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Christmas[Christ's Mass], in the Christian calendar, feast of the nativity of Jesus, celebrated in Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches on Dec. 25. In liturgical importance it ranks after EasterEaster
[A.S. Eastre, name of a spring goddess], chief Christian feast, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. In the West, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the full moon next after the vernal equinox (see calendar); thus, it falls
..... Click the link for more information. , PentecostPentecost
[Gr.,=fiftieth], important Jewish and Christian feast. The Jewish feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, arose as the celebration of the closing of the spring grain harvest, which began formally in Passover 50
..... Click the link for more information. , and EpiphanyEpiphany
[Gr.,=showing], a prime Christian feast, celebrated Jan. 6, called also Twelfth Day or Little Christmas. Its eve is Twelfth Night. It commemorates three events—the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1), the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem (Mat.
..... Click the link for more information. (Jan. 6).
The observance probably does not date earlier than A.D. 200 and did not become widespread until the 4th cent. The date was undoubtedly chosen for its nearness to Epiphany, which, in the East, originally included a commemoration of the nativity. 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. In England after the Reformation the observance became a point of contention between Anglicans and other Protestants, and the celebration of Christmas was suppressed in Scotland and in much of New England until the 19th cent.
In the mid 19th cent. Christmas began to acquire its associations with an increasingly secularized holiday of gift-giving and good cheer, a view that was popularized in works such as Clement Clarke MooreMoore, Clement Clarke,
1779–1863, American educator and poet, b. New York City, grad. Columbia, 1798. A biblical scholar, he was professor of Asian and Greek literature at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary, erected in New York City on land that he had donated.
..... Click the link for more information. 's poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1823) and Charles Dickens's story A Christmas Carol (1843). Christmas cards first appeared c.1846. The current concept of a jolly Santa Claus was first made popular in New York in the 19th cent. (see Nicholas, SaintNicholas, Saint,
patron of children and sailors, of Greece, Sicily, and Russia, and of many other places and persons. Little is known of him, but he is traditionally identified as a 4th-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor.
..... Click the link for more information. ).
The Yule Log [Yule, from O.E.,=Christmas], the boar's head, the goose (in America the turkey), decoration with holly, hawthorn, wreaths, mistletoe, and the singing of carols by waifs (Christmas serenaders) are all typically English (see carolcarol,
popular hymn, of joyful nature, in celebration of an occasion such as May Day, Easter, or Christmas. The earliest English carols date from the 15th cent. The carol is characterized by simplicity of thought and expression. Many are thought to be adaptations of pagan songs.
..... Click the link for more information. ). Gifts at Christmas are also English; elsewhere they are given at other times, e.g., at Epiphany in Spain. The Christmas tree was a tradition from the Middle Ages in Germany. The crib (crèche) with the scene at Bethlehem was popularized by the Franciscans. The midnight service on Christmas Eve is a popular religious observance in the Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches.
See also AdventAdvent
[Lat.,=coming], season of the Christian ecclesiastical year preceding Christmas, lasting in the West from the Sunday nearest Nov. 30 (St. Andrew's Day) until Christmas Eve.
..... Click the link for more information. and Twelfth NightTwelfth Night,
Jan. 5, the vigil or eve of Epiphany, so called because it is the 12th night from Christmas, counting Christmas as the first. In England, Twelfth Night has been a great festival marking the end of the Christmas season, and popular masquerading parties are typical
..... Click the link for more information. .
See M. Hadfield and J. Hadfield, The Twelve Days of Christmas (1961); P. L. Restad, Christmas in America (1995).
Date of Observation: December 25
Where Celebrated: United States, Great Britain, Europe, and by Christians throughout the world
Symbols and Customs: Angels, Bells, Boar, Candy Cane, Christmas Card, Christmas Carols, Christmas Seals, Christmas Tree, Crèche, Farolitos, Father Christmas, Gifts, Holly, Mistletoe, Poinsettia, Wassail, Wreath (see CHRISTMAS EVE for Candles, Luminarias, Reindeer, Santa Claus, Yule Log)
Colors: Christmas is traditionally associated with the colors red and green.
Related Holidays: Advent, Christmas Eve, Epiphany, Ganna, St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day)
Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, is one of the most important holidays for Christians. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.
With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects. The first celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 took place in Rome about the middle of the fourth century, although the Eastern church was already observing January 6 as a joint commemoration of Jesus' birth and baptism. Since the exact date of the Nativity is not known, there are a number of theories as to why December 25 was chosen. One is that it was designed to replace the ancient Roman winter festival known as the SATURNALIA, which was held on December 17-23. Another is that it was a replacement for the Brumalia, or Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, which was observed on December 25 because it followed the WINTER SOLSTICE , when the days began to grow longer. Christmas also coincided, more or less, with the Jewish Feast of Lights or HANUKKAH, the Egyptian Birthday of the Sun-God, and the Anglo-Saxon Feast of Yule. Many of the symbols associated with Christmas still reflect its twin roots in Christianity and pagan seasonal lore.
Even in pre-Christian times, the period between December 25 and January 6 was considered a special time of year. Now widely referred to as "The Twelve Days of Christmas," this was a time when spirits roamed the earth and were apt to cause mischief if certain precautions weren't taken. A number of the superstitions associated with this period concerned spinning. In England, for example, it was said that if any flax were left on the distaff, the devil would come and cut it. In Denmark, it was believed that nothing characterized by a circular motion (such as a spinning wheel) should be used between Christmas and NEW YEAR'S DAY.
When the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582, eleven days were dropped to make up for the discrepancy that had accumulated over the centuries. Roman Catholic countries quickly accepted the new calendar, but in England and Scotland, people had trouble adjusting to the change. For almost 200 years, they continued to observe Christmas on what was now January 5. Even after the British adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, people living in rural areas continued to observe "Old Christmas Day" on January 5 (January 6 after 1800). The new calendar was never adopted by the Greek and other Eastern churches, where Christmas is still observed on January 6.
Xmas, the common abbreviation for Christmas, is regarded by many-especially those who are intent on preserving the holiday's religious roots and traditions-as an insult to Christ, if not a sacrilege. In fact, the abbreviation is entirely appropriate. The letter "X" (chi) is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was an even longer abbreviation that came into use around 1550: X-temmas.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
Images of angels adorn Nativity scenes, CHRISTMAS CARDS , CHRISTMAS TREES , and other Christmas displays. These otherworldly beings take their name from the Greek angelos, which means "messenger" or "herald." In the Gospel according to Luke's account of Jesus' birth, it is an angel named Gabriel who visits Mary to inform her that she will bear a child. Then, on the night of Jesus' birth, an angel appears to shepherds in a nearby field to announce the glorious event-followed by a "multitude" of angels who suddenly materialize behind the first angel, singing praises to God.
With so many angels involved in orchestrating the events surrounding Jesus' birth, it is no wonder that they became a symbol of the Christmas holiday. Today's Christmas angels frequently appear as winged human beings in flowing white robes with feminine faces and haloes. Some scholars believe that early Christian artists patterned the image of winged angels after the winged Greek goddess of victory, Nike. The disk of light, called a halo or nimbus, that appears behind their heads symbolizes purity, holiness, and spiritual power. Angels are also frequently shown with harps or other musical instruments, which signify what some consider to be their primary occupation: praising God.
The association between bells and Christmas can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when Church officials began to use bells for worship and celebration. Large bells were used to call parishioners to religious services, and they also chimed at certain points during the service so that those who were not inside the church could join in the prayers. Many churches had four or five bells; the more important the occasion, the more bells rang to honor it. A high mass, for example, warranted three bells. On the principal feast days, such as EASTER and Christmas, four or five bells pealed to celebrate the joyous occasion. In medieval England, Christmas bell-ringing began with a loud clang on the first Sunday in ADVENT to alert parishioners that the Advent season had begun.
Today, fewer churches carry out the old Christmas tradition of bell-ringing, and the folklore surrounding bells has been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the public imagination still links bells with Christmas. A number of well-known Christmas poems and CHRISTMAS CAROLS mention pealing or jingling bells as emblems of the holiday. In addition, bells appear as symbols of the holiday on many Christmas decorations. And representatives of charitable organizations, such as the Salvation Army, who are seeking donations often announce their presence on street corners by ringing hand-held bells.
Perhaps because the ancient Celts supplied the rest of Europe with pork and bacon, the boar's association with the Yuletide feast goes back to prehistoric times. According to Norse folklore, boar was served in Valhalla, the mythical hall where Odin received the souls of heroes who had fallen in battle. Pork was highly prized in Ireland and Wales, where many preferred it to beef and mutton.
In eleventh- and twelfth-century England, hunting the wild boar became a traditional Christmas sport. Its head would be carried into the dining hall afterward with a great flourish, often to the accompaniment of "The Boar's Head Carol," the oldest printed CHRISTMAS CAROL in existence (1521). Queen's College, Oxford, was at one time known for its traditional Christmas ceremony of ushering in the boar's head. According to legend, a student of the college was attacked by a wild boar while walking in the country. He was reading Aristotle as he walked, and was able to escape injury by shoving the book down the boar's throat.
In Scandinavia, it is customary to use the last sheaf of corn from the harvest to bake a loaf in the form of a boar or pig at Christmas time. Throughout the festival of Yule (Jul), the boar-shaped loaf remains on the table. It is often kept in the house until the crops are sown in the spring. Then part of it is mixed with seed-corn and part is given to the ploughman or his animals to eat. Scholars believe that the Yule boar represents the corn-spirit (a primitive deity who makes the crops grow) in pig form.
In Psalm 80, Satan is described as "the wild boar out of the wood" who has wasted the Lord's vineyards. Carrying the boar's head on a platter is symbolic of his final defeat by Jesus Christ, the newborn King.
The very earliest Christmas trees were decorated with symbols associated with the birth of Jesus. Candles were used to symbolize Christ, the Light of the World, and the star placed on the topmost branch recalled the Star of Bethlehem that shone over the manger. The shepherd's crook represented the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, who were the first to receive the news that a Savior had been born.
In Europe, the most popular Christmas tree decorations were edible. Cookies and candy not only provided a treat for children but symbolically expressed Christians' gratitude for the "daily bread" that the Lord provided. The red-and-white striped candy canes that are hung on the branches of Christmas trees today were once a symbol of the shepherds who came to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child.
In ancient Rome, it was customary to exchange greetings and gifts on the first day of January. With the advent of Christianity, the giving and receiving of such tokens continued in some European countries, often taking the form of New Year cards. These contained no references to Christmas and were sent out after December 25 so they would arrive on NEW YEAR'S DAY. In England, however, seasonal greeting cards combined Christmas and the New Year-with the emphasis on Christmas. They were meant to be delivered on or before Christmas Day and to convey greetings for both holidays.
The invention of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century gave the production of New Year cards in Europe a real boost. But most stationery manufacturers looked upon these cards as a temporary fad that probably wouldn't last. People who didn't want to spend their money on manufactured cards often converted their printed calling cards for the purpose, decorating them with scraps of cloth or paper and adding a Christmas greeting.
The first printed Christmas card was produced in England in 1843. Designed by John Calcott Horsley, it sold for a shilling and looked like a postcard. It wasn't until the 1880s that cards became folders of four, eight, or more pages.
Cards became increasingly elaborate throughout the Victorian period, with "frosted" surfaces, fancy cut edges, layers of lace-paper, and other forms of decoration. Sometimes the top cover or flap was embossed, "jewelled" with sparkles, and edged with silk fringe or tassels.
Louis Prang started producing Christmas cards in the United States in 1875. His plant in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was the birthplace of what is now the American greeting card industry. The subject matter ranged from traditional midwinter and Nativity scenes to flowers, animals, birds, and insects; comic or serious illustrations of public figures or popular characters; and novelties-such as the bicycle and the telephone.
Christmas cards in America today are so much a part of the holiday tradition that people often regard sending them as a burden. And fear of offending the sensibilities of non-Christians has led many card manufacturers to omit the word "Christmas" altogether, substituting more secular messages focusing on world peace and understanding.
Although it is difficult to imagine the holiday season without Christmas carols, Christmas was observed for more than 800 years before the first real "carols" were written. The term originally referred to a ring-dance accompanied by singing, without any religious overtones. Eventually it came to mean a merry song with a tune that could be danced to.
The Italian friars who lived with St. Francis of Assisi were the first to compose simple, uplifting songs based on the stories of the Gospel (see ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI, FEAST OF ). Unlike hymns, the earliest carols treated religious subjects in a familiar, playful, or festive style. From Italy, the carol passed to Spain, France, and Germany, where it retained its cheerfulness, childish simplicity, and religious fervor. The earliest known English carol dates from about 1410 and describes the Virgin Mary singing a lullaby to her child.
Carols as they are known today typically describe scenes and events associated with the birth of Christ-for example, the shepherds watching over their flocks and seeing the Star of Bethlehem, the discovery of the infant Jesus in the stable, the journey of the Wise Men from the East, etc. The best-loved carols-including "Deck the Halls," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "Here We Come A-Wassailing"- were written before the Restoration (1660); those written later tend to lack the earlier carols' spontaneity and festive nature. The rise of Puritanism in England was nearly fatal to Christmas carols, and by 1800, the custom of singing carols had nearly died out. But people in rural areas kept the tradition alive, and a new generation of editors and publishers made sure that the best of the old carols survived.
Christmas caroling-the custom of singing carols in a group while moving from house to house-originally took place on CHRISTMAS EVE or early in the morning on Christmas Day. Today it is a popular Christmas Eve tradition. Since the nineteenth century, carols have been sung in place of hymns in most churches on Christmas Day. Although some very good carols have been written for holidays other than Christmas, no one ever seems to sing them.
Many people embellish the CHRISTMAS CARDS , letters, and packages they send during the holiday season with special decorative stamps called Christmas seals. Although the seals have no value as postage, the money collected in return for them supports various charitable causes. A Danish postmaster came up with the idea for Christmas seals in 1904, and since then the custom has spread to dozens of countries around the world. In 1919 the National Tuberculosis Association, which later became the American Lung Association, cornered the market on Christmas seals in the United States, becoming the sole issuers of the decorative stamps in this country. Today, the seals earn millions of dollars a year for the American Lung Association.
The decorated tree didn't really become a popular part of the Christmas celebration until the nineteenth century, but some scholars believe that the custom can be traced all the way back to ancient times. The Egyptians observed a midwinter festival in honor of the god Horus, son of Isis (goddess of motherhood and fertility). The symbol for this celebration was a palm tree with 12 shoots symbolizing the months of the year. The Romans decorated with candlelit trees during the SATURNALIA in December and brought laurel boughs and green trees into their houses at the kalends (first day) of January. The Christmas tree as it is known today came to America from Germany in the early eighteenth century. The Germans had for some time been celebrating Christmas by setting up a wooden structure shaped like a pyramid and covering it with boughs of evergreen. The Weihnachtspyramide was probably derived from the "Paradise tree" used in medieval mystery plays. A fir tree decorated with apples and surrounded by candles, it symbolized the story of Adam and Eve. According to legend, when Adam left Paradise, he took with him a sprig (or seed) from the Tree of Knowledge. From this grew the tree that later provided wood for the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.
There is also a legend concerning the miraculous transformation of nature at the moment of Jesus' birth, when it is said that the rivers flowed with wine and the trees blossomed in the midst of ice and snow. The Christmas tree, which "blossoms" with light and ornaments at this time of year, may have been a symbolic representation of this legendary miracle.
Although Christmas trees can be seen everywhere in the United States-in homes, schools, office buildings, and shopping malls-they do not play the central role here that they do in the German celebration of Christmas. No one in Germany is too poor or too lonely to put up a tree. And unlike Americans, who tend to arrange their Christmas gifts around the base of the tree, the Germans consider their tree an object of wonder all by itself. It is decorated in secret behind closed doors and revealed to the assembled family and guests on Christmas Eve.
In the United States today a fir tree is traditionally placed at the highest point of a building under construction-even if it's a skyscraper. Just as Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the occupational symbol of the fir tree serves as a reminder of the work that goes into a new building and the people who make this modern "miracle" possible.
The crèche, a display of a stable with figures representing the Nativity scene, is usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who used real people and live animals to reconstruct the birth of Jesus in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio in 1224 (see ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI, FEAST OF). The "living pantomime" became a popular Italian custom and eventually spread throughout the Christian world.
But the idea goes back even further, to fourth-century Rome. The early observance of the festival of Christmas included three Masses, one of which was referred to as Ad Praesepe (the Crib). The "Crib" was a shrine that had been built in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore from some of the boards believed to have been saved from the original stable in Bethlehem. The custom of saying a Mass over the manger seems to have inspired other churches in Italy and throughout Europe to set up their own "cribs." But it was St. Francis of Assisi who took the crèche out of the church and popularized it, giving rise to the practice of setting up crèches in public squares and private homes.
In Italy today, every home has its Presepio at Christmas. It includes not only the immediate scene-with Mary and Joseph, the Christ child, the shepherds, the Three Kings, and assorted farm animals and worshipping angels-but the surrounding countryside of Bethlehem with its hills and streams. South America is also known for its elaborate Nativity scenes. An entire room is often filled with a reconstructed landscape representing the mountains, plains, and valleys surrounding Bethlehem. The shepherds can be seen leading their sheep across the hills, while the Wise Men are crossing the desert on their camels. Sometimes there are water mills, grottos, and sailboats on the sea.
In fourteenth-century Germany, there was a very popular Christmas custom known as Kindelwiegen or "cradle-rocking." People danced around the cradle containing an image of the Christ child and then took turns rocking it with their own hands. Sometimes the participants would get carried away, rocking and fondling the Christ Child and leaping around the cradle. Because cradle-rocking so often got out of hand, the practice was eventually discontinued in most German churches.
There has been some controversy in the United States about erecting crèches in public places, such as town halls. State and local governments have been under pressure to make their displays non-denominational by adding other symbolic elements. Vandalism and theft of the figures in the crèche are becoming increasingly common, prompting some cities and towns to do away with outdoor Nativity scenes altogether.
In the American Southwest, glowing paper sacks decorate the outlines of buildings, patios, walkways, and plazas at night during the Christmas season. These ornamental lights are called farolitos (pronounced fah-roh-LEE-tohs), which means "little lanterns" in Spanish. They are made by filling brown paper lunch bags with a few inches of sand to weigh the bags down and to anchor the votive candles that sit inside. When the candles are lit, the light shining through the brown paper gives off a golden glow in the darkness.
Although farolitos came to the Southwest from Mexico, they are believed to have derived from Chinese paper lanterns, imported from the Philippines to Mexico by Spanish traders. When frontier settlers in the United States discovered that the delicate paper that surrounded the lantern frame would not hold up in rough winter weather, they started making their own lanterns with plain brown wrapping paper. The new farolitos not only proved more durable, but also cast an amber glow which favored the warm colors characteristic of the southwestern landscape. Today these beautiful lights constitute an important symbol of Christmas in the American Southwest.
In some areas of the Southwest, farolitos are known as luminarias (see CHRISTMAS EVE ), while in others the two customs remain distinct. In northern New Mexico, for example, the word "luminarias" refers to small Christmas season bonfires, while the decorative brown paper lanterns are known as farolitos.
Father Christmas is an English folk figure who for centuries personified the Christmas season. Unlike Santa Claus (see CHRISTMAS EVE), Father Christmas did not distribute gifts. Instead, he represented the mirth, generosity, and abundance associated with the celebration of Christmas.
Father Christmas usually appeared as a large, robust man wearing a red or green robe with fur trim and a crown of HOLLY , ivy, or MISTLETOE . In Charles Dickens' famous story A Christmas Carol, the character who appears as "the Ghost of Christmas Present" bears a strong resemblance to Father Christmas. But sometimes he was a wizened old man-a robed and hooded figure who closely resembled conventional images of Father Time, although he did not carry a scythe. This association between Father Christmas and Father Time may well have sprung up because Christmas arrives just before the close of the old year and the beginning of the new.
During the nineteenth century, the American Santa Claus began to appear in England. Santa Claus was a gift-bringer rather than a personification of the Christmas season, but as his popularity increased in England, his identity began to merge with that of Father Christmas. Eventually Santa Claus all but erased the figure of Father Christmas, who retained his name but whose image and activities nearly mirrored those of Santa Claus.
The custom of exchanging charms or small tokens of good luck at the end of the year goes back to very ancient times. The Egyptians used to give each other small, symbolic presents conveying good luck wishes on NEW YEAR'S DAY. When the tombs of the Pharoahs were unearthed, small blue-glazed bottles (probably scent flasks) with messages about the approaching New Year were found intact. The Romans, too, exchanged gifts and New Year's greetings on the Kalends (or first day) of January. Originally laurel or olive branches picked from the holy groves dedicated to Strenia, the goddess of health, these gifts or strenae became more elaborate, often consisting of symbolic objects such as lamps (symbol of light) or silver and gold (wealth). Giving people such gifts was supposed to bring them luck in the coming year. The Roman roots of the gift-giving custom can still be seen in the French word for New Year's presents: étrennes.
St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, has also been linked to the gift-giving tradition. Because he was not only wealthy but modest, he liked to help people in need without drawing attention to himself. Poor families would often find a gold piece or a well-filled purse without knowing where it had come from. His American successor, Santa Claus, carried on the tradition by delivering gifts in his sleigh on CHRISTMAS EVE .
In Russia, it is Babuska (the Grandmother) who brings gifts at Christmas. According to legend, this is the old woman who deliberately misdirected the Three Wise Men when they stopped to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem. Another version of the story says that they urged her to come with them, but she said she was too busy spinning. In any case, she later repented and tried to make amends by going around the world on Christmas Eve distributing gifts to good children.
The growing commercialism surrounding Christmas, particularly in the United States, has placed so much emphasis on shopping for Christmas gifts that many people feel it has robbed the holiday of its religious significance. A popular slogan reminds busy American consumers to "Put the 'Christ' back in Christmas."
The ilex or holly oak is regarded as a symbol of the passion of Christ because its thorny leaves resemble the crown of thorns that Christ wore at His crucifixion. It is also said to have been the tree from which the cross was made. All the other trees, according to legend, agreed not to allow their wood to be used for this purpose. When touched by an axe, they splintered into a million pieces. Only the ilex remained whole and permitted itself to be felled.
Today holly is used to decorate homes and churches at Christmas. Like ivy and MISTLETOE , holly bears its fruit in the wintertime, which is why it is considered a symbol of eternal life. Other evergreens used for decorating at Christmas include the laurel (or bay), symbolic of triumph, and the yew or cypress, which is also symbolic of immortality because it stays green.
The evergreen boughs and sprigs of holly, ivy, and mistletoe used to decorate homes during the Christmas holiday symbolize immortality because they retain their green color even after they've been cut. The custom of decorating indoors with evergreens dates back to the Roman SATURNALIA, where it may have been an offer of hospitality to the spirits that haunted the woods. In ancient Britain, the Druids worshipped mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant that draws its water and minerals from the tree on which it grows. According to legend, mistletoe was most likely to be found on trees that had been struck by lightning, particularly oaks. Although the Druids regarded mistletoe in general as a cure for almost any disease and a remedy against poisons, oak-mistletoe was considered the most powerful. It could heal ulcers or help a woman conceive; it was widely regarded as a cure for epilepsy (known as "the falling sickness") because it was rooted high in the branches of a tree and could not fall to the ground. Gathering it on the first day of the lunar month increased its power, and the Druids made sure that it was cut with a golden sickle and caught in a white cloth so it wouldn't touch the ground.
In Norse mythology Balder, the god of light and vegetation, dreamed that he was going to die. To protect him from every imaginable danger, the goddess Frigga made all of the beasts and birds, as well as the stones, the trees, fire, and water, swear an oath that they would not harm him. Once the other gods realized that Balder was invulnerable, they often amused themselves by shooting and throwing stones at him. But the mischievous Loki tricked Frigga into revealing that a plant called mistletoe had seemed too young at the time to participate in the oath. Loki gave a sprig of it to the blind god Hother and told him to shoot at Balder with the twig. The mistletoe struck Balder and he was killed.
Such legends contributed to mistletoe's reputation as a sacred and very powerful plant. The oak tree on which it grew became a Christian symbol when it was identified as the tree from which the Cross was made. Because of its solidity and endurance, it is also a symbol of the strength of the Christian faith. But because of its association with the ancient religion of the Druids, mistletoe is generally not allowed in church decorations.
The custom of hanging a sprig of mistletoe in a doorway at Christmas dates back to the ancient Scandinavian custom of having enemies who encountered each other under mistletoe in the forest lay down their arms and maintain a truce until the following day. Nowadays people who find themselves standing under the mistletoe in a doorway are expected to kiss each other-another way of making a pledge of peace and friendship.
In England, Christmas decorations were never simply thrown away; they were usually burned or allowed to stay up until CANDLEMAS (February 2). Mistletoe often stayed up until it was replaced by a new branch the following year.
Native to Central America, the red and green poinsettia has been a symbol of Christmas in the United States since the 1820s, when it was first shipped to North America by Joel Poinsett, the American minister to Mexico. The shape of the bright red petals has often been compared to the Star of Bethlehem.
The term wassail comes from the Middle English waes haeil, which means "be in good health." Wassailing was the old English custom of toasting the holiday and each other's health. From the thirteenth century onward the term referred not only to the toasts that were exchanged during the Christmas season but to a traditional beverage-a mixture of ale, roasted apples, sugar, and spices, sometimes with eggs or cream added. It was served from giant "wassail bowls" and remained the favorite holiday drink until the early eighteenth century, when the growing popularity of spirits led to the invention of punch. Today, liquor-based punches and egg nog-a nineteenth-century invention-have replaced the original wassail. But the custom of offering toasts remains.
The circular shape of the Christmas wreath makes it a symbol of eternity. Because the wreath remains green throughout the holiday season, it serves as a reminder that life is present even during the dead of winter.
The Christmas wreath is the logical continuation of the Advent wreath, an old Christian custom that originated with the Lutherans in Germany. It is a simple circle of greenery around which four candles, representing the four weeks of the ADVENT season, are equally spaced. One candle is lit the first Sunday and another is lit each week thereafter. Because of the burning candles, however, Advent wreaths were usually placed on a table or hung parallel to the floor. Christmas wreaths are traditionally hung on the doors, walls, or windows of homes and churches. Many people leave their wreaths up all winter. When the wreath is taken down, it is symbolic of winter's end.
Barz, Brigitte. Festivals with Children. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1987. Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Buday, George. The History of the Christmas Card. 1971. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Dawson, W.F. Christmas: Its Origin and Associations. 1902. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2000. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Monks, James L. Great Catholic Festivals. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.
Library of Congress www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/modern/xmas_1
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm
one of the principal Christian holidays, established, according to church teaching, in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Christmas is observed on December 25 (in certain countries by the Gregorian calendar and in others by the Julian calendar, which coincides with January 7). The source of the holiday is to be found in the pagan cult of “dying and resurrecting” deities, which was especially widespread among agricultural peoples, who every year timed the celebration of the regular days of the winter solstice (December 21–25) with the “birth” of a saviorgod, who would awaken nature to a new life. Early Christianity did not celebrate Christmas. As late as the second century, Christians were celebrating merely the winter holiday in January of the “appearance and baptism of Christ.” In the mid-fourth century the Christian church, which was striving to supplant the cult of Mithra, modified the Mithraist holiday of the “birth of the invincible sun-god” (which was held on December 25) and converted it into the holiday of Christmas.
The Christian communities of Rome were the first to celebrate Christmas. The earliest reference to the holiday dates back to A.D. 354. The celebration was legalized at the Council of Ephesus in 431. During the tenth century, along with Christianity itself the holiday spread in Rus’, where it merged with the ancient Slavic winter holiday in honor of the ancestor-spirits (sviatkï). Vestiges of the ancient holiday have been retained in yuletide (sviatochnye) rituals, such as mummery and fortune-telling, which are observed at the same time as Christmas.
REFERENCEBelov, A. V. Rozhdestvo khristovo, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1974.
The Christmas season in the church begins on Christmas Eve and ends on Epiphany, unlike the commercial season that may begin any time after Halloween.
December 25th is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics, who must attend one of the three masses priests are permitted to say in honor of the occasion. These services are celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve and at dawn and, usually, mid-morning on Christmas.
As a holiday, Christmas represents a strange intermingling of both Christian and the pagan traditions it replaced. Many of the secular customs now associated with Christmas—such as decorating with mistletoe, holly, and ivy; indulging in excessive eating and drinking; stringing lights in trees; and exchanging gifts—can be traced back to early pagan festivals like the Saturnalia and ancient Winter Solstice rites. Another example is burning the Yule log, which was part of a pre-Christian winter solstice festival celebrating the return of the sun in the middle of winter. Even the Christmas tree, a German custom introduced in Britain by Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, may trace its history back to ancient times
One of the most universal Christmas traditions is the creche, a model of the birth scene of Christ, with Jesus in the manger, surrounded by the Holy Family and worshipping angels, shepherds, and animals. Many families have their own creche, with the three Wise Men set apart and moved closer each day after Christmas until they arrive at the manger on Epiphany. In Austria, the creche is not put away until Candlemas Day.
In Belgium, the manger also appears in shop windows, constructed of the material sold by the shop: bread at the bakery; silks and laces at dressmakers; a variety of materials from the hardware store; butter and cheese from dairies; and cravats and neckties at the haberdashers.
In Chile the creche is called a pesebre . Some homes leave their doors open so people passing by can come in and say a brief prayer to the Niño Lindo (beautiful baby).
In Italy it is a presÉpio and is placed on the lowest shelf of a ceppo, which is a pyramid of shelves, lit with candles, used to display secular Christmas decorations and ornaments.
In Poland, where the creche is called a yaselko, it is believed to be the origin of the Christmas folk play called the King Herod play, based on Herod's order to kill all male babies in Bethlehem ( see Holy Innocents' Day). Thirteenth-century Franciscan monks brought the creche to Poland. Eventually the wax, clay, and wooden figures were transformed into szopka, puppets that performed Christmas mystery plays, which told of the mysteries of Christ's life. Later, the monks acted the parts played by the puppets and were called "living szopka." In time, the plays were blended with characters and events from Polish history. The performers are called "Herods" and go from house to house in their villages where they are invited in to sing carols, act, and later to eat and drink with the family.
In Burkina Faso (until 1984 called Upper Volta), in western Africa, the population is mostly in Ouagadougou, the capital, and there the children make nativities (manger scenes) around the entrance to their compound. They are ready on Christmas Day so friends and neighbors can come by and, if they like them, leave a few coins in the dish provided. Some are made of paper and set on a pedestal, others of mud bricks with a thatch roof, while others are in the form of the local round house and have the bricks covered with a coat of concrete and a masonry dome instead of thatch. All of this is ornately decorated with strings of plastic packing peanuts, bits of shiny metal, tinsel, plastic, and flashlight bulbs. Some are modeled after pictures of European churches, but the child who can build a multi-storied nativity is thought very clever. On the wall of the compound behind the nativity is painted a white panel on which are affixed pictures of the Holy Family, crosses, hearts, arrows, stars, and anything else that comes to the mind of the young creator.
In Japan, since the end of World War II, Christmas has become a very popular holiday, even for non-Christians. Christmas dinner is replaced with a commercial Christmas cake, called "decoration cake," ( dekoreshon keki ), covered with ridges and waves of frosting. Grandfather Santa Claus brings the gifts, but stockings are hung on the pipe for the bathtub stove, which is the nearest equivalent to a fireplace in Japanese homes. New Year's postcards are much more important than Christmas cards, and the most elaborate use of evergreen trees is also saved for New Year's. Christmas parties are a kind of blending with bonenkai, "closing of the year parties," which may only be attended by men and professional women: geishas, waitresses, entertainers. All women can attend Christmas parties, which is one of the reasons why the Japanese consider Christmas to be democratic.
Secular Christmas customs have continued to evolve. The Christmas card didn't become popular until the 19th century in England; Santa Claus's reindeer were an American invention at about the same time. Modern Christmas celebrations tend to focus on the worldly—with such traditions as the office Christmas party, sending out greeting cards, and Christmas specials on television taking the place of church services and other religious observances for many. The movement to "put Christ back into Christmas" has not lessened the enjoyment of this holiday as much for its social and commercial events as for its spiritual significance. The way Christmas is celebrated today is actually no worse—and in many ways much less excessive—than the hedonistic medieval celebration, where the feasting and revelry often extended all the way from Christmas to Candlemas (February 2).
See also Ganna; Koledouvane; Lighting of the National Christmas Tree; Misa de Gallo; and Posadas
Christian Resource Institute
4712 N. Hammond
Warr Acres, OK 73122
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia
242 Cleveland St.
Redfern, NSW 2016 Australia
61-2-9698-5066; fax: 61-2-9698-536
AmerBkDays-2000, pp. 3, 851
BkDays-1864, vol. II, pp. 733, 744
BkFest-1937, pp. 10, 11, 20, 35, 49, 62, 73, 93, 99, 108, 117, 130, 140, 150, 155, 175, 192, 216, 223, 234, 247, 254, 256, 272, 281, 287, 296, 305, 314, 323, 333, 345
DaysCustFaith-1957, pp. 319, 351
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 182, 193, 229, 501, 554, 571, 591, 628, 689, 761, 779, 854, 1063, 1065, 1133
EncyRel-1987, vol. 3, p. 460
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 231
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 20, 30, 53, 83, 104, 148, 158, 186, 208, 222, 241
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 497
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 716
HolSymbols-2009, p. 125
OxYear-1999, pp. 514, 601
RelHolCal-2004, pp. 86, 116
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 37
Celebrated in: Albania, Andorra, Bangladesh, Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Dominica, Gabon, Greece, Malta, Marshall Islands, Nepal, Norway, Republic of Congo, Romania, Rwanda, Samoa, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Timor-Leste
Press and Information Office
2211 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-332-2727; fax: 202-265-4931
BkFest-1937, p. 154
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 312, 401
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 230
Celebrated in: Greece
Religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, are widely celebrated in Malta. Maltese families tend to be very close-knit, and the holidays are a time to strengthen the sense of community and reinforce family bonds.
On Christmas Eve, it is traditional to attend Midnight mass and then eat a large Christmas breakfast. In most churches, at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve there is the "Priedka tat-Tifel," which consists of a young boy (or girl, in some parishes) reciting by heart the events leading up to the Nativity.
On Christmas Day, families prepare large Christmas lunches and give thanks with their relatives for all that they have. Also, the streets are lined with carts selling a wide assortment of foods, including the more traditional sweets and delicacies. As in many other countries around the world, Maltese families exchange presents at Christmas time.
Malta Tourism Authority
Valetta VLT 1170 Malta
Celebrated in: Malta
Christmas (Marshall Islands)
See also Kurijmoj
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 154
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 462
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 743
Celebrated in: Marshall Islands
During the German occupation of Norway, when King Haakon was living in England, a Norwegian boat stationed there would be sent to Norway to bring back a Norway spruce each year as a gift for the king at Christmas. The custom of bringing a Norwegian tree to England was continued after the war, and every Christmas a huge Norwegian spruce stands in London's Trafalgar Square.
2720 34th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-333-6000; fax: 202-337-0870
BkFest-1937, p. 254
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 140
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 567
FestWestEur-1958, p. 158
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 745
Celebrated in: Norway
Christmas (Puerto Rico)
In the Dominican Republic, on the island of Hispaniola just west of Puerto Rico, a major Christmas attraction is the animated nacimiento (Nativity scene) at the Church of San JosÉ. This mechanized toy village features miniature trains and figures of people going about their jobs.
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 509
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 751
Celebrated in: Puerto Rico
Christmas (Romania) (Craciun)
Turte, a special kind of cake consisting of many layers of thin dough with melted sugar or honey and crushed walnuts in between, is the food most often associated with Christmas in Romania. The many-layered dough is representative of the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus. As the housewife prepares the turte on the day before Christmas Eve, she walks into the yard followed by her husband wielding an ax. They go around to each tree in the yard, and the husband threatens to cut it down because it no longer bears any fruit. The wife intervenes, persuading the husband that the tree will be full of fruit the following summer. The custom may derive from a pagan ceremony.
Embassy Of Romania
1607 23rd St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
202-332-4846; fax: 202-232-4748
BkFest-1937, p. 281
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 142
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 351
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 751
Celebrated in: Romania
Christmas (Russian Orthodox)
Before the 1917 Revolution, Orthodox Christmas was widely observed in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. After the Revolution, churches were closed and people practicing religion were persecuted. In 1991, after the Soviet Union had been officially dissolved, Christmas was observed openly and as a state holiday in Russia for the first time in 70 years.
In Moscow, banners were strung up and Nativity scenes were displayed in Red Square. On radio and television, there were nonstop programs telling the Christmas story and showing villagers wearing embroidered folk costumes and carrying tambourines as they made the rounds to offer Christmas bread at every house. On Christmas Eve, tens of thousands jammed Red Square for performances by choirs and bellringers and gala fireworks over the multi-colored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. Midnight services were celebrated in churches. At the Kremlin, a Christmas charity ball was held to raise money for orphan children.
Before the Revolution, Christmas in Russia was a great feast celebrated with decorated trees, strolling carolers, and gifts. There was a legend of "Father Frost" or "Grandfather Frost," who wore a red robe and black boots and had a long white beard. Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" was, of course, associated with the holiday. When Joseph Stalin was in power, some aspects of the old Christmas, such as the tree and the gifts from Grandfather Frost, were added to the New Year's celebrations. Then January 7 became a holiday observed only by those who dared to go to church.
See also Old Christmas Day; Russian Winter Festival
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 35
BkFest-1937, p. 296
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 142
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 230
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 651
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 752
Christmas (South Africa)
For black South Africans Christmas is a day for feasting and exchanging gifts. It marks the culmination of a Carnival-like week of singing, dancing, and eating.
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 152
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 728
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 753
Celebrated in: South Africa
Christmas (Spain) (Pascua de Navidad)
Spanish children receive their gifts at Epiphany, which commemorates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the Christ child. Children leave their shoes on the window sill or balcony and fill them with straw and carrots or barley for the Magi's horses to eat. In Cadiz, children still observe the traditional rite of "Christmas swinging" on swings that are set up in the courtyards. At one time the custom may have been intended to help the sun in its climb to the highest point in the sky.
BkFest-1937, p. 305
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 145
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 731
FestWestEur-1958, p. 208
Celebrated in: Spain
Christmas (Sweden) (Juledagen)
Unlike the American Santa Claus, the Swedish Father Christmas, or jultomte, is small and thin, more like a leprechaun than a jolly, white-bearded man. The tomte, "little man," is a mythical character similar to an elf who can be either troublesome or benevolent, depending on how well he is treated. Because midwinter was considered a dangerous season in pre-Christian times, full of evil spirits, it was important to treat the tomte well by putting out food and drink for him. Over the generations, the jultomte has become a more generous spirit, who distributes gifts rather than receives them. Even when he appears in a red costume with a white beard, however, he is always depicted as being very thin.
See also St. Knut's Day; St. Lucy's Day
Scandinavian Tourism Inc.
P.O. Box 4649, Grand Central Sta.
New York, NY 10163
212-885-9700; fax: 212-885-9710
BkFest-1937, p. 314
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 392, 393
FestWestEur-1958, p. 222
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 755
Celebrated in: Sweden
Christmas itself is a family festival in Syria. A special dinner is prepared, and afterward friends and relatives pay social calls on one another. Among Syrian Americans, it is customary to serve guests Oriental coffee and holiday cakes such as baklawa, burma, and mulabas, as well as nuts, oranges, candies, and Syrian wines.
BkFest-1937, p. 333
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 150
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 751
Celebrated in: Syria