Christmas is filled with traditions and events, but how did they start and why do we still do them? Traditions are often passed down throughout generations for centuries, but the origins are often unknown or forgotten.
Christmas was originally called "The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus". The word "nativity" comes from the Latin word Natalis, meaning birthday. The observance probably does not date earlier than 200 AD and did not become widespread until the 4th century. The actual date of Jesus birth is unknown but what is known is that Christian leaders in 336 A.D. set the date to December 25 in an attempt to eclipse a popular pagan holiday in Rome. The date of Christmas coincides closely with the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere, a time of rejoicing among many ancient cultures. Christmas, as the great popular festival of Western Europe, dates from the Middle Ages.
Santa Claus was really known as St. Nicholas; he did not smoke a pipe, fly around in a sleigh with any reindeer, go down chimneys, work with elves, or live at the North Pole. He did however bring presents to children every year. According to tradition, he was born in the city of Patara, where he became bishop of Myra. He was imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great. After his death he was buried in his church at Myra. In 1087, Italian sailors stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola, Bari. Nicholas' had a reputation for generosity and kindness for the poor and unhappy. He was said to have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution. The money was left in their stockings, which hung over the fireplace to dry. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece. After the Reformation, Nicholas' disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch name for Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country's English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents.
Clement Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas in 1822 for his family. It was picked up by a newspaper, then reprinted in magazines and it spread like wildfire. In this poem you will find that he names the reindeer, invents the sleigh, comes up with the chimney and the bag of toys. This is where we get most of our ideas of what Santa looks like. Then in 1863, Harper's Weekly ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images came the concepts of Santa's workshop, Santa reading letters, eleves, Santa checking his list and so on. The red and white suit came, actually, from the original Saint Nicholas. Those colors were the colors of the traditional bishop's robes.
The story of Rudolf appeared, out of nowhere, in 1939. Santa's at Montgomery Ward stores gave away 2.4 million copies of a booklet entitled Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer. The original name of the reindeer was not Rudolf. The original name was Rollo, but executives did not like that name. The name Rudolf came from the author's young daughter. In 1949, Gene Autry sang a musical version of the poem and it was a run-away best-seller. The Rudolf song is second only to White Christmas in Christmas popularity.
The Christmas tree is one of the most recognizable images of the season. Almost everywhere you go, it is the focal point of people's holiday decoration. You pile your gifts under the tree and you gather around...