Christmas Origins

The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning “Christ’s Mass”. It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. “Cristes” is from Greek Christos and “mæsse” is from Latin missa. In Greek, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ, and it, or the similar Roman letter X, has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since the mid-16th century. Hence, Xmas is often used as an abbreviation for Christmas.

Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday celebrated on December 25 that commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The date of commemoration is not known to be Jesus’ actual birthday, and may have initially been chosen to correspond with either a historical Roman festival or the winter solstice.

Although traditionally a Christian holiday, Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and public holiday in most countries of the world, even in many which are not majority Christian. In some non-Christian countries periods of former

colonial rule introduced the celebration, in others, Christian minorities or foreign cultural influences have led populations to take it up. Major exceptions, where Christmas is not a formal public holiday, include China, (excepting Hong Kong and Macao), Japan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Thailand, Nepal, Iran, Turkey and North Korea.

While most countries celebrate Christmas on December 25 each year, some national churches including those of Russia, Georgia, Egypt, Armenia, the Ukraine and Serbia celebrate on January 7. This is because of their use of the traditional Julian Calendar, under which December 25 falls on January 7 as measured by the standard Gregorian Calendar.

Around the world, Christmas celebrations can vary markedly in form, reflecting differing cultural and national traditions. Countries like Japan and Korea where Christmas is popular despite there being only a small number of Christians, adopt many of the secular trappings of Christmas such as gift-giving, decorations and Christmas trees.

In Christianity

In Christianity, Christmas is the festival celebrating the Nativity of Jesus, the Christian belief that the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies was born to the Virgin Mary. The story of Christmas is based on the biblical accounts given in the Gospel of Matthew, namely Matthew 1:18-Matthew 2:12 and the Gospel of Luke, specifically Luke 1:26-Luke 2:40. According to these accounts, Jesus was born to Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. According to popular tradition, the birth took place in a stable, surrounded by farm animals, though neither the stable nor the animals are specifically mentioned in the Biblical accounts. However, 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.” Early iconographic representations of the nativity placed the stable and manger within a cave (located, according to tradition, under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). Shepherds from the fields surrounding Bethlehem were told of the birth by an angel, and were the first to see the child.Many Christians believe that the birth of Jesus fulfilled prophecies from the Old Testament.

In addition to this day being one of the most important and popular for the attendance of church services, there are numerous other devotions and popular traditions. Prior to Christmas Day, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, while much of the Western Church celebrates Advent.

Christmas Decorations

The practice of putting up special decorations at Christmas has a long history. From pre-Christian times, evergreen plants had been brought indoors throughout the Roman Empire. Such customs were eventually adapted for Christian usage. In the fifteenth century it is recorded that in London it was the custom at Christmas for every house and all the parish churches to be “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green”.The heart shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolise the coming to earth of Jesus, while holly was seen as protection against pagans and witches, its thorns and red berries held to represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion. Nativity scenes are known from 10th century Rome, and were popularised by Saint Francis of Asissi from 1223, quickly spreading across Europe.Many different types of decorations developed across the Christian world, dependant on local tradition and available resources. The first commercially produced decorations

appeared in Germany in the 1860s, inspired by the paper chains made by children.

Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianisation of pagan tradition and 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. 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 Britiain, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria, and by 1841 the Christmas tree had become even more widespread throughout Britain.By the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.

Since the 19th century, the poinsettia, a native plant from Mexico, has beenassociated with Christmas. Other popular holiday plants include

holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior

of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage.

Santa Claus

How did the kindly Christian saint, good Bishop Nicholas, become a roly-poly red-suited symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity? History tells the tale.

The first Europeans to arrive in the New World brought St. Nicholas. Vikings dedicated their cathedral to him in Greenland. On his first voyage, Columbus named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on December 6, 1492. In Florida, Spaniards named an early settlement St. Nicholas Ferry, now known as Jacksonville. However, St. Nicholas had a difficult time during the 16th century Protestant

Reformation which took a dim view of saints. Even though both reformers and counter-reformers tried to stamp out St. Nicholas-related customs, they had very little long-term success except in England where the religious folk traditions were permanently altered.

Because the common people so loved St. Nicholas, he survived on the European continent as people continued to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.

The Children’s Friend, 1821 brought some new elements with publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children’s Friend. This “Sante Claus” arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The annonymous poem and illustrations proved pivital in shifting imagery away from a saintly bishop. Sante Claus fit a didactic mode, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, leaving a “long, black birchen rod . . . directs a Parent’s hand to use when virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

The jolly elf image received another big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas”:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .

Other artists and writers continued the change to an elf-like St. Nicholas, “Sancte Claus,” or “Santa Claus,” unlike the stately European bishop. In 1863, during the Civil War, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual black-and-white drawings in Harper’s Weekly, based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving’s work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. Nast’s Santa supported the Union and President Lincoln believed this contributed to the Union troops’ success by demoralizing Confederate soldiers. As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.

Santa was then portrayed by dozens of artists in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and colors. However by

the end of the 1920s, a standard Santa—life-sized in a red, fur-trimmed suit—had emerged from the work of N. C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and other popular illustrators. In 1931 Haddon Sundblom

began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements that popularized and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.

This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and wore the now familiar red suit. He appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters, encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to “a thirst for all seasons.” By the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere as a benign source of beneficence, endorsing an amazing range of consumer products. This commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.

It’s been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity to those in need. However, if you peel back the accretions, he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.

For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas

the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.