Christmas in America has become a mixture of both secular and religious themes, a time of joy, gratitude and celebration.
But in Colonial times, it was a different story.
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. The Puritans associated it with the Church of England and the old-world customs they were escaping, including feasting, drinking and playing games.
Christmas and other holiday celebrations were banned in Massachusetts from 1659 until 1681. 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.
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.
Many people put a star atop their Christmas tree, as a symbol of the great light that shone at the time of Christ's birth.
The Three Wise Men began their travels to look for the baby Jesus, after seeing a great light shine in the night sky.
But astronomers now say it may not have been a star at all.
Indeed, there are no records of comets or supernovas at the time that would explain the phenomenon. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets. That kind of astronomical event would have lasted long enough, and have been bright enough, to guide the Wise Men on their journey from the East.
It's believed there was a planetary conjunction around the time Christ was born. Astronomers say Jupiter and Saturn were in close alignment between the constellations at the time, now identified as the end of May, in the year 7 B.C.
When 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon was unsure about whether Santa Claus was for real, her father told her to write a letter to the newspaper.
In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon's friends began to have their doubts about Santa Claus.
She then turned to her father for advice. He suggested she write a letter to the New York Sun, telling her that if she saw it in the Sun, it would be proof enough of Santa's existence.
So, she wrote to the newspaper pleading, "Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?"
Her letter was handed over to editor Francis Church, who, it seems, was rather reluctant to do anything about it all.
He didn't exactly have the reputation of being the most gentle man on the staff of the newspaper.
But his response has become a part of Christmas lore.
He told Virginia her friends were wrong, that they had been affected by "skepticism."
He went on to say, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." He told Virginia that Santa exists "as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist."
And in his response to little Virginia's letter, Church concluded, "A thousand years from now, maybe 10 times 10,000 years from now," Santa "will continue to make glad the hearts of children."
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 1820s 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 (SIHN'-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 at Yuletide and gives presents.
Christmas decorations were simpler before electricity. And more dangerous.
For centuries, people used candles to light their homes in the dark days of winter. When they started putting up Christmas trees, they lit those with candles, too. Which led to a lot of fires.
That began to change once Thomas Edison created the first practical light bulb. Edison also was apparently the first to put electric lights outdoors at Christmas. The Library of Congress says he strung some together and hung them outside his Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory during the Christmas season of 1880.
Two years later, Edison's friend and partner Edward Johnson wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs together and wound them around his Christmas tree. For added drama, he made the tree revolve.
In 1895, President Grover Cleveland ordered mutli-colored electric light bulbs for the White House family tree.
But electric Christmas lights were expensive and remained a rarity until 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled Christmas light kits. Their popularity grew after a novelty lighting company owned by Albert Sadacca and his brothers began selling strings of lights to the public. Their company cornered the Christmas light market until the 1960s.
Today China is the primary producer of Christmas lights, particularly the energy-saving LED variety, because of its plentiful cheap labor and large supplies of the necessary raw materials.
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 United States appeared in the mid 19th century. But the tree as a symbol dates back 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.
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.
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 such as 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 2 billion Christmas cards exchanged each year in the U.S. alone.
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, 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 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.
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.
Not everything has to be the latest, fastest, shiniest. Sometimes simpler is better.
What can you give your tech-savvy nephew who lives for the bells and whistles, and was first in line for the latest gadget?
How about a baseball glove -- and an invitation to go to the park with you and throw the ball around?
Or a kite. Set a date to go fly it together.
Or an old-fashioned board game. Schedule a game night, with pizza.
Buy someone a Crock-Pot or casserole dish, and spend an afternoon demonstrating how to use it. Share your favorite recipe, then enjoy it together.
Take a loved one to a play, a sporting event, a museum or the zoo. Schedule a day trip to a national park or historic site. Dig out the sled, gather the family and go find a park with a snowy hill.
Introduce children to gardening, or bird watching or coin collecting. Teach them how to fish, or knit, or build a model.
Give the gift of your company. It might not be on anyone's wish list, but it's sure to be a gift they won't get anywhere else.
How do you find the right gift for someone else's child? Look to their interests.
It can be hard to figure what to give a child, especially one you don't know well.
You know they probably don't want clothes. But what is it that will truly delight them?
First tip: Ask the parents.
Mom and dad probably have a plan for getting whatever the "it" gift is this year. But ask them anyway.
Find out what the child's interests are. Do they like books? Are they budding artists? Do they enjoy playing games or building things? Are they into outdoor activities?
When in doubt, go for the classics -- things like Legos, crayons, Play-Doh, a ball, a kite or a book. Toy cars and other things that roll are always popular. Kids who like to help in the kitchen might enjoy the updated version of the classic Easy-Bake oven. Older kids might enjoy a science kit.
It's also a good idea to ask the parents if there are any kinds of toys they don't approve of, or don't need any more of around the house.
And remember that toys with small parts or magnets can be hazardous to small children who might be tempted to put them in their mouths.
High-tech gadgets like tablet computers are hot picks for this holiday season's top toys. But so are low-tech favorites such as dolls and Legos.
It can be hard to tell what toys will be hot until they're already gone from store shelves. But this year, retailers' beefed-up layaway and toy reservation services provided some early indicators.
Wal-Mart, Kmart and Toys R Us say items that are proving popular include the kids' tablet LeapPad2, the new and improved Furby and Power Wheels battery-powered cars. But Barbies and Monster High dolls are high on the list, too.
Mattel's monster-themed dolls are among the biggest names in the doll aisle, and toy retailers are offering exclusive sets to draw in shoppers. The Doc McStuffins Time for Your Check-Up doll by Just Play and the Lalaloopsy by MGA are also selling briskly.
Several top toy lists include the Y Fliker F1 Scooter by Yvolution, a three-wheeled scooter that's self-propelled by the rider's movement.
Low-tech favorites include Fisher Price's Little People Disney Princess Songs Palace Playset, as well as toy train sets, dollhouses and bikes. And, of course, Legos, the Danish construction sets that have kept kids occupied for more than 50 years.
Loyal friends are hard to come by. That's why pets appear on so many holiday shopping lists.
Pets are family, too, so it's not surprising that many will find something just for them under the tree this Christmas.
You'll find lots of gift ideas at the local pet store, from holiday-themed squeaky toys to little Santa suits.
But your pet might prefer a cozy new place to sleep. Or an ergonomic food bowl, one that doesn't require them to stoop. If they're getting on in years, maybe they could use a ramp or doggie steps to help them get in the car or jump into bed.
Treats are always appreciated. Many shops now offer organic and homemade doggie biscuits. Or, you can make your own.
PetSmart sells a Sunbeam Pet Gourmet Dog Treat Maker for whipping up soft snacks for a finicky pooch or a senior dog that has difficulty chewing crunchy treats. The $30 kit comes with dog-friendly frosting recipes and toppings.
If you're worried your dog will wander off, consider a doggie GPS. Tagg-The Pet Tracker is a lightweight device that attaches to most collars and lets you track your dog using a computer or smart phone.
For other ideas, check out the Humane Society's website. Their online shop offers a wide range of animal-friendly products.
Merchants want your business, even when money is tight.
Sure, you'd love to see a pile of presents under the Christmas tree. But if you don't know whether you'll have a job next year, you might have to dial back the expectations.
Nobody knows that better than retailers, who count on holiday shoppers for up to 40 percent of their annual revenue. So they're trying a variety of things to lure customers.
Layaway is back, and it's free at some stores, such as Sears and Toys R Us.
Toys R Us is also offering toy reservation programs and a price-matching guarantee on its in-store products. It will match prices that appear in competitors' print ads and give customers seven days to get a price adjustment if they find a lower price elsewhere. It won't match competitors' online prices, but it will match those on its own Web sites.
Other stores, including Wal-Mart, also offer price-matching guarantees for local competitors' brick-and-mortar stores. Most have resisted extending that to online sales, but that may be changing.
This year, Best Buy is giving its store staffers discretion to match competitors' online prices for appliances and electronics. And Target is matching prices at select online competitors.
Wal-Mart and Toys R Us are giving shoppers the option of buying items online and paying when they pick them up at the store.
And eBay, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Postal Service are experimenting with same-day delivery in select markets for customers who buy items online.
Smart phones can help you shop. So can being smart, the old-fashioned way.
Smart phones, Facebook and social media are giving holiday shoppers new ways to find the best deals. But no matter how you shop, a smart and measured approach can keep the holidays from plunging you into debt.
First, set a budget. Make a list of everyone you plan to shop for, and how much you can spend on each. Add it up and revise downward if necessary.
Then do some research. Study store ads and jot down prices of items that interest you. Watch for enticements like price-matching, free shipping, limited-time specials or discount coupons online and in the newspaper. You can also find daily deals online through group-discount sites such as Groupon.
Tech-savvy shoppers can benefit from some additional tools.
Stores use Twitter feeds and Facebook pages to offer special deals. For example, Kohl's has Friday flash sales exclusively for its Facebook fans. Stores also send sale alerts to shoppers' smart phones.
This holiday season you can shop at Target by using a mobile phone to send a text or scan a QR code from a catalog, bus shelter ad or television spot.
And there are websites and apps that can help you compare prices while you shop, such as Nextag.com and SnapTell Explorer. You can use your smart phone to snap a photo or scan a barcode and find out what the item costs elsewhere.
Decide.com offers advice on the best time to buy electronics and other products, using data to predict model and price changes. And yes, it has a mobile app.
No matter where you go in America, this time of year brings public celebrations.
If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, consider heading to a ski resort. Colorado's Vail Mountain is planning a winter full of events to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Daily holiday festivities start with a tree lighting on Dec. 16 and end with a torchlight parade and fireworks on New Year's Eve.
Leavenworth, Washington, offers carols and tree-lightings in the Bavarian-style town's square on three weekends in December, along with Bavarian food, holiday sweets and roasting chestnuts.
Taos, New Mexico, incorporates Hispanic and Native American traditions in its celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice. Las Posadas, a candlelight procession re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph, takes place for the nine days preceding Christmas.
In Southern California, parades are a big part of the season, from the Hollywood Christmas parade on the Sunday after Thanksgiving to the Tournament of Roses parade on New Year's Day. There's also the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, featuring hundreds of yachts, cruise ships and water craft of all kinds sailing past Newport Harbor's decked-out waterfront.
To many, Christmastime in the city means New York with its window displays, Rockefeller Center tree and the Rockettes. But Chicago also sparkles in December, with lights strung along its Magnificent Mile and an outdoor German crafts market. San Antonio wraps the trees along its River Walk in colored lights. New Orleans has "Miracle on Fulton Street," an illuminated pedestrian walkway featuring bursts of synthetic snow.
For a country Christmas experience, Nashville offers tours of antebellum mansions, a residential holiday lights competition and a Christmas parade. And, of course, country music.
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 in the second century B.C.
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.
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, Jan. 6.
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.
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.