What Is The Origin Of Christmas?

Where and when was Christmas first celebrated, and when did the legend of St. Nicholas first arise? Traditions and origins of the December holiday celebrated around the world.

On the Christian calendar, Christmas is considered to be one of the holiest and most sacred days of the year. The evangelist Luke, in his New Testament epistle, gives the account of the miraculous birth of the Savior to a virgin mother. It is this testimony, followed and believed by Christians for two thousand years, that seems to have breathed life into the traditions of celebrating Christmas, or Christ's mass.

In Christianity, it is the birth itself that is most revered on this day, the twenty-fifth of December. Christians for ages have gathered on all corners of the Earth to celebrate a redeemer, and to gather in friendship and humility to remember the birth of the baby that is the very cornerstone of their faith. Candles are lit in churches, chapels, and other houses of worship during services throughout the month of December to celebrate and to remember.

The books of Matthew and Luke describe in more detailed ways than the other books the happenings of the holy night in Bethlehem---the foretelling to Mary of her impending motherhood, while still a virgin, and the long ride to the city for the purpose of paying taxes, and finally the birth itself. They also describe kings from the east, coming to worship the babe in the manger, the only structure available to Mary and Joseph on this evening. The Bible tells that these wise and wealthy kings are humbled by the birth of the one of whom they've been foretold---humbled, and honored. They bring, Luke says, gifts to impart upon the baby as a gesture of good will and honor.

The giving of these gifts, many believe, was the very first act of Christmas, and is still imitated far and wide to this day.

Here are some facts that surround the traditions and origins of Christmas, not only in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago, but today, as we embark upon the twenty-first century.

*In ancient times, Romans exchanged gifts on New Year's Day as a way of saying "˜Happy New Year.' The actual wrapping of gifts is thought to have begun in Denmark.

*The first Christmas cards were Victorian, and appeared around 1846. A postal worker in England is said to have created the first card, and very quickly the deed of sending Christmas blessings to friends and neighbors and loved ones caught on.

*The Christmas tree is said to have its beginnings in the part of the season in Germany, a medieval custom. Although the trees used in celebration were not lit until well into the 17th century, still, they were considered lovely with paper roses, foil, gold, wafers, and dolls hanging from their boughs. As years passed and more and more of these objects were hung from the tree, a concern was given to the possibility of the tree tumbling from the weight. So German glassblowers began to produce lightweight balls to replace the heavier nuts, fruits, and other items previously used.

*Yule Logs were thought to have brought luck into the home. Tradition says that the log must be picked from the owner's land, or from a kindly neighbor's parcel, and thrown into the hearth to burn for a solid twelve hours on Christmas Eve. If the log continues to burn for the required time, and loved ones sit round it sipping cider and telling stories, then surely good luck and blessings will befall the house and its inhabitants.

*Candy Canes, another of the most famous sights and scents of Christmas, were first put upon Christmas trees as tempting sweets and rewards for good children. Originally white and straight, a choirmaster in England had some made to look like shepherd hooks, with bent ends. He passed them out to his children to help keep them interested and quiet during services, and after a while pink roses were baked into the confection. It wasn't until the 20th century that the red stripes were added.

*The Advent wreath began as a Lutheran custom in Eastern Germany. They were made round as a symbol of God's eternity and of evergreens to represent immortality and the everlastingness of God. The four weeks of Advent are represented by three purple or violet candles for penance, sorrow, and longing, and one rose or pink candle to represent hope and joy. During the Christmas season, they are replaced by solid white candles.

*Customs vary from country to country, much as the donor, as to the giving of gifts. Some teach that the gifts are given by elves, angels, the Christ child, three kings, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus. In Brussels, living gifts are presented to friends and loved ones, such as birds, flowers, or pets. In the West Indies, hospitality or talent is exchanged as a sign of good will, not material gifts.

*The story of the most-famous of gift givers varies from one source to another, with many opinions in between. The most popular version of the tale of St. Nicholas follows.

Born in 280 AD in Asia Minor, St. Nicholas was a Christian Priest who later became a bishop. He traveled extensively and being of good wealth, was given to presenting gifts of money and other presents to perfect strangers, as well as acquaintances. Never wanting to be found out, he left his offerings in the homes of his receivers only after dark, when all were in bed asleep. And to this day, those who believe in Santa Claus are still warned that if even one peep or footstep is heard, St. Nicholas will not leave the treasured surprises that are anxiously awaited.

In 303 AD, Roman emperor Diocletian commanded that St. Nicholas be honored as a god. The conscience of Christians in Rome would not allow the serving of another god, and this angered Diocletian so that he imprisoned even Nicholas himself, for refusing to be served as the emperor wished. He remained in prison until Constantine came to rule in 313, and returned to his position as Bishop of Myra. It is said he continued his wise and caring ways throughout his life, which ended on December 6, 343.

By 450 AD, churches in Greece were being named in honor of Nicholas and by 800 AD he was recognized officially as a saint by the Catholic Church. By the 15th century, he was behind only Jesus and Mary as the most beloved religious figure---more than 2000 chapels and monasteries were named in his honor.

By the 1500s, the English began favoring Father Christmas, and as St. Nicholas's popularity continued to grow, new and embellished stories of his true-to-life kindnesses, especially to children, were widely spread.

"˜Santa Claus' comes from the Dutch "˜Sinterklass,' a pronunciation of St. Nicholas. As children the world over attempted to pronounce Sinterklass, the name was soon "˜Santa Klass,' and finally, Santa Claus. Quickly the bishop's wardrobe of handsome cloak and bejeweled gloves were replaced with the now famous red suit, hat, and shiny black boots.

© High Speed Ventures 2011