CHRISTMAS   Leave a comment

The word comes from the Old English term Cristes maesse, meaning “Christ’s mass.” This was the name for the festival service of worship held on December 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. While it is accepted that Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem a few miles south of Jerusalem, there is no certain information on the date of his birth, not even of the year. One reason for this uncertainty is that the stories of his birth, recorded in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, were written several decades after the event. And those who wrote of it gave no specific dates for the event.

4 BC: Birth of Jesus. Since the designation BC means “before Christ,” it seems strange to date the birth of Christ with a BC year. Nevertheless, the known facts surrounding the birth of Jesus point to the year 4 BC, in spite of what later calendar makers thought. When the BC/AD system was established in the early 6th century, it was uncertain when Jesus was born. The significant date is the death of King Herod in 4 BC; Jesus is thought by many to have been born just before then.

This change in the measurement of history was unprecedented and remains un-duplicated. It shows just how much history changed after the birth of this child in Bethlehem. From his early apostles down to modern-day Christians, his followers have regarded him as the Son of God, the Messiah foretold by the ancient Hebrew prophets, a performer of great miracles, a learned teacher, and a martyr who died for the sins of mankind. From his teachings, based on Judaism, came Christianity, a religion that would influence most of the Western world for centuries to come. Jesus’s birth is celebrated on Christmas, and his death on Good Friday.

For several centuries the Christian church itself paid little attention to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The major Christian festival was Easter, the day of his resurrection. Only gradually, as the church developed a calendar to commemorate the major events of the life of Christ, did it celebrate his birth.

Epiphany (from Greek epiphaneia, “appearance”), Christian festival celebrated on January 6; one of the three principal and oldest festival days of Christianity (including Easter and Christmas); commemorates the first manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, and the manifestation of his divinity, as it occurred at his baptism in the Jordan River and at his first miracle at Cana in Galilee; festival originated in the Eastern Church; in the Western Church the festival primarily commemorates the visit by the Magi to the infant Jesus; in the East it primarily commemorates the baptism of Jesus.

Because there was no knowledge about the date of Jesus’ birth, a day had to be selected. The Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Rite churches within the Roman Catholic church chose January 6. The day was named Epiphany, meaning “appearance,” the day of Christ’s manifestation. The Western church, based at Rome, 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.

Magi (plural of magus), from Persian magu, meaning magician; members of a priestly caste of ancient Medes and Persians; name is applied also to the wise men in the Bible (Matthew ii) who followed a star to Bethlehem; the Bible story does not name them nor give their number, but Christian tradition from about the 7th century names the three Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar; their bodies are said to have been brought to Constantinople by Empress Helen, mother of Constantine, thence taken to Milan, and finally to Cologne in 1162 by Frederick Barbarossa; since that time they have often been called the Three Kings of Cologne.

In the latter half of the 4th century, the Eastern and Western churches adopted each other’s festival, thus establishing the modern Christian 12-day celebration from Christmas to Epiphany. In some places the 12th day is called the festival of the three kings because it is believed that the three wise men, or magi, visited the baby Jesus on that day, bringing him gifts.

Today Christmas is more than a one-day celebration, or a 12-day festival. It is part of a lengthy holiday season embracing at least the whole month of December. In the United States the holiday season begins on Thanksgiving Day and ends on January 1.

The reason for this extended holiday period is that Christmas is no longer only a religious festival. It is also the most popular holiday period for everyone in countries where Christianity has become the dominant religion. Even in Japan, where Christianity is in the minority, Christmas has become a festive, gift-giving holiday time.

Customs and Traditions

People who live in the cold winter climates of North America and Europe look forward to a “white Christmas,” because snow is one of the features associated with the holiday season. But Christmas is also celebrated in South America, Australia, and New Zealand places where it is summer at Christmastime and also places with year-round warm climates. Each place where the holiday is celebrated has developed its own attitudes toward the occasion and has created customs that try in many ways to express the meaning of the day.

Over the centuries a significant number of customs and traditional observances have emerged to make the Christmas season one of the most colourful and festive times of the year. Probably the most universal custom is gift giving, frequently associated with the person of Santa Claus. Other customs have to do with decoration evergreen trees, lights, wreaths, and holly; the sending of cards; good and plentiful food and drink; and the singing of carols and other songs.

Gift giving is one of the oldest customs associated with Christmas: it is actually older than the holiday itself. 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. 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.

Nicholas, Saint (4th century), bishop of Myra, Asia Minor; in many legends, patron of children; his feast day (December) was near Christmas, so he came to be the Christmas gift-bringer, St. Nick or Santa Claus; taken off Roman Catholic calendar 1969.

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.

The exchange of gifts has remained a central feature of the holiday season the world over. It has become so significant that most merchants count on making a very large proportion of their annual sales during the period from late November to December 24. So important has the Christmas selling period become that many stores fail to show a profit at the end of the year if Christmas sales are low.

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. These usages, like gift giving, have also persisted. The most splendid symbol of a modern Christmas is the brilliantly decorated evergreen tree with strings of multicoloured lights.

Evergreen, tree or plant that retains its foliage all year or for several years, such as the pine, fir, laurel, and hemlock, in contrast to deciduous trees.

Yule, name of a winter month in Northern Europe; also name for Christmas in some countries.

The use of evergreens and wreaths as symbols of life was an ancient custom of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews, among other peoples. 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. For these northern Europeans, this winter celebration was the happiest time of the year because it signified that the shortest day of the year about December 21 had passed. They knew the days would start to get longer and brighter. The month during which this festival took place was named Jol, from which the word Yule is derived. Yule has come to mean Christmas in some countries.

The modern Christmas tree seems to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. A main prop in a medieval play about Adam and Eve was a fir tree hung with apples. Called the “Paradise tree,” 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 holy Eucharist, or communion, 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.

In the same room as the tree Germans kept a Christmas pyramid made of wood, with shelves to hold figurines. The pyramid was also decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the pyramid and the Paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree so popular today.

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. By the 19th century its use was quite widespread. Trees were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and Holland. In China and Japan Christmas trees were introduced by Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. There they were decorated with intricate paper designs.

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.

Christmas cards. The first Christmas greeting card is believed to have been designed in England in 1843 by an artist named John C. Horsley for a friend, Sir Henry Cole. The design showed a family party, beneath which the words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You” were inscribed. The practice soon became popular in all English-speaking countries and is most widespread in the United States.

Music. The range of Christmas music, both sacred and non-religious, is large from the majestic oratorio ‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel to the light-hearted “Here Comes Santa Claus.” The most popular of non-religious tunes is probably Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” written for the movie ‘Holiday Inn’, released in 1942.

The most traditional Christmas songs are carols. The word carol was associated with dance and open air. It later came to mean simply a joyful religious song. In France the term is Noel, and in Britain Nowell. Best known of modern carols is “Silent Night, Holy Night,” composed in Austria by Franz Gruber in the 19th century. Other popular carols include “The First Nowell.,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Manger scene (or crèche), representation of the stable at Bethlehem displayed during Christmas season.

Manger scenes. A custom that originated in southern Europe is the manger scene, often referred to by its French name, 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.

Francis of Assisi, Saint (1182-1226), Roman Catholic saint, founder of Franciscan order, patron saint of Italy; festival Oct. 4 .

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.

Christmas in the Holy Land

Apart from the many ingredients that go into making the Christmas season a festive and happy time for people around the world, the day itself and the religious observances that highlight it remain the focal points. One of the most colourful and solemn celebrations of the holiday takes place in the village of Bethlehem, which is in the modern state of Israel.

On Christmas Eve a long line of people winds through the narrow streets. At its head march church dignitaries, priests, and attendants, all in magnificent robes. They carry a tiny, gilded, wicker cradle containing a wax image of the infant Jesus. At the old fortress like Church of the Nativity they pause as each worshipper stoops to enter the low door into the sanctuary. The people gather in the Roman Catholic chapel of St. Catherine for the celebration of a midnight mass. Pilgrims from all parts of the world participate. The ceremony ends when the patriarch of Jerusalem carries the image of the Christ child to the ornate glass and marble manger in the Grotto of the Nativity under the church.

Christmas in Art and Literature

Few themes have inspired so many great paintings, poems, and stories as the Christmas narrative and the ways it is commemorated. The manger scene has been the favourite subject of master painters such as Fra Angelico, Giotto, and Sandro Botticelli.

The religious theme inspired John Milton’s poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” The Santa Claus story was put into verse in 1822 by an American, Clement Moore. Entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” it is more commonly known by its first line: ” ‘Twas the night before Christmas.”

The American short-story writer O. Henry (the pen name of William S. Porter) wrote a touching Christmas tale about a young husband and wife entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” In a more humorous vein, the children’s writer Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodore Seuss Geisel) has written ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. The story has been made into a motion picture cartoon and is usually televised every holiday season.

There is a story by the 19th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann entitled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which inspired a ballet ‘The Nutcracker’, with music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. It is often performed at the Christmas season.

‘Christmas Carol, A’, book by Charles Dickens, published 1843; story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser, who sees on Christmas Eve the ghost of Jacob Marley, his late associate in business, and beholds visions that make him a new person; he then sends a Christmas turkey to his threadbare clerk, Bob Cratchit, and becomes the soul of generosity.

Of all the stories relating to Christmas, none is better known or more popular than Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. As a book, it has been read and reread by millions of people in the last 100 years. It has also been turned into a drama performed on stage, radio, and television every year. The last name of its leading character, Ebenezer Scrooge, has come to stand for unloving, selfish, and miserly individuals. And the ending of the story, after Scrooge has mended his ways, presents a meaningful combination of the religious and non-religious nature of Christmas.


Christmas Stories

Adams, Adrienne. The Christmas Party (Scribner, 1978).

Anglund, J.W. A Christmas Book (Random, 1983).

Baker, Betty. Santa Rat (Greenwillow, 1980).

Barrett, John. Christmas Comes to Monster Mountain (Childrens, 1981).

Bishop, C.H., ed. Happy Christmas: Tales for Boys and Girls (Ungar, 1956).

Capote, Truman. A Christmas Memory (Children’s Book, 1983).

Carlson, A.L. The Mouse Family’s Christmas (Karwyn, 1983).

Carty, M.F. Christmas in Vermont: Three Stories (New England Press, 1983).

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol (Buccaneer, 1981).

Fenner, P.R., ed. Keeping Christmas: Stories of the Joyous Season (Morrow, 1979).

Gackenbach, Dick. Claude the Dog (Scholastic, 1976).

Gammell, Stephen. Wake Up, Bear . . . It’s Christmas! (Lothrop, 1981).

Henry, O. Gift of the Magi (Bobbs, 1978).

Jurie, Jeri. Bizzy Bubbles: Santa’s Littlest Elf (Al Fresco, 1977).

Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas (Random, 1984).

Peet, Bill. Countdown to Christmas (Childrens, 1972).

Schulz, C.M. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Random, 1977).

Seuss, Dr. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Random, 1957).

Wiseman, Bernard. Christmas with Morris and Boris (Little, 1983).

Christmas Customs

Barth, Edna. Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights: The Story of the Christmas Symbols (Houghton, 1981).

Bohrs, M.A. Getting Ready for Christmas (Judson, 1976).

Fowler, Virginie. Christmas Crafts and Customs Around the World (Prentice, 1984).

Lee, Sharon. Joyous Days: A Collection of Advent and Christmas Activities (Winston Press, 1984).

Slawter, Linda. Christmas Activity Book (Carson-Dellos, 1982).

Wilson, R.B. Merry Christmas! Children at Christmastime Around the World (Putnam, 1983).

Christmas Plays

Berry, Linda. Christmas Plays for Older Children (Broadman, 1981).

Kamerman, S.E., ed. Christmas Play Favorites for Young People (Plays, 1982).

Lahr, G.L. Merry Holiday Plays (Vantage, 1979).

Miller, S.W. Christmas Drama for Youth (Broadman, 1976).


Posted 2011/12/25 by Stelios in Education

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