The Birth of Christ
Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, the date of Christ's birth. Or was that really the date?
Christmas, literally meaning, "Christ's mass," hasn't always been celebrated at the end of the year. In fact, no one knows for sure just when Jesus was born.
Scholars believe the confusion began in part because Christmas wasn't an early feast day in the church. And there was much disagreement over whether it should even be added to the church calendar.
But in Luke's version of the Gospel, we know that shepherds were outdoors, caring for their sheep at the time of Jesus' birth. Some have taken that to mean it must have been a warm time of year that Christ was born.
Early theologians celebrated the occasion on May 20th. Others preferred late March or April, around the time of the Jewish Passover.
December 25th falls during a time of year when pagans once celebrated winter festivals. It's believed the early church fathers picked the now-familiar date as an alternative to those ancient festivals.
Still, not everybody celebrates Christmas the same day, even now.
Russian and Greek Orthodox churches continue to observe the old Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on January seventh.
The Festival Of Lights
Jews around the world celebrate the Festival of Lights each year to commemorate an ancient victory over oppression.
Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration marking the Jewish victory over Syrian invaders.
After the battle, the victorious Jews entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it to the service of God.
In fact, Hanukkah is the Hebrew term for dedication.
But Jewish teaching describes how the Judean heroes were unable to find enough oil to light the lamps of the Temple.
The amount of oil they had should only have provided enough light for one evening.
Miraculously, it kept the Temple lights burning for eight nights, until new oil could be obtained.
This miracle is recounted each year by the lighting of the eight branches of the Hanukkah menorah.
It's a multi-million-dollar-a-year business, and one of the more time-consuming efforts of the holiday season.
The Hallmark card people estimate that each year we buy and make billions of Christmas cards -- finding just the right saying with the nicest picture and the proper envelope.
And then we fill the cards with personalized greetings and reviews of the year's happenings, before sending them off in the mail -- hoping they get to their destinations on time.
The practice is more than 150 years old now, at least in the commercial sense.
While homemade cards had been in vogue for a few years, the first commercial card was designed by British artist J.C. Horsely for Sir Henry Cole in 1843.
One-thousand copies of the original were made, depicting good deeds -- clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
From there, printed cards became popular throughout England and then Germany.
It wasn't until the late 19th century that holiday cards caught on in America.
And gradually, the custom has grown into what it is today – the busiest card-buying time of the year, with an estimated two (b) billion Christmas cards exchanged each year in the US alone.
While most folks look forward to the end of December as Christmas time, it's long been marked for a variety of holidays.
Winter celebrations have been commonplace for centuries, long before Christmas began being celebrated on December 25th.
For instance, in what is now Scotland, the Druids once celebrated Winter Solstice, honoring their Sun God.
In Japan, they have the Festival of the Broken Needles, which dates back to at least 400 A.D.
As is the custom, tailors and dressmakers would create a special shrine for all their broken and bent needles, giving thanks for their good service over the year.
In Oaxaca (hwuh-HAH'-kuh), Mexico, the locals celebrate the Night of the Radishes, commemorating the introduction of the radish by Spanish colonists.
In the US, some African Americans now celebrate Kwanzaa, beginning December 26th.
It's a seven-day celebration that is neither a religious holiday nor an alternative to Christmas, but rather a tradition borne out of annual agricultural festivals.
A 12-day holiday
In this country, most folks celebrate Christmas with an exchange of gifts on Christmas Day. Others take a little longer to do their celebrating.
While times have changed somewhat, Christmas traditionally has been celebrated as a 12-day holiday.
The holiday period would begin at midnight Christmas morning and extend through the Feast of the Epiphany, January sixth.
Actually, if you include the feast day, it would be a 13-day, 12-night holiday, with the Feast of the Epiphany long referred to as Twelfth Night.
At any rate, Twelfth Night is recognized as the time the Wise Men reached the baby Jesus and brought him gifts.
Because of that, many people exchange their presents at the end of the Christmas period, rather than at the beginning.
Others do so throughout the 12 days.
And it's customary for some revelers to leave their Christmas decorations in place the entire holiday.
Every year, children and even some adults hang their stockings by the fireplace in hopes of a Christmas treat.
It's a custom that's been hanging around for some time.
The source of the first Christmas stocking may be none other than the original St. Nicholas.
He was a bishop in Asia Minor back in the fourth century. And, according to the lore, St. Nick had heard of a poor man who wasn't able to provide for his daughters.
Discouraged, the man prepared to sell his daughters into slavery.
But St. Nicholas refused to let that happen.
He anonymously gave them a gift of gold, tossing the offering down the chimney.
And the bounty came to rest in some stockings the girls had left to dry by the fireplace.
In some families, children find a tangerine in their stockings, to represent the lump of gold left by St. Nicholas for the poor family.
It's sort of a strange custom -- kissing or embracing someone while standing beneath the leaves of a parasitic plant. But it dates back centuries.
The practice of greeting someone while stationed under a sprig of mistletoe is thought to date back to ancient Britain.
Two hundred years before Christ's birth, the Druids celebrated the start of winter by gathering mistletoe and hanging the plant in their homes to ensure a good start to the year. Visitors often found themselves embraced under the waxy, green leaves and the white berries.
Scandinavian lore has it that the god of light and spring was slain by mistletoe, and his mother declared that it never again be used for evil. Her tears are said to have formed the white mistletoe berries.
Horticulturists point out mistletoe is a parasite, depending on a host tree for the water and minerals it needs to survive.
And experts warn you should be especially careful when decorating with mistletoe, especially when children are present. That's because the berries are quite poisonous and can result in rashes, nausea or vomiting when ingested.
And it goes without saying what an adverse reaction one might get if caught under the mistletoe with the wrong person.
Christmas in the United States
Christmas in late-20th-century America has become a mixture of both secular and religious themes, a time of joy, gratitude and celebration.
Surprisingly little is known about how early Americans celebrated Christmas.
That's because historians of the day spent their time chronicling politics and wars, not holidays.
But it is known that the early settlers of Virginia, Maryland and Georgia brought English customs with them, while in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania the traditions of Holland, Sweden and Germany were carried on.
In New England, Christmas was long frowned upon.
And in Massachusetts, from 1659 until 1681, Puritans banned Christmas and other holiday celebrations. A law was passed declaring that anyone who observed a holiday would be fined five shillings.
The first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama, in 1836.
Selecting A Tree
The Christmas tree looked good at the lot, and it was the right price, too. But how come all the needles are falling off?
It's an outing for the whole family. Mom, dad and the kids all jump into the minivan, drive to a nearby lot, fork over lots of cash and get a beautiful evergreen to take home.
But there's more to it than that.
The National Christmas Tree Association suggests you do a freshness test while looking at prospective trees. If you gently grab a branch between your thumb and forefinger, and run your fingers toward you, very few needles should come off in your hand.
You also don't want to see a lot of fallen needles on the ground around your tree, although it's normal to have a few brown needles. Then, after you've chosen your tree, keep it in a sheltered, unheated area until you're ready to decorate it.
And it's best to put a fresh cut on the bottom of the stump, and then make sure the water level in the stand never gets below the tree base, or you'll need another fresh cut.
And the experts say the single most important thing to remember when caring for your tree is to add plenty of water -- without any additives such as bleach or sugar or sodas. It's also best to keep it away from fireplaces, radiators and t-v sets, to prevent a fire hazard.
Giving Gifts at Christmas
The Christmas spirit takes shape in many different ways. And for a lot of folks, both young and old, it's a time to give – and receive -- gifts.
The first gifts given at Christmas were those offered to Christ by the Wise Men.
They traveled a great distance to bring the baby Jesus presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In addition, the many ancient winter solstice festivals also featured an exchange of gifts, and it's believed the Christmas tradition may have borrowed from those festivals as well.
And according to lore, the Santa Claus of old Europe was said to be a kind old man who would leave gifts for the good children, or perhaps a stick or some coal for those who've been naughty.
As Christmas has grown as a secular holiday in this country, the tradition of gift-giving certainly has evolved into a massive business.
Most retailers look at the holiday period as their most significant time of the year for making sales.
Holidays can be a wonderful time of feasting, and Christmas is certainly no exception.
No doubt you and your family have a favorite holiday meal or drink or treat you enjoy every year.
For some folks, it's the Christmas goose, or turkey or ham.
In Medieval England, boar's head was commonplace at Christmas, served on a platter to royalty amid much ceremony.
In Denmark, families enjoy a meal at midnight Christmas eve, topping it off with a special rice pudding, in which a single almond is hidden. The family member who finds the almond is said to have good luck throughout the year.
A Ukrainian tradition is for a Christmas eve supper consisting of 12 separate dishes, but with no meat or dairy products. And an extra place setting is prepared, either to remember those who've died, or to offer to a passing stranger.
One of the more peculiar yet lasting food items associated with Christmas is the fruitcake.
Recipes for fruitcake are quite varied, but most include some types of nuts and/or fruits. The secret ingredient is often some form of flavored liquid, usually a liqueur.
The Yule Log
For many lovers of holiday sweets, the Yule log is known as a tasty treat. But for others, it's a reminder of an old custom gone by.
As far back as the 12th century, many Europeans would mark the holidays with the lighting of the Yule log.
They'd chop down an enormous log and, according to custom, bring the wood into the house amid great ceremony on Christmas eve.
The master of the house would often sprinkle the log with oil, salt and wine while saying suitable prayers.
In some families, the mother would then light the wood, while children had the privilege in other homes.
It was said the cinders of the log would ward off the evil powers of the devil.
The tradition persisted in Europe, and even in Canada, until the last quarter of the 19th century.
But experts say its disappearance coincides with the advent of the cast-iron stove, which largely replaced the great, wood-burning hearths.
Today, the Yule log has become a traditional pastry – generally a cake roll, smothered in coffee or chocolate-flavored icing, and decorated with sugared holly leaves and roses.
The Tradition of the Tree
Each year, we buy millions of Christmas trees at lots and tree farms across the country. As with many Christmas customs, this one has its roots in many times and places.
Most historians believe the first decorated Christmas trees in the US appeared in the mid 19th Century.
But the tree as a symbol dates back for Centuries.
The National Christmas Tree Association says Egyptians used to bring green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year -- in December -- as a symbol of life's triumph over death.
Romans decorated their homes with evergreens during the winter festival Saturnalia.
Experts also trace the Christmas tree to Germany in the 15th or 16th Century. One version suggests the Protestant reformer Martin Luther began the tradition.
The practice is thought to have traveled to the New World with European settlers and Revolutionary War soldiers.
President Calvin Coolidge began the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in 1926.
Waiting for Christmas
For many kids, it's the most exciting and sometimes the most difficult time of the year. The days before Christmas are filled with wonder and amazement.
Everyone prepares for Christmas in different ways.
Families do their shopping, and their decorating, and their visiting according to their own special customs and traditions.
Christians also observe the time before Christmas in a special way. It's a period known as Advent, which means "the coming of Christ." The time is used to prepare believers for the pending celebration.
Special church services are held, and unique Advent candles are lit each Sunday at mass.
The Advent candle originated in Scandinavia and Germany, and had 24 different sections on it. It would be lit on December first, and allowed to burn a little more each day until Christmas eve.
A favorite Christmas item for many children is the Advent calendar, which helps count down the last 24 days before Christmas.
Each calendar has 24 doors, and a new one is opened every day leading up to Christmas.
Sometimes children will find small treats behind the doors, or perhaps Bible verses or pictures
A Happy and Safe Christmas
You've got shopping to do, decorating to take care of, travel plans to finalize and relatives to visit.
There's no question the holiday season is a busy time of year.
And it's easy to get overwhelmed if you don't plan ahead.
Financial experts suggest that when it comes to Christmas shopping, you start with a reasonable budget -- and then stick to it.
One option for making things easier is to hold a gift lottery within your family, especially if it's a big one, to cut down on the number of presents needed.
When it comes to decorating, safety experts warn about possible fire hazards -- such as faulty lights or poorly placed candles. And take special care to keep the tree away from the fireplace.
Also, if infants or toddlers are in the house, or are scheduled to visit during the holidays, remember to keep things like nuts and hard candies out of reach. The same goes for packaging materials such as foam or plastic.
Christmas is a time of song and caroling. But the festive music we use to help us enjoy the holiday is a fairly recent addition to the celebration.
Christmas hymns for centuries had only been sung in church, and then, only in Latin. And because few people regularly spoke Latin, the songs never really made it outside the religious world.
Only recently have Christmas hymns been sung in native languages around the world.
In fact, although the earliest Christmas songs date from the fourth Century, it wasn't until the Protestant era that the change began to take place.
And when the festive carols began to be incorporated into the local celebrations, they were initially frowned upon by some members of the church.
Perhaps the most famous of all Christmas carols, "Silent Night," was written in Austria in the early 19th Century.
In the times since, Christmas carols largely have become more popular, joyous tunes, incorporating both the religious and secular themes of Christmas.
When we think of Santa Claus, we conjure up images of a happy, round man with white whiskers and lots of little helpers.
Everybody knows Santa. He's the jolly old elf who's constantly saying, "Ho, ho, ho."
That image can be traced back to the 1820's and the poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas."
Some years later, the newspaper artist Thomas Nast painted the first image of Santa Claus, drawing inspiration from Clement Moore's poem.
Santa is also thought to have been derived from the Dutch Sinte Klaas (SIN'-tih klahs), who was brought to the New World by settlers.
There is a St. Nicholas who, as legend has it, lived in fourth-century Greece, bringing gold coins to anyone in need.
And many European tales over the years have told of a Father Christmas, a bearded old man who appears in Yuletide and gives presents
Christmas has long been a time ripe for superstitions, tall tales and odd beliefs.
Some experts say that since Christmas has a strong religious base, it's been a prime target for various superstitions over the years.
Others suggest it's simply a matter of local customs taking shape through time.
Regardless, there are quite a few superstitions that have been observed around the holiday.
For instance, an old Scottish tale suggests that babies born on Christmas can see spirits, and possibly even command them.
In France, it's been believed that Christmas babies have the gift of prophecy.
In old England, mothers would take their sick children to the door on Christmas night, in the belief the Virgin Mary would pass by with the Christ child.
Some Spaniards used to believe that you should treat cows kindly on Christmas, since cattle are thought to have been present when Jesus was born.
And according to one superstition, any dog that howled on Christmas day was sure to go mad in the coming year.
Symbols of Christmas
If you try to picture what Christmas looks like, many different images might readily come to mind -- candles, a star atop the tree, poinsettias.
Christmas is celebrated in so many different ways around the world, but some items have reached across time and space.
Certainly the presence of the Christ child is a constant, although some stories have his birth taking place in a cave, not in a stable.
It's believed St. Francis of Assisi began the custom of symbolizing Christ's birth in a manger, surrounded by animals, the shepherds and Mary and Joseph.
Many people associate candles with Christmas, stemming from the warmth and light they give off, at a time of darkness and cold.
It's not uncommon to put a star atop one's Christmas tree, as a symbol of the bright star that's thought to have led the Wise Men to Jesus.
And there are those who wouldn't do without their traditional poinsettia on Christmas.
That tradition began in Mexico, where the poinsettia is a native plant.
As the story goes, a young boy had nothing to bring to the Christ child, so he grabbed some green branches along the roadside, only to see a beautiful red flower appear as he laid them by the manger
Celebrations Around the Globe
Not everybody celebrates Christmas in the same way. Traditions and customs differ the world over.
The tiny town of Bethlehem is thought to be the site of Christ's birth.
And each year at this time, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is adorned with many flags and decorations, and a dramatic procession is held each Christmas Eve.
In Iran, where the Wise Men are believed to have lived, Christians long have marked the season by fasting from animal products.
In Mexico, the main Christmas celebrations involve processions re-enacting Joseph and Mary's search for a place to stay in Bethlehem.
Christians in India often decorate mango or banana trees at Christmas.
And Christian children in China hang muslin stockings and wait for a visit from Santa Claus, whom they call "Christmas Old Man."