It’s amazing to me how little people really know about Christmas. Yes, we should know that it is all about Jesus and his birth. That’s really the only truth that really matters. But there are many other things that are fun to know. Consider the following:
The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English, “Cristes maesse”, which means "Christ’s mass." From the very beginning of the use of the word, it meant “worship”. The Christ-mass was a festival service of worship held on December 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. While most of us accept that Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem a few miles south of Jerusalem, we really don’t know information about the exact date of his birth or even of the specific year. Calendars differed at the time when Jesus was born.
Or how about the infamous, “Xmas”? Some people get offended when they see others call ‘Christmas’ xmas. However, the X in Xmas, still stands for Christ. The X comes from the first Greek letter in the word, “Xristos” (which translated is Christ). Hence came the word Xmas. It was not intended to take Christ out of Christmas…just to be able to be a bit shorter to write in notes and letters. In fact, many people use the Greek “X” for many other things…Xn (Christian), Xnity (Christianity), etc.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25th…do you know why? Because there was no knowledge about the date of Jesus’ birth, a day had to be selected. Early on, there was a bit of a divergence in dates. The Eastern Orthodox wing of the Church in the early centuries of Christianity chose January 6. That day was eventually named Epiphany, meaning "appearance," the day of Christ’s manifestation. The Western church, based at Rome (i.e. Roman Catholic Church; Catholic meaning universal) chose December 25. It is known from a notice in an ancient Roman almanac that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome as early as AD 336. The actual season of Jesus’ birth is thought to be in the spring, but when the date of Christmas was set to fall in December, it was done at least in part to compete with ancient pagan festivals that occurred about the same time.
What about gift giving? How did that become a part of Christmas? The truth of history is that gift giving is one of the oldest traditions associated with Christmas. Some people actually believe that it is older than the holiday itself. The Romans, for example, celebrated the Saturnalia on December 17. It was a winter feast of merrymaking and gift exchanging. And two weeks later, on the Roman New Year–January 1, houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. As the Germanic tribes of Europe accepted Christianity and began to celebrate Christmas, they also gave gifts. In some countries, such as Italy and Spain, children traditionally do not receive gifts on December 25 but on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. In several northern European nations gifts are given on December 6, which is the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Yet, you have to remember, gifts were given the moment the newborn Savior was born. The Magi bought gold, frankisense and myrrh. The Shepherds brought their hearts in prayer and praise. The angels gave praise to the King as well.
There are some things you should know about trees and decorations. Ancient, pre-Christian winter festivals used greenery, lights, and fires to symbolize life and warmth in the midst of cold and darkness. The use of evergreens and wreaths were symbols of life and aspects of a wide-array of ancient cultures.. Tree worship was a common feature of religion among the Teutonic and Scandinavian peoples of northern Europe before their conversion to Christianity. They decorated houses and barns with evergreens at the New Year to scare away demons, and they often set up trees for the birds in winter. I’ve been putting up trees for years and there are still “demons” (usually in the form of teenagers) that haunt my house. The modern Christmas tree seems to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. The tree was the main prop in a medieval play about Adam and Eve. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was a fir tree hung with apples. In these plays, the tree was called the "Paradise tree," and it represented the Garden of Eden. German families set up a Paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. On it they hung wafers, symbolizing the bread distributed at the celebration of the Eucharist in churches. Because the Christmas holiday followed immediately, candles representing Christ as the light of the world were often added to the tree. Eventually cookies and other sweets were hung instead of wafers. The Christmas tree was introduced into England early in the 19th century, and it was popularized by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria. The trees were decorated with candles, candies, paper chains, and fancy cakes that were hung from the branches on ribbons. German settlers brought the Christmas tree custom to the American colonies in the 17th century. The use of evergreens for wreaths and other decorations arose in northern Europe. Italy, Spain, and some other nations use flowers instead. Holly, with its prickly leaves and red berries, came into holiday use because it reminded people of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the way to his execution–the berries symbolizing droplets of blood. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids in the pagan side of Celtic culture (British Isles) used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees and used it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery.
How about the Manger scene? This is interesting – a custom originated in southern Europe centuries ago where people erected what was often referred to by its French name, a crèche. This is a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, containing figures of Mary, Joseph, the infant, shepherds, farm animals, and the three wise men and their gifts. The custom is said to have been started by St. Francis of Assisi. On a Christmas Eve in 1224 he is supposed to have set up a stable in a corner of a church in his native village with real persons and animals to represent those of the first Christmas.
When it comes to the celebration of Christmas, history tells us some more provocative truths. In ancient times, the last day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere was celebrated as the night that the Great Mother Goddess gives birth to the baby Sun God. It was also called “Yule”, the day in which a huge log is added to a bonfire around which everyone would dance and sing to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep. In Roman times, the Yule party became something that honored Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light). Essentially, the celebration had morphed into a form of sun worship that had originated from Syria a century before with the cult of Sol Invictus. These festivities announced that winter was not forever, that life continues, and was a yearly invitation for people to stay in good spirit. The last day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere occurs between the 20th and 22 December. The Roman celebrated Saturnalia between 17 and 24 December. As Christianity emerged into the Roman culture, Christmas as we know it started to take shape. To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festivals, early Christians decorated their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christians increased in numbers and in influence, their customs prevailed and the ancient festivals started to take on a distinctly “Christian” feel. Something you should know – the early church actually did not celebrate the birth of Christ in December. It wasn’t until Telesphorus, who was the second Bishop of Rome from 125 to 136AD, declared that Church services should be held during this time to celebrate "The Nativity of our Lord and Savior." However, since no one was quite sure in which month Christ was born, in the earliest of celebrations, the Nativity was often held in September (which was during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets, modern-day Rosh Hashanah). In fact, for more than 300 years, people observed the birth of Jesus on a wide variety of dates. It wasn’t until the year 274 AD, when the winter solstice fell on 25th December, that the Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as "Natalis Solis Invicti," the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. That gave occasion for the Church to act. In 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. It became official but still not generally observed. It wasn’t until 325AD that Constantine introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on 25 December. He also introduced Sunday as a holy day in a new 7-day week, and introduced other movable feasts days (e.g Pentecost, Easter, etc.). In 354AD, Bishop Liberius of Rome officially ordered his members to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December. However, even though Constantine officiated 25 December as the birthday of Christ, Christians, recognizing the date as a pagan festival, did not share in the emperor’s good spin on things. Because of that, Christmas failed to gain universal recognition among Christians until only recently (of course, this is relative given the span of history). Even in “religious” England, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas festivities between 1649 and 1660 through the so-called Blue Laws, believing that Christmas should be a solemn day not associated with paganism. Christmas “took” when many Protestants escaped persecution by fleeing to the colonies all over the world. It was only then that interest in a joyous Christmas celebration was kindled. Still, Christmas was not even a legal holiday until the 1800s.
The popularity of Christmas was spurred on in 1820 by Washington Irving’s book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. In 1834, Britain’s Queen Victoria brought her German husband, Prince Albert, into Windsor Castle, introducing the tradition of the Christmas tree and carols that were held in Europe to the British Empire. A week before Christmas in 1834, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (in which he wrote that Scrooge required Cratchit to work, and that the US Congress met on Christmas Day). That book became so popular that neither the churches nor the governments could further ignore the importance of Christmas celebrations. In 1836, Alabama became the first state in the US to declare Christmas a legal holiday. In 1837, T.H. Hervey’s The Book of Christmas also became a best seller. In 1860, American illustrator Thomas Nast borrowed from the European stories about Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, to create Father Christmas (Santa Claus). In 1907, Oklahoma became the last US state to declare Christmas a legal holiday. Then it became a landslide across the world. Year by year, countries all over the globe started to recognize Christmas as the day for celebrating the birth of Jesus.
And last but not least – Santa Claus! The original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th century. He was a very pious and spiritually upright man who, from an early age, devoting his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity to the poor. In other words, he was a Missional Christian! Even with his generous and loving heart, the Romans held him in contempt. He was imprisoned and tortured. When Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed Nicholas to go free. Constantine is said to have become a Christian (that can be debated in some instances) before his famous, “Edict of Milan” which proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the empire. After that, he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He is also the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth of a fireplace in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolass, which became corrupted to Sinterklass, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," which was later published as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.
Remember, Christmas is all about memories, gifts, celebrations, and love. Yet, isn’t it true – if it wasn’t for Jesus, why even know the facts about Christmas? You see, once you know about Jesus, that’s really all the facts you need to know.