Worldwide on December 25th, Christmas is celebrated. It has become both a religious holiday and a cultural and commercial one, with the warring sides battling for supremacy. It has been nearly two millennia that Christmas has been observed as a holiday with some traditions and practices carrying religious origins and others leaning on the heavily secular side. It was confirmed a federal holiday in the United States in 1870.
Christians honor Christmas Day as the annual day of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth. Jesus of Nazareth is a spiritual leader whose teachings were the foundation of Christianity as a religion. Customs of both religious and secular fans of Christmas include exchanging gifts, decorating trees, going to church more frequently, having meals with extended family and friends, and most importantly impatiently waiting for Santa Claus’s arrival.
How Did Christmas Start For Other Countries?
Winter has always signified a time of celebration around the world. Even before the birth of Jesus, centuries before, the earliest Europeans were pagans and spent winter celebrating light. It symbolized a time of birth during the darkest days of winter where nothing seemed to grow or live.
For the Norse and Scandinavians, Yule was celebrated from December 21 to the winter solstice all the way through January. Father and sons would celebrate the return of the sun and brightness by bringing large logs home. They would set it on fire and feast until the entire log burned out, which sometimes took up to 12 days. Their belief – that the sparks from the fire represented new pigs and calves that were to be born in the new year.
Europe and Saturnalia As Christmas
Even in most areas of Europe, December was a time to celebrate. During this month, cattle were often slaughtered so they did not need to be fed during the coldest, darkest times. This meant that for many impoverished families, this was the only time that fresh meat had been supplied. With almost perfect timing, wine and beer were done fermenting by winter and were drank with the meat in what become a celebration of sorts.
Germany, a pagan country, honored Oden, the god of wisdom, poetry, death, and divination. Germans were terrified of Oden because they thought him to fly in the sky at night and observe his people, deciding whether they would thrive or perish.
Saturnalia was known as a hedonistic time that Romans celebrated. It was a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. It was hedonistic in nature because it was a time of plentiful food, drink, and social order that was nearly nonexistent for those months. Even enslaved people were given the freedom to celebrate the holiday for that month. Business and schools were also closed so everyone, poor or rich, could participate in the festivities.
Just as Christmas signified Jesus’s birth for Christians, some Romans also celebrated the birth of a god. On December 25th, the upper-class members of Roman society celebrated the birth of Mithra, who was the god of the unconquerable sun which combatted the winter darkness and fear.
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The Fall and Reinvention of Christmas
The American Revolution meant English customs all faded away, including Christmas. This was before the day was even officially declared a holiday. It took until the 19th century for Washington Irving to reinvent the idea of Christmas. It went from a carnival holiday to something that honored peace and nostalgia, being surrounded by family after such tumultuous times for the country.
The holiday was especially revered because of the unemployment rates and consequent rioting that were plaguing the country. Most of such occurred during the holiday season, as disenfranchised lower class members found ways to speak out against their unfair treatment. This lead to many upper-class members changing the way they celebrated Christmas in America.
This coupled with Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ completely changed the way the holiday was viewed. It changed it from something fraught with old customs to a “family” holiday where class divide was less apparent and the focus was on being with those we loved. With immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches leading this new version of the holiday, America developed a set of new customs to celebrate on this day for the next 100 years. This included decorating trees, sending holiday cards, writing letters to Santa, and giving gifts.
The History of Christmas – Where Did Santa Claus Come From?
The invention of Santa Claus actually originates from a true story and individual. It was a monk in Turkey, St. Nicholas who has become the namesake of the big-bellied gift giver that kids today celebrate. In 280 A.D., St. Nicholas gave away all the wealth and money he had inherited and instead traveled all along the countryside aiding the poor and sick he ran into. He was renamed as the protector of children and sailors.
The 18th century, in New York, was when St. Nicholas made his way to America. Dutch families that lived in the state started celebrating the death of ‘Sint Nikolaas’ and thus Santa Claus was the abbreviated, translated version that all Americans came to know.
Since then poems were written about the phantom gift-giver and he became a jolly man who out of the kindness of his heart, spent nighttime delivering toys and gifts to America’s youth. It was Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore that invented his sleigh led my reindeers and his flying endeavors on Christmas Eve and Day. In 1881, this character and look (the red clothes, white beard, and sack), was forever cemented in history when Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, depicted Moore’s poem in his own style and imagination.
America’s Christmas Today
Today Christmas has become commercialized, with more emphasis on the number of gifts we can collect than the honoring of those before, honoring of providers and kind-hearted people like the original St. Nicholas. For businesses, it has become about selling the most Christmas trees, gifts and tricking gullible Americans into spending more money and feeding into the system.
Despite this, there are still beautiful traditions that celebrate helping one another, being kind, and giving to the needy and that is where the true spirit of Christmas lies. Examples include the Salvation Army, which has been sending Christmas-themed donations to people on the streets since 1828, or the ‘Give to the Kids of St. Jude’ initiation where you can share the joy of the season with families of St. Jude patients with gifts and warm letters of hope and love.
This holiday season, honor the history of the day, and be sure to give back to the families and communities around you!
By Mireille Karadanaian
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Mireille Karadanaian is an entertainment journalist, whose passion for reviewing upcoming TV shows and movies has existed since a young age. She writes reviews and feature entertainment stories for The Hollywood Insider’s inclusive and authentic platform, contributing to the important stories being told in media today. Mireille loves discussing the impact today’s media is making on younger generations who emulate what they see on screen and the Internet, a double-edged sword. Her stories often include the importance of creating content that inspires inclusion, positivity, and productive messages to all audiences and generations. Mireille’s love of covering TV shows, movies, and exciting questions that are being asked in the media world is seen in her writing and her ability to not just report facts but also tell a story.