Christmas is a wonderful time of year for family, fun and faith. Modern Christmas is a blending of many traditions and customs from all over the world. No two families celebrate Christmas the same, as each family also has its own traditions passed down to each generation. The sacred and secular come together at this time of year to make a holiday season that has something for everyone.
Ancient cultures had mid-winter celebrations that tied in with the solstice and with fertility rites. These usually included a feast because they would slaughter some of their cattle. By doing this they would reduce the amount of feed that their cattle needed over the winter and the beef would last longer over the cold months. The Yule Log comes from one light festivals held by the Scandinavian people to keep watch for and welcome the sun back.
Various cultures, including the Egyptians, Romans and early Europeans believed that plants held special powers, including protection from evil and healing. They would use evergreens and palms to decorate their homes. Martin Luther is credited with the first Christian Christmas tree in the 16th century. He wanted to recreate the beauty of the snow and starlight on the trees he saw as he was on a walk. Many people, especially in England and the Puritan colonies, actually resisted the tree as a “heathen tradition” that shouldn’t be connected to the birth of Christ. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that it began to become acceptable again when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Christmas tree.
Santa Claus has a long history, going back to St. Nicolas, who was believed to have been born in 280 A.D. He was known as a generous man who helped those in need. The early church set aside December 6th to celebrate him. Over the years other cultures had similar generous men, such as Kris Kringle from the Swiss and German people. The various traditions blended together to develop the modern image of Santa Claus, which was solidified in the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in 1822.
The birth of Jesus is the focus of Christmas for Christians around the world. While many historians doubt that He was born in December, Pope Julius I chose December 25th to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is believed it was chosen to compete with the pagan rituals that were prevalent at the time, in an attempt to draw attention away from the pagan rituals for those newly converted to Christianity.
There were even times when Christmas was illegal. Oliver Cromwell attempted to remove Christmas from England, however Charles II reversed that decision. The Puritans in Boston actually had it declared illegal from 1659 to 1681. Other communities in the colonies, like Jamestown, still continued to celebrate Christmas. Christmas was finally declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870.
Christmas is a real patchwork of traditions. It has gone through periods of controversy and division. Even today, people debate on how, and when, to celebrate Christmas.