Christmas is a Christian religious holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. The word Christmas can be traced to the Old English "Cristes Maesse" or mass of Christ.
Christmas is typically celebrated on December 25. Although Jesus is believed to have been born in spring, the Catholic Church chose December to celebrate Jesus's birth in order to displace pagan winter solstice celebrations.
Christmas is observed as cultural holiday by many non-Christians. Many of today's common Christmas practices and symbols are a combination of religious and cultural traditions.
The legend of Santa Claus originated with St. Nicholas who was born in the 4th century in what is now Turkey. He became widely known for his love of children and generosity to the poor and his red Bishop's cape and flowing white beard made him a distinctive figure.
Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to St. Nicholas and in the 12th century a church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on December 6 and was marked by gift-giving and charity.
The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. Dutch colonists brought this tradition to America in the 17th century. In Holland, St. Nicholas was known as Sint Nikolaas, which transformed into Sinterklaas, and finally became Santa Claus in America.
Clement Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit with his 1822 poem "The Night Before Christmas".
Christmas gift giving is linked to the generosity of St. Nicholas and the tradition of gift giving to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas. However, it's unlikely that St. Nicholas could have imagined the gift giving extravaganza that is modern day Christmas in America.
Christmas Trees & Other Holiday Greenery
The Christmas Tree originated in Germany in the 16th century. The Germans decorated fir trees with roses, apples, and colored paper. Indoor trees were lit with candles to replicate the appearance of starlight shining through the branches. The electric Christmas tree light would be invented by Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, in 1822.
The Christmas Tree was brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans in the 18th century, but did not become common in the USA until the middle of the 19th century when they became popular in Victorian England.
The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert from his native Germany. A famous etching in 1848, featuring the Royal Family gathered around a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, popularized the tree throughout England and among the upper classes in America. There are now over 10,000 Christmas tree farms in the United States.
The Christmas tree isn't the only greenery to be found in holiday celebrations. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids decorated their homes with mistletoe in winter. They believed the plant had special healing powers. Scandinavians thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated it with their goddess of love, Frigga and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this association. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins and instead recommended holly as an appropriate Christmas greenery.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico and were named after America's first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett who brought the plants to America in 1828. Mexican's thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem and the Poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season. The poinsettia flower is small and yellow, but is surrounded by large bright red leaves that resemble petals.
According to legend, a kindly nobleman grew despondent over the death of his wife and foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three young daughters without sufficient dowries to be married.
The generous St. Nicholas rode his horse by the nobleman's house and threw three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney where they landed in the stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry. The daughters got married and lived happily ever after. Since then children have been hanging stocking near the chimney on Christmas Eve for Santa Claus to fill with goodies.
Christmas stockings are supposed to have the gifts given by Santa Claus, while gifts from family members are wrapped in papers and placed near the Christmas tree. It is believed that a child who misbehaves during the year will not get a gift in their Christmas stocking.
Stick shaped candies have been around for centuries, but it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that they were decorated with red stripes and bent into the shape of a cane. The colors and shape made them a perfect a Christmas tree decoration. Candy canes were also handed out during holiday church services to quiet restless children.