Most children come to know about Santa Claus and his activities on Christmas Eve — sleigh, reindeer, chimney, toys. What many don’t know is that this view of Santa Claus came largely from the imagination of Clement Moore who, in 1822, wrote a little poem for his own children. The first verse:
Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,
The stocking were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
In his poem, Moore creates the sleigh, names the reindeers, tells about the chimney drop and the bags of toys. His inspiration for Santa’s red and white suit is derived from the Christian St. Nicholas’s traditional bishop’s robes.
For millions of people around the world, the Christmas season is one filled with joyful activities steeped in familiar traditions. However, there were many centuries, decades and years when the date was not observed, when celebrations were discouraged and even outlawed. Here are some of the stories behind our Christmas traditions.
During the first two centuries after Christ’s death, Christmas was not celebrated. In A.D. 245, when a group of scholars attempted to pinpoint the exact date of Christ’s birth, a Church council denounced the endeavor, declaring that it would be wrong to celebrate the birth of Christ “as though He were a King Pharaoh.”
In spite of official disapproval, various attempts were made to pinpoint the Nativity, efforts that resulted in a confusion of dates: January 1, January 6, March 25 and May 20. The May date became the favored one because the Gospel of Luke (Lk 2:8 ff) reports that the shepherds who received the announcement of Christ’s birth were watching their sheep by night. Shepherds guarded their flocks day and night only at lambing time which was in the spring. In winter, the animals were generally kept in corrals, unwatched.
By the middle of the fourth century, December 25 was associated with the birthday of Christ. Pope Julius (337-352) formally selected December 25 as the day for Christmas in A.D. 349.
Prior to the celebration of Christmas, December 25 was already a widely celebrated day in the Roman World. On that date citizens observed the Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) in honor of the Sun God Mithras. The festival took place just after the winter solstice of the Julian calendar. Many modern Christmas customs such as decorating a house with greenery, exchanging gifts and enjoying festive meals, originated with this pagan celebration. Scholars believe that Pope Julius selected December 25 as the date of the Nativity in order to win over followers of the Sun God Mithras, as well as to give Christians an opportunity to honor Christ on his birthdate.
In 17th century England, Puritans objected to Christian celebrations that had no clear biblical basis. As a result, the English Parliament in 1643 outlawed Christmas, Easter and other Christian holidays. However, December 25 as a festive day was so popular that, by 1660, the citizens reclaimed it. Their neglect of the religious aspects of December 25 resulted in the growing secularization of the holiday.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620 they also brought with them a great dislike for Christmas. A Massachusetts law was enacted in 1659 that fined people for celebrating December 25. Again, the day was so popular that the anti-Christmas law was repealed in 1681, although strong religious opposition lasted into the next century.
The Christmas tree tradition began in Germany in the late 15th century. At that time a popular theatrical performance, the Paradise Play, depicted the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In the play, Paradise was represented by a fir tree hung with apples. Soon the tree was placed in the homes of Christians who interpreted it as a symbol of the coming Savior. The apples were replaced with small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist. Later the wafers were replaced by small pieces of pastry cut into shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells.
In 1822, the Superintendent of Mails in Washington, D.C., complained that homemade Christmas cards sent via the mail were clogging the postal system. Concerned that he needed to hire 16 extra mail carriers, the Superintendent petitioned Congress to limit the exchange of cards by mail, pleading, “I don’t know what we’ll do if it keeps on!”
The first commercially printed Christmas cards originated in London in 1843. Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy British businessman and patron of the arts, commissioned London artist John Calcott Horsley to create a card he could proudly send to friends and professional acquaintances to wish them a “merry Christmas.” Cole sent just 1,000 Christmas cards in 1843. The idea of using commercially printed cards caught on. Currently, Americans exchange nearly 3 billion Christmas cards annually, making Christmas the largest card-sending holiday in the United States.
Pennsylvania Germans claim to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in America. The first Christmas tree is recorded under the date Dec. 20, 1821, in the diary of a Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pa. The first known exhibition of a Christmas tree was held in York, Pa., in 1830. Early trees were decorated with fruits, nuts, popcorn, toys and candles. Today more than 80 percent of American families buy and decorate a tree at Christmas.
During the Christmas season Americans often hang mistletoe in the doorway for the purpose of stealing a kiss, but early Britons who started this custom believed the mistletoe heightened fertility in humans. Britons called mistletoe “all heal” believing the plant had magical powers that could cure disease, neutralize poisons, and bring good luck to couples who sealed their love with a kiss beneath the mistletoe.
One popular Christmas treat for those with a sweet tooth is the candy cane. The original candy cane was born in the 1670s when the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, bent sticks of white sugar candy into canes to represent a shepherd’s staff. Thus, the candy cane today is meant to symbolize the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem who first learned about the birth of Jesus. Hearing the angels announce His birth, these humble shepherds went to the stable to pay homage to the newly born child.
The presence of poinsettias in churches and homes at Christmas time is traced back to a village in Mexico. According to the legend, it was a custom for villagers to place gifts before the crèche in the church on Christmas Eve. A small boy, too poor to give anything, knelt to pray in the snow outside. On the spot where he knelt, the legend says, a beautiful plant with scarlet leaves grew immediately. The boy took it into the church and presented it as his gift to the Christ Child. Mexicans call the plant Flor de la Noche Buena (Flower of the Holy Night), and it is thought to resemble the Star of Bethlehem. The poinsettia plant is named after Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico and an accomplished amateur botanist. He discovered the beautiful plant there in 1828 and brought it to the United States where it was named in his honor.
The origin of Xmas, an abbreviation for Christmas, originated with Greek Christians. ‘‘X’’ (Chi) is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Xristos). By the 16th century, Xmas was widely used throughout Europe among Christians who understood that it meant “Christ’s Mass.” Later, Christians unfamiliar with the Greek origin, mistook the ‘‘X’’ as a sign of disrespect and an attempt by unbelievers to rid Christmas of its central meaning. Some Christians still disapprove of the abbreviation claiming, incorrectly, that it “takes the Christ out of Christmas.”
St. Nicholas, the godly bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (today’s country of Turkey) is the source of the Santa Claus tradition. He was widely known as a generous Christian who was especially kind to children. After his death a legend evolved that St. Nicholas visited children on Christmas Eve and left gifts. During the Reformation of the 16th century, St. Nicholas’s popularity was diminished, and some countries banished the custom completely. As a result, a more secular version emerged: Father Christmas in England and Papa Noel in France.
When Dutch settlers came to America they brought St. Nicholas (‘‘Sinter Klaas’’ in Dutch) with them to their new home. This ‘‘Sinter Klaas’’ became completely secularized into the person we now know as Santa Claus. He was no longer a bishop but, wearing bishop’s colors of red and white, he still came during the night to leave gifts for children.
According to legend, the practice of hanging up stockings originated with St. Nicholas. It was believed that St. Nicholas learned about a man hopelessly in debt whose creditors were about to sell him and his daughters into slavery. Moved with compassion, Nicholas put together a bag of gold from his own resources. Wishing to give anonymously, Nicholas went to the man’s home in the dark of the night and threw the bag of gold through the man’s window. The bag landed in one of the daughter’s stockings that had been hung up to dry.
Christmas is the only religious holiday in America that is also a national holiday. In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas an official holiday. By 1890 all other states followed suit.
Of the many statements made about Christmas, one of the finest comes from President Calvin Coolidge who reminded people: “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
Reverend Parachin, an ordained minister in the Christan Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.