a Happy New Year

Now bring us some figgy pudding – (3)
And a cup of good cheer

We won’t go until we get some – (3)
So bring it right here

So bring us some figgy pudding – (3)
And bring it right here

Good tidings we bring
To you and your kin
Good tidings for Christmas
And a Happy New Year

The First Christmas Cards:

The first commercial Christmas and New Year’s card was designed in London, England in 1843. John Callcott Horsley (1817 – 1903), a British narrative painter and a Royal Academician, designed the first Christmas and New Year’s card at the suggestion and request of his friend Sir Henry Cole, who was the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Horsley designed the first Christmas card in 1840, but it went on sale only in 1843, when one thousand cards were offered for 1s each.

A particularly popular card was designed by English artist William Egley in 1849. The first greeting card produced in the US was by German lithographer, Louis Prang, who emigrated to New York around 1850. Prang set up a workshop in Boston, Massachusetts in 1860 and began to produce the first color cards with scenes of winter tales for Christmas and New Year.

Tradition of Christmas Cakes and Puddings:

In the earlier years, as soon as the weather got cold, pigs, calves and poultry were carved up into different cuts of meat. Fillets, cutlets, hams and pigs’ knuckles and trotters, together with cheeses, were buried in the snow or stored in the root cellar, a sort of cold room.

One of the oldest Christmas dishes known is mince pie, which originated in the Middle Ages. The original recipe contained a mixture of finely chopped poultry, pheasant, partridge and rabbit. Later, sugar, apples, raisins and candied oranges and lemons were added. Over time, the meats were eliminated leaving only the sweet ingredients, introducing the “traditional” Christmas pudding.

Fruit cake, stollen and log cake are part of the Christmas tradition, served on Christmas eve or offered as gifts. The famous, typically English Christmas pudding was called a “hackin” from its many ingredients. By the 17th Century, when more sweets were added, it became the plum pudding, often prepared on Christmas morning, and sprinkled with brandy and flamed when served.

The traditional Christmas fruit cake is a derivative of the Christmas pudding. It includes raisins, dates, nuts and candied fruit, also forgetting the generous helping of brandy or rum. In some countries, families gather around Christmas lunches, in other countries, around Christmas dinners. Traditional Christmas meals usually consist of a variety of cooked meats and vegetables. Father Christmas (Santa Claus) enjoys a glass of milk and cookies the night before. The Christmas candy cane, shaped as a shepherds’ crook, represents the humble shepherds who were first to worship the new-born Christ.

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One Response to Christmas

  1. Latashia Searchwell December 14, 2018 at 6:24 pm #

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