History of Christmas
For many years before Christ, people around the world held celebrations during the darkest days of the year in December and January. They could look forward to the lighter days of spring. Christmas is considered as both a secular and religious holiday with many traditions such as exchanging gifts and setting up Christmas trees, eating with friends and anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus.
The Norse people of Scandinavia called the mid-winter time Yule. Families were looking forward to the return of the sun. They brought in huge logs from the forest and set them to blaze on their hearth. For many in Europe, meat was most available in mid-winter. The wine and beer made earlier in the year was now ready for drinking also.
In Germany, during this time, people honored the god Oden whom they feared. They thought he roamed around at night to spy on people so they stayed inside their homes. In Rome, a holiday called Saturnalia occurred for a whole month beginning a month before the winter solstice. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture. Slaves switched places with their masters. Revelry and drinking took place throughout the city. Romans also celebrated juvenalia which honored children. December 25 was the birthday of the sun god Mithra who was born from a rock.
In the fourth century, early leaders of the Christian church decided to set up a day to honor Christ's birth. The date of December 25 was chosen by Pope Julius I even though no date is given in the Bible. Many people think that Jesus might have been born in the spring. First, the celebration was called the Feast of the Nativity and spread to Egypt by 432 A. D. It made its way to England by the 500s. By two hundred years later, the celebration of Jesus' birth had spread to Scandinavia. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches celebrate their holiday 13 days after December 25. They say it is the day when the wise men came to visit the baby Jesus.
By the Middle Ages, Christianity had spread widely. Those who celebrated it went to church but then had wild, drunken affairs. The poor went to the homes of the rich demanding food and drink, threatening mischief if not given gifts. In the early 1600s, Puritans wanted to get rid of the non-religious Christmas traditions. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell of England cancelled Christmas. However, Charles II restored the holiday.
The Pilgrims who came to Plymouth didn't celebrate Christmas. From 1659-1681, in Boston, it was against the law to celebrate the holiday A fine would be imposed for disobeying the law. However, John Smith in Jamestown wrote that Christmas was a joyous holiday for the residents. After the American Revolution, because the colonists had broken with England, Christmas customs disappeared for a while. It became an official holiday in 1870.
In the 1800s the holiday became a day of family time and peace as opposed to that of drunken parties. A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens, was a story which brought to the forefront love for all men and helping the poor. Americans decided to bring old customs back and begin new ones, such as decorating a tree and gift and card-giving.
The first cup of eggnog was drunk in the Jamestown settlement. In 1828, Joel Poinsett, an American ambassador to Mexico brought the beautiful Christmas plant, Poinsettia, to the United States. Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer was a poem written in 1939 by Robert L. May in order to attract shoppers into Montgomery Ward Department Store.
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