How Did Christmas Start?
The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
The first time the birth of Jesus Christ was attributed to the date December 25 was in the 4th century, according to early Roman history. Early celebrations of Christmas are thought to have derived from Roman and other European festivals that marked the end of the harvest, and the winter solstice.
Some customs from those celebrations that have endured include decorating homes with greenery, giving gifts, singing songs, and eating special foods.
The holiday developed further with the legend of St. Nicholas. Although much of his history is unconfirmed, the man who became St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century and is believed to have been a bishop in Asia Minor.
Many miracles attributed to him are dubious at best. Nevertheless, some countries named him their patron saint. He also is considered the patron saint of, among others, children (for protecting them), sailors (whom he reputedly saved at sea), and the poor (to whom he generously gave gifts).
In his honor, the Feast of St. Nicholas was marked on December 6 and gifts given the night before. The tradition was well established in many European countries by the 12th century. Eventually, because St. Nicholas’ Day and Christmas Day are so close together, their traditions generally were combined.
St. Nicholas took on different personas in different countries. For example, The Netherlands have Sinter Klaas; Father Christmas gives gifts in Great Britain; Père Noël does the same in France; and in Germany St. Nicholas has had many names including Klaasbuur, Burklaas, Rauklas, Bullerklaas, and Sunnercla, although Father Christmas is becoming more popular. In the United States, the Dutch settlers’ Sinter Klaas evolved into Santa Claus.
Other Christmas facts:
- The story of Jesus Christ’s birth is told in New Testament’s gospel of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew.
- Some Christians celebrate Jesus Christ’s coming on January 6, the Epiphany, when they believe he was baptized.
- The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to the 12 days between Christmas and the Epiphany.
- The word Christmas comes from the Old English Cristes maesse, which means Christ’s mass.
- The word Xmas is sometimes used instead of Christmas. In Greek, Xis the first letter of Christ’s name.
- In 1969, the Roman Catholic church dropped St. Nicholas’ Feast Day from its calendar because his life is so unreliably documented.
- The German word Christkindl, which means Christ child, eventually turned into Kriss Kringle.
- Santa Claus generally was depicted as an elf until 1931, when Coca-Cola ads portrayed him as human-sized.
- Rudolph didn’t become Santa’s ninth reindeer until 1939 when an advertising writer for the department store Montgomery Ward created him.
Sources: Encarta 96 Encyclopedia, World Book, Encyclopedia Brittanica