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December 21, 2010 > The history of Christmas

The history of Christmas

By Jessica Noel Waymire

The story of the baby in the manger is an ancient one. Humankind has been celebrating that baby's birth for two millennia, but is there more to this winter holiday than the church's desire to mark the appearance on earth of a man named Jesus? Is there any other meaning to this time of year? When did Christmas make its first appearance? How do other cultures celebrate Christmas around the world?

The most popular theory on the timing of Christmas is that the early Christians simply borrowed pagan holidays and reshaped them with their own meaning. One could easily make this correlation when comparing non-Christian winter traditions with Christmas. Ancient civilizations marked the changing seasons with celebrations at the solstices and equinoxes. Christmas falls right around the time of the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21. Much of the symbolism used by Christians to celebrate Christmas-lights, holly, and evergreens-was also used by ancient cultures to represent the return of the sun and everlasting life. Winter was passing and people were awaiting the return of springtime and longer days. But is this idea of a borrowed holiday correct? Some scholars offer evidence that contradicts the supposed pagan origins of Christmas.

How did the early Christians settle on December 25 as the date of Christ's birth? Although it is clear that Christmas was an official church celebration by the end of the fourth century, Christians were initially not as interested in the date of his birth as in the date of his death. History hints at traditional philosophies that may have given credence to Jesus having been conceived in late March. This would place his birth in late December. St. John Chrysostom writes in the fourth century that Christians celebrated Jesus' birth at the end of December since the earliest days of the Church. It wasn't until much later that some Protestant groups, trying to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church, began to insist that Christmas had pagan origins.

Since the Bible and historical accounts do not offer an exact date for the birth of Jesus, we will never know with any certainty when he was born. For most of us, Christmas is so firmly rooted tradition that an exact date does not matter; it's the spirit of the holiday that holds more significance. The symbols of light and everlasting life are just as applicable to the meaning of Christmas as they are to non-Christian winter festivals. Celebrations around the world attest to the fact that Christmas is a very big deal.

In Europe, Christmas celebrations begin in early December. Since many European countries have a Catholic background, feast days of significant saints are included in the festivities. Saint Nicholas is remembered on December 6. In some areas Father Christmas pays a visit to the family home and brings gifts to the children. Sometimes the Christ Child accompanies him. In Sweden the tomte, a household gnome, brings the presents.

Evergreens, candles, and advent wreaths are common decor in European households. Families most often go to church services and come home to a large feast. In Scandinavian homes, rice pudding is a popular Christmas treat. Danish families make risalamande-rice pudding with whipped cream and cherry sauce. An almond is hidden in the pudding and the one who finds it receives a special gift.

Chinese families celebrate Christmas by hanging paper lanterns, red paper chains, setting up Christmas trees, and hanging stockings. Lights are displayed in the larger cities such as Hong Kong. Christianity is not prevalent in China, so Christmas is a smaller celebration in comparison to the Chinese New Year, which occurs in late January to mid-February.

For some, Christmas falls in summer rather than in winter. People in the southern hemisphere, such as those living in Africa and Australia, have warm, sunny Christmases. Feasting, caroling by candlelight, hanging stockings, and decorating Christmas trees are still popular traditions in spite of the lack of winter weather.

Around the world, Christmas is an important day for families to gather together and celebrate. Maybe the significance for one family is that a baby was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Another family might be thankful for making it through a difficult year. Others just want to join in the excitement of the season. Whatever the reason, Christmas brings a special light to the world and in these dark and trying times, we could all certainly use a little more light.

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