Christmas, December 25th, is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of the Christian religion. Christmas traditions range from decorating trees, exchanging gifts, singing Christmas carols, attending church, imbibing in food and drink to kissing under the mistletoe. Non-Christians from around the world also celebrate this day as a secular holiday, turning the month of December into a religious, cultural and commercial marvel.
There is a long, controversial history surrounding the holiday and its origins. Long before Christ, early Europeans celebrated the winter solstice as a time of renewal as the darkest days of winter were behind them and longer days with more hours of sunlight were ahead of them. In the 4th century church officials decided to begin celebrating the birth of Christ. There is no mention of December 25th in the Bible, but Pope Julius I chose that date as Christ’s birthday. It is widely believed that that date was chosen as a way to absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Many of the modern day Christmas traditions are rooted in the Saturnalia festival.
The story of Christ’s birth takes place in a stable in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph were traveling and stopped at an inn to rest. The innkeeper didn’t have any beds available and instead offered a manger in the stable, surrounded by livestock, where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Shepherds from the surrounding fields were told of Jesus’s birth by an angel and were the first to see him. Tradition also states that three wise men followed the Star of Bethlehem, believing it announced the birth of the king of the Jews, to visit the infant Jesus; bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In many churches, children re-enact the events of the Nativity as part of the Christmas celebrations.
Traditions Around the World
In the United States, many Christians and non-Christians celebrate the holiday with colorful decorations, decorated trees, eggnog, presents and feasts. The night before Christmas, Christmas Eve, is when many people begin the celebrations. In my family, we celebrate by having a special meal, attending a candle-lit church service and opening presents on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is also when Santa Claus and his reindeer make their journey around the world delivering gifts to children. The origin of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, dates back to 280 AD in present day Turkey.
There are myriad of different Christmas traditions around the world. Some are similar and some are vastly different. A Christmas tradition I discovered a few years ago is that of Krampus Night on December 5th. Krampus is Santa’s evil twin whose job is to punish the children on the “naughty list.” This dark and scary tradition originates in the Germanic alpine regions and is widespread throughout Hungary, Bavaria, Slovenia, and is especially popular in Austria.
In the Czech Republic, unmarried women practice fortune telling to predict their relationship status for the next year. The practice is to stand with your back to the door and toss one shoe over your shoulder. If the shoe lands with the toe facing the door, the woman will be married within the year. If the heel is facing the door, it means another year unmarried.
Norwegian legend states that on Christmas Eve witches and evil spirits come looking for brooms to ride. To keep them away, all brooms in the house are hidden and men go outside and fire a shotgun to scare the evil spirits away.
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Christmas Fun Facts
- Each year, 30-35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States alone.
- From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and law-breakers were fined five shillings.
- Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 26, 1870.
- Rudolph, “the most famous reindeer of all,” was the product of Robert L. May’s imagination in 1939. The copywriter wrote a poem about the reindeer to help lure customers into the Montgomery Ward department store.
- In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were rowdy and raucous, similar to today’s Mardi Gras parties.
To Christians and non-Christians alike, who celebrate Christmas, the meaning of this special holiday is one of good will, peace and joy. All of us at GPI want to wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.