Author: Christiana Augustine
Facts About the Origin of Christmas and History of Some Christmas Traditions
In the early years of Christianity the main holiday was Easter. In the 4th Century church officials decided to have the birth of Jesus celebrated as a holiday and Pope Julius I chose the date of December 25 for Christmas. The holiday, initially called the Feast of the Nativity, spread to England by the end of the 6th Century and to Scandinavia by the end of the 8th Century.
Church leaders instituted Christmas during winter because that time of year was popular for the celebrations of many pagan festivals. The hope was that Christmas would also become a holiday that would gain much popularity. The church leaders achieved the goal of having Christmas celebrations, become popular during the winter solstice, but they were unable to control other pagan-like celebrations during Christmas. Believers would attend church on Christmas and then participate later in raucous and drunken celebrations.
The celebration of Christmas in Europe changed in the early 17th Century when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans gained power in England in 1645. To remove decadent behavior from the society, Cromwell cancelled Christmas. The Puritans noted that the Bible doesn’t mention any birth date for Jesus. Christmas celebrations returned in England around 1649 when Charles II was restored to the throne.
Christmas was not a holiday in early America because the Pilgrims who came to America had even stricter beliefs than Cromwell and the Puritans. Christmas celebrations were even barred in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Anyone caught participating in any event or activity related to Christmas had to pay a fine.
After the American Revolution it became unpopular to take part in English customs and Christmas again lost popularity. Consequently, Legislators in Congress did business on Christmas Day in 1789. It wasn’t until June 26, 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday.
Christmas in the United States gained popularity as a holiday period during the 19th Century. It also changed at that time to become more family-centered rather than being carnival-like.
Many activities related to celebrating Christmas as we know it now evolved from cultures in Europe, before Christianity started. They would hang evergreen branches over their doors and windows because evergreens were believed to ward off witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.
Among common items used in Christmas decorations are the holly and the mistletoe. Both are used primarily in wreaths and garlands. The Druids started the tradition of using the mistletoe as decorative items to celebrate the winter season. They believed the mistletoe would bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. They also believed that it had a healing quality and could be used for everything from healing wounds to increasing fertility.
In Scandinavia, the mistletoe was seen as a plant of peace and harmony and was associated with the goddess of love. This association is probably what led to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
In the Victorian period, the English also would hang mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways during holidays. The habit developed that if someone was standing under the mistletoe, someone else in the room would kiss that person. Such behavior was not generally seen in Victorian society.
The use of the mistletoe in Christmas celebrations was once banned by the church because of its associations with pagan traditions, and the use of holly was suggested as a substitute.
Poinsettias are another traditional decorative flower used at Christmas. It is native to Mexico and is named after Joel Poinsett, who was the first U.S ambassador to Mexico and who brought the plants to America in 1828. Mexicans believe the plants were a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem and that’s one reason they are associated with Christmas.
Sending greeting cards during Christmas and the holidays is as prevalent today as the custom of giving gifts. Religious pictures of Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the angels, shepherds and Wise Men are traditionally placed on Christmas cards. Some cards today also include pictures of Santa Claus, winter scenery, Christmas trees and gift packages.
The idea of Christmas greeting cards started in Britain in the late 1830s when John Calcott Horsley started to produce small cards that had festive scenes and a holiday greeting written inside. Similar cards were also being made in the United States at about the same time by R.H. Pease, in Albany, New York, and Louis Prang, who was a German immigrant. The tradition of sending the greeting cards during Christmas gained popularity in both countries about 10 years later when new postal delivery services started.
One final tidbit; the shortened form Xmas for Christmas has been popular in Europe since the 1500s. It is believed to be derived from the Greek word ‘Xristos’ which means Christ.
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