Christmas is for joy, for giving and sharing, for laughter, for coming together with family and friends, for tinsel and brightly decorated packages… But mostly, Christmas is for love. It was this love for which Jesus came to this world and sacrificed his life. Though originated by the Roman Catholics who commemorate the December 25th as the day of birth of Christ Child, it has gradually come to be celebrated by the non-Catholics as well. As far as the United States goes, the celebration of X’mas is comparatively of recent origin. Much of the world was already well into Christmas celebrations by the time the United States began to wake up. In the first half of the 19th century the Sunday schools in America held Christmas celebrations. And the celebration of Christmas in America owes its origin to these schools. Alabama was the first state to grant legal recognition to X-mas in 1836. The DC did it in 1870. By 1893 all the states and territories had made similar acknowledgements.
Thus Christmas is a celebration of love and mirth symbolized by the Nativity, the Santa, the caribou, the poinsettia and the evergreens. So be it the United States or in other parts of the world Christmas is celebrated with equal exuberance as the commemoration of the birth of Christ Child. And this is the spirit that makes Christmas so popular throughout the world.
Christmas is an annual holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. Christmas festivities often combine the commemoration of Jesus’ birth with various secular customs, many of which have been influenced by earlier winter festivals. There are a number of traditions associated with the occassion. Modern traditions have come to include the display of Nativity scenes, Holly and Christmas trees, the exchange of gifts and cards, and the arrival of Father Christmas or Santa Claus on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. The last one mentioned is a highly popular tradition that has its origin in times long ago.
Have you ever heard of Saint Nicholas? St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. St. Nicholas was a Christian priest, who later became a bishop. He was a very kind man and always helped the poor and the needy. He loved children greatly and gave gifts to them. He became the gift giver of Myra. He was a rich person, and traveled the country helping people, giving gifts of money and other presents. His gifts were given late at night, so that the gift giver’s identity would remain a secret. St. Nicholas did not like to be seen when he gave away presents, so the children of the day were told to go to sleep quickly or he would not come! St Nicholas was eventually named the patron saint of children, sailors, Russia and Greece.
A famous story about St. Nicholas, is about a poor man who had no money to give to his three daughters on their wedding day. St Nick dropped bags of gold into the stockings which the girls had left to dry by the fire. The sisters found the gold and ever since, children have hung up stockings on Christmas Eve hoping that they will be filled with presents by Christmas morning.
You are not too familiar with Saint Nicholas. But you are so with Santa Claus – a latter day transformation of this same Saint Nicholas. The similarities between the tale of these two saints are obvious. Like Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus will not arrive in Christmas unless the children go to sleep early.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus happened largely in America — with inspiration from the Dutch. In the 1500s people in England stopped worshipping St Nicholas and favored more another gift giving figure Father Christmas. Over the centuries, St. Nicholas’ popularity grew, and many people in Europe made up new stories that showed his concern for children. The name Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch Sinter Klass pronunciation of St. Nicholas. In the early days of Dutch New York, “Sinterklass” became known among the English-speaking as “Santa Claus” (or “Saint Nick”). Early Dutch settlers in New York (once called New Amsterdam) brought their traditions of St Nicholas. As children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klass, this soon became Santa Klass, which was settled as Santa Claus. The old bishop’s cloak with mitre, jewelled gloves and crozier were soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images. 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 rode a magic horse through the air visiting all houses in New York. The elf-like figure was small enough to slide down chimneys with gifts for the good children and switches for the bad ones. Santa Claus is the sum total of several trends, customs and beliefs that only got unified about a century and a half ago. His story is told through an ex-animation of the 3 names given to him in America: St. Nicholas, Kriss Kringle and Santa Clause. Much of the present form of the Santa story is undoubtedly due to the works of Clement Clark Moore and the cartoons of Thomas Nast. In 1822, Dr. Moore from New York wrote a Christmas poem, “A visit from St. Nicholas” to read out to his children on X’mas Eve. Clement was the son of the bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York. The poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” was written as a Christmas gift for his children in 1822. The following year one Ms Harriet Butler read the poem and requested a copy from him. Later she sent it without Dr. Moore’s consent for publishing to Troy, New York Sentinel. Consequently it was published and became popular. In 1938 Dr. Moore revealed that St. Nicholas was his creation. And since then it has appeared countless times. The poem is currently better known by the title “The Night Before Christmas” from its famous opening line.
Legends of the Christmas Tree
The 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” is first recorded in 1835 and represents an importation from the German language. Many legends exist about the origin of the Christmas tree. One is the story of Saint Boniface, an English monk who organized the Christian Church in France and Germany. One day, as he traveled about, he came upon a group of pagans gathered around a great 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 the eternal life of Christ.
Another legend holds that Martin Luther, a founder of the Protestant faith, was walking through the forest one Christmas Eve. As he walked he was awed by the beauty of millions of stars glimmering through the branches of the evergreen trees. So taken was he by this beautiful sight that he cut a small tree and took it home to his family. To recreate that same starlight beauty he saw in the wood, he placed candles on all its branches.
Yet another legend tells of a poor woodsman who long ago met a lost and hungry child on Christmas Eve. Though very poor himself, the woodsman gave the child food and shelter for the night. The woodsman woke the next morning to find a beautiful glittering tree outside his door. The hungry child was really the Christ Child in disguise. He created the tree to reward the good man for his charity.
Others feel the origin of the Christmas tree may be the “Paradise Play.” In medieval times most people could not read and plays were used to teach the lessons of the bible all over Europe. The Paradise Play, which showed the creation of man and the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was performed every year on December 24th. The play was performed in winter creating a slight problem. An apple tree was needed but apple trees do not bare fruit in winter so a substitution was made. Evergreens were hung with apples and used instead.
Another story comes from Germany about spiders and Christmas trees. Long ago families allowed their animals to come inside and view the Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. Because the Christ Child was born in a stable, they felt that the animals should take part in the Christmas celebration. But spiders weren’t allowed because housewives didn’t want cobwebs all over everything. of course the spiders were unhappy about this, so one year they complained to the Christ Child. He felt sorry for them and decided that late at night He would let them in to see the trees. The excited spiders loved the Christmas trees and all night long they crawled about in the branches, leaving them covered with webs. On Christmas morning the housewives saw what the spiders had done. But instead of being angry, they were delighted. For in the night the Christ Child had turned all of the cobwebs into sparkling tinsel. And even today, tinsel is often used to decorate Christmas trees to add that same sparkle the Christ Child gave the cobwebs long ago, in Germany.
The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century. From Germany the custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments.
Origins of its name – A popular Christmas tree is the mistletoe. The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” is the word for “twig”. So, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig”. From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. There are two types of mistletoe. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The other type of mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin. The Greeks and earlier peoples thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs. For its supposedly mystical power mistletoe has long been at the center of many folklore. One is associated with the Goddess Frigga. MistletoeThe story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, the goddess and his mother. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love. What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death? Its medicinal properties, whether real or imaginary, make it a just emblematic of that Tree of Life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations thus paralleling it to the Virgin Birth of Christ. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.
Another popular Christmas plant is the Holly. The plant with its shiny green prickly leaves and red berry has come to stand for peace and joy, people often settle arguments under a holly tree. Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honor him. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of Saturn with it. Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. To avoid persecution, they decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly lost its pagan association and became a symbol of Christmas.
Holly is believed to frighten off witches and protect the home from thunder and lightning. In West England it is said that sprigs of holly around a young girl’s bed on Christmas Eve are supposed to keep away mischievous little goblins. In England, British farmers put sprigs of holly on their beehives. On the first Christmas, they believed, the bees hummed in honor of the Christ Child. The English also mention the “he holly and the she holly” as being the determining factor in who will rule the household in the following year, the “she holly” having smooth leaves and the “he holly” having prickly ones. In Germany, a piece that has been used in church decorations is regarded as a charm against lightning. Other beliefs included putting a sprig of holly on the bedpost to bring sweet dreams and making a tonic from holly to cure a cough. All of these references give light to “decking the halls with boughs of holly.”
The sacredness of holly, however, finds a pagan origin. The Druids believed that holly, with its evergreen look keeps the earth beautiful when the sacred oak lost it leaves. They used to wear sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch their priests cut the sacred mistletoe. In many western cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths.
Do you know about the Glastonbury thorn? The Glastonbury thorn legend ties in Christ’s death as well as the celebration of his birth. Glastonbury ThornThe legend goes that soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain to spread the message of Christianity. When he traveled there from the Holy Land he brought with him his staff. Being tired from his journey, he lay down to rest. In doing so, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he awoke, he found that the staff had taken root and begun to grow and blossom. It is said he left it there and it has flowered every Christmas and every spring . It is also said that a puritan trying to cut down the tree was blinded by a splinter of the wood before he could do so. The original thorn did eventually die but not before many cuttings had been taken. It is one of these very cuttings which is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey today.
With its beautiful, red, star-shape poinsettia is a favorite flower in the United States. In Central America it is called the “Flame Leaf” or “Flower of the Holy Night”. Now very popular in the US, the American settlers were not quite familiar with this one only a couple of centuries back. A native of Mexico, it was brought here over a hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico. Most of the poinsettias used these days come from California.
The PoinsettiaThe legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. They were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always saddened because they had no money to buy presents. They especially wished that they could give something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.
One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. On their way they picked some weeds growing along the roadside and decided to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Of course they were teased by other children when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers and so we see them today.
The Christmas Rose
The Christmas RoseThe Christmas rose, also called the Snow or Winter Rose, is a well known English plant. It is traditionally regarded as a true Christmas flower. It blooms in the depths of winter in the mountains of Central Europe. There is a nice legend associated with it. Legend links it with the birth of Christ and a little shepherdess named Madelon. As Madelon tented her sheep one cold and wintry night, wise men and other shepherds passed by the snow covered field where she was with their gifts for the Christ Child. The wise men carried the rich gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense and the shepherds, fruits, honey and doves. Poor Madelon began to weep at the thought of having nothing, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King. An angel, seeing her tears, brushed away the snow revealing a most beautiful white flower tipped with pink – the Christmas rose. Also in central and northern Europe it is the custom to break off a branch of a cherry tree at the beginning of the Advent and keep it in water in a warm room; the flowers should burst into bloom at Christmas time.
Reindeer has come to be associated with the Christmas riding the tradition of the Santa Claus. As Santa is believed to have from the far away North, what else than a reindeer drawn sledge can serve as a better carriage?
It is man’s most ancient herd animal, the first animals being raised around 15,000 years ago. Up until about 12,000 years ago, reindeer grazed over a vast area of Europe. Rock paintings by primitive peoples featuring them are widespread, as are discoveries of tools made from reindeer horn. there was even a period of European prehistory in a part of France called Dordogne that is sometimes called “the civilization of reindeer.” The only surviving part of such a civilization might be found in Lapland, which is the northern part of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The legend of Santa’s reindeer was created in a famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore- “A visit from St. Nicholas”, known better now as “The Night Before Christmas” . Santa is believed to have eight reindeers, who magically pull his sleigh through the sky. They are named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.
Centuries ago, in the pagan times, Scandinavian people believed that elves are house gnomes who guarded their homes against evil. If you were good, the elves were good to you, but if you were bad, the mischievous elves would play tricks on you. Although these gnomes mostly were benevolent, they could quickly turn nasty when not properly treated, so it is told. Some of the tricks they enjoyed playing were giving you nightmares by sitting on your head while you were dreaming, tangling your hair as you slept, making your milk turn sour, and stealing your sausages. Folks believed that if they left a bowl of porridge on the doorstep at night, the elves would be happy and not subject them to their ornery antics. Throughout the centuries, they were either loved or loathed. Some people even believed them to be trolls and cannibals. The perception of gnomes largely depended on whether a person was naughty, or nice.
By the mid-1800’s the true purpose of the elves was revealed by the Scandinavians. Elves – already a tradition associated with story telling and magic, assumed a new significance in the mid-1800’s and their true intention began to be held as nothing else but to help Father Christmas (Santa Claus). This was the handiwork of the popular Scandinavian writers of the day. At this time, elaborate Christmas festivals regained popularity and Scandinavian story writers such as Thile, Toplius, Rydberg sketched the elves’ true role in modern life: fairies that are somewhat mischievous, but the true friends and helpers of Father Christmas. It is during this period when the elves began to be referred to as the “Christmas elves”, or simply “elves”, and not “house gnomes” anymore. Artists such as Hansen and Nystrm completed the picture of elves for us. It is now began to be held that the elves help Santa design and make the wonderful toys and gifts he brings to children. They were said to have other duties as well. Some elves take care of Santa’s reindeer and keep his sleigh in good condition, ready to fly through the skies on Christmas Eve. Others help Santa keep his naughty and nice list in order, and some elves guard the secret location of Santa’s village. Elves make sudden appearances in the days before Christmas, to keep an eye on each children and see which of them are behaving well and obeying their parents. They are believed to be Santa’s secret agents and report their findings back to him. Children who are unkind and misbehave have their names added to the naughty list and may wake up Christmas morning to find their filled with lumps of coal or bundles of twigs!
Today, elves associated with Christmas are symbols to remind children to be good and not naughty!