Every year on December 25th, over 2 billion people around the world celebrate Christmas Day. Traditionally, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Nonreligious people and those of different faiths celebrate the day as a cultural event.
Also known as Christmas Day, this holiday is derived from the Old English Crīstesmæsse which means Christ’s Mass. Today, Christmas is a public holiday in most countries. Only about a dozen countries do not recognize Christmas as a public holiday. Christmas traditions vary around the world and have evolved over time. They borrow from other traditions and cultures, too. Over time, beliefs and customs blended as peoples migrated and attitudes changed.
One of the most popular Christmas customs is gift-giving. This custom has its roots in the Magi who brought gifts to Jesus shortly after his birth. Unfortunately, the gift-giving aspect of Christmas has led to its commercialization. On average, Americans spend $700 on Christmas gifts and goodies. Altogether, this equals $465 billion. In recent years, there has been a call to simplify the holiday and to get back to the “reason for the season.”
While plain, unflavored candy sticks and canes existed as early as the 1600s, it wasn’t until 1920 that the hooked version became exceptionally popular. Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia took the peppermint candy, gave it a red and white striped twist. His handmade candies were given a manufacturing boost when his brother-in-law and priest, Gregory Keller, invented the machine that launched Bob’s Candies into mass production. However, Keller’s invention wasn’t the first of its kind.
Another tradition that blossomed in the United States during the 1920s, the poinsettia’s legend takes place in Mexico. According to the legend, a girl wanted desperately to celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Worried, the girl feared she would have no gift to offer because she was so poor. An angel tells her to give any gift with love. After gathering weeds from alongside the road, the young girl placed them in the manger. Miraculously the weeds bloomed into beautiful red stars.
Evergreens, fir trees, and other plants have been a part of the winter festivals and traditions since ancient times. The first person to place a tree in a house for the purposes of Christmas may have been the German preacher Martin Luther in the 16th century.
Legendary stories about the third century St. Nicholas later become part of the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus.
In Victorian England, sending Penny Post was inexpensive and frequent. Not responding to it was equally inexcusable. Being popular and busy led Sir Henry Cole to invent a holiday card nearly out of necessity. In 1843, he asked his friend, J.C. Horsley to illustrate a design he had in mind. Soon, Cole was off to the printer and the first Christmas card mailed in the Penny Post.
Wassailing and caroling history go hand in hand. Originally, wassail referred to a mulled, sweet drink. It came to be known as going from house to house during the winter months and eventually as caroling. The carolers are often given hot beverages to drink to keep them warm as they travel. Learn more about 7 Beloved Christmas Carols & Their Origins.
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published on December 19, 1843, and tells the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. So popular was the novella, the first theatre production took place within weeks of its publication. Since then, films, stage, and novels have presented a variety of adaptations much to the audiences’ delight.
The American tradition of eating – or giving – fruitcake at Christmas is somehow connected to the Victorian tradition of serving Christmas pudding. Both are molded, but that’s about where the similarities end.
HOW TO OBSERVE CHRISTMAS
Most Christmas traditions are celebrated in the days leading up to Christmas. In the morning, see what Santa has delivered. Gather with family and open presents around a decorated tree or have a meal together.
Other traditions include:
- taking pictures with Santa
- baking cookies and goodies to exchange, such as fudge and gingerbread men
- hanging lights
- making ornaments
- going to holiday concerts
- watching holiday-themed movies, both old and new
- opening Advent calendars
No wonder many people call this the most wonderful time of the year! On Christmas Day, many families open their gifts in the morning. A special Christmas dinner follows complete with lots of goodies for dessert. The best thing about Christmas is that you can choose which traditions you want to keep. You can also have fun coming up with new traditions. Share your favorite Christmas Day traditions on social media with #Christmas.
It is debatable whether Jesus was born on December 25th. Nowhere does the Bible provide the exact date of his birth. If this is the case, why does the world celebrate Christmas on this day? The first Christmas ever celebrated happened in 336. It was during the time the Roman Empire was ruled by Constantine. He was the first Christian Roman Emperor. Under Constantine, Christianity spread into Northern and Western Europe.
One of the earliest references to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ is in a homily by John Chrysostom, a 4th-century archbishop. Christmas is a relatively new celebration when considering church holy days. Passover, Lent, and Easter were celebrated long before Christmas.
These regions celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christmas adopted many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice. These customs included decorating with evergreen trees and their boughs. It also included large feasts and a bearded man delivering gifts. In medieval times, Christmas was a solemn observance of the birth of Jesus Christ, and very little feasting, singing, and carousing was going on. The first record of the word “Cristes Maesse” being used was in a book from 1038 from Saxon England.
As Christianity spread into northern and western Europe, Christmas adopted many of the customs associated with the winter solstice. Decorating with evergreen trees and their boughs, holly, and mistletoe, a bearded man delivering gifts and even the large feasts all hearken back to these celebrations.
Caroling, Nativity scenes, and gift-giving (primarily to nobility with hopes of favors in return) began taking hold around the Renaissance period. Royalty and nobility had a considerable influence on this era. The Renaissance period covered a broad expanse of time (1300-1700) and was filled with an influx of inspiration, invention, and art. All of it influenced Christmas. Some Christians, like the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. This was largely due to the holiday’s pagan background. Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts between1659 and 1681.
Christmas in The United States
One hundred years after the founding of the United States, Christmas became a federal holiday.
By the mid to late 1800s, communication and transportation were changing rapidly. Time and distance isolated people causing customs and traditions to be diverse from place to place. Celebrations occurring in Georgia were completely unique from those celebrated in New York. Nearly overnight that began to change. Telegraphs and railroads made the passage of information and people, if not instant, significantly faster than ever before. Longing for the old days, for times when the family was a central theme in American’s lives, Christmas brought those nostalgic feelings under one significant day.
Louis Prang, a German immigrant and printer by trade, introduced the American Christmas card in 1875. The Christmas card gradually replaced customs of personal visits or written Christmas letters.
As the population grew, so did commerce and an increase in both charitable and personal gift giving followed. However, many givers and recipients still valued handmade gifts over store-bought.
Literature such as Clement Moore’s poem An Account of Visit from Saint Nicholas (1823) and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) influenced the Norman Rockwell vision of the Christmas we celebrate today.