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December 17, 2008 > Christmas is coming to town

Christmas is coming to town

By Monica Barbara and Pravena Raman

Christmas as we know it today has been celebrated for over 130 years, but it is really an adaptation of ancient celebrations. Even before the birth of Jesus, mid-winter celebrations took place at the end of December to commemorate the winter solstice and passing of winter's worst weather.

The practices and celebrations of early Christians did not include what we now consider to be Jesus' birthday. Easter, instead, was the initial focus. It wasn't until the fourth century, and a chosen date of December 25th by Pope Julius I, that Christmas proper began to take shape.

The idea of Christmas trees started in the 16th century when devout Christians in Germany brought decorated trees into their homes. It is widely held that Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. The idea came to him while walking home one winter evening, thinking of his next sermon, he was struck by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens.

The practice of attending church on Christmas started a little after the eighth century and continues today, though the eighth century practice of public drunkenness following church is not the modern standard. It is decadent practices like these that likely led to a 17th century ban on Christmas. The holiday was reinstated when England's Charles II ascended to the crown.

In 19th century America, most people found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by German settlers of Pennsylvania. Although the German settlements had community trees as early as 1747, most Americans saw them as pagan symbols. The New England Puritans saw Christmas as sacred and the pilgrams' second governor, William Bradford wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity.

In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

But in 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable-not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived.

Christmas was made an American holiday by the federal government in 1870, and it was around this time that the more traditional and family-centered version of Christmas practiced today emerged. The tradition of a tree lighting ceremony in the nation's capital began in 1913 when 20,000 onlookers witnessed the lighting of the first Washington Community Christmas Tree. President Woodrow Wilson and Vice President Thomas Marshall officiated at that ceremony.

Santa Claus also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle arrived on the scene as an extension of the fourth century Greek historical figure Saint Nicholas of Myra, famous for his generosity. With the publication of "A Visit From St. Nicholas (i.e. A Night Before Christmas) in 1823 and subsequent image popularized by Thomas Nast in 1863, a modern Santa emerged as a portly, jolly red and white clothed figure riding a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Santa's home is open to much discussion but in the United States is generally accepted as the North Pole.

No matter how Christmas is celebrated, it is a time for hope, promise and generosity toward others. Merry Christmas to all!

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