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Christmas Customs: Gift Giving | Decorations | Christmas Cards | Family Gatherings
Christmas Arts: | Music | Art | Literature
Religious Ceremonies
Christmas Customs around the World: | France | Scandinavia | Germany | Christmas in the Holy Land | Italy | Britain | Japan | Mexico | The Netherlands

Cuban children re-enact the nativity scene in front of the Havana cathedral before a Christmas choral concert.
Photo: AP/Wide World
Christians the world over celebrate December 25 as Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Christ. It is a joyous holiday, marked by family gatherings, colorful decorations, traditional songs, and the exchange of gifts. Many people also take part in special religious services.

The name “Christmas” comes from the Old English Christes Maesse, or “Christ’s Mass.” The story of Christmas is told in the Bible. The Gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke tell how Jesus was born in Bethlehem, how angels announced his birth to shepherds outside the town, and how a bright star led the three Wise Men to him. But the Gospels do not tell the date of Christ’s birth. It is thought that December 25 was chosen because it was around the time of various pagan festivals, such as the Roman Saturnalia. These festivals marked the winter solstice, the time of year when days begin to grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere. Many Christmas customs are thought to have begun with practices associated with these pagan festivals.

The early Christian churches were divided over when to celebrate Christmas. The Western church, based in Rome, chose December 25, while the Eastern church chose January 6. Eventually the holidays merged, and Christmas was celebrated in a twelve-day festival that included both days. Today only the Armenian church observes Christmas on January 6. In other churches, this day is known as Epiphany and is said to mark either the visit of the Wise Men or (in Eastern churches) Christ’s baptism. But to many people, the Christmas season extends for an even longer time”from the end of November through New Year’s Day.

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Christmas Customs

Each country that celebrates Christmas has developed its own particular customs associated with the observance of the holiday. But some customs are found in most countries where Christmas is observed.

Gift Giving. Gift giving was part of many pagan midwinter festivals and became part of Christmas as well. In some countries, gifts are exchanged on New Year’s Day or on Epiphany rather than on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Children’s gifts are often said to be brought by a magical and mysterious figure. In the United States, this figure is Santa Claus—a jolly, fat elf in a fur-trimmed red suit. The original Santa Claus is thought to have been St. Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop in Asia Minor who was famous for his generosity. He became the patron saint of children. The children of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands still know him as Saint Nicholas. He is called Père Noël in France, and Father Christmas in Britain.

Decorations. Christmas decorations are another ancient custom. In pagan times, northern Europeans brought evergreen boughs indoors in winter to serve as a reminder that life would return with spring. Some evergreen plants, such as mistletoe, were thought to have magical properties. It was said that if two enemies met under a branch of mistletoe, they would drop their weapons and embrace. This old belief may have been the origin of the modern custom of kissing under the mistletoe.

Christians adopted these decorations and gave them new meaning. Holly, for example, became associated with the crown of thorns Jesus wore to his crucifixion. The prickly leaves stood for the thorns, while the red berries stood for drops of blood. Wreaths, which symbolized the continuance of life through winter, came to stand for the eternal life promised by Christ. Fires, candles, and other lights, important to pagan festivals as reminders of the sun, came to stand for Jesus as the light of the world.

The Christmas tree also originated in northern Europe. In the Middle Ages, a tree called the Paradise Tree—an evergreen hung with apples—was a prop in a play about Adam and Eve. People began to set up similar trees in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. As the trees became more associated with Christmas, people added candles and, eventually, cookies and other decorations.

The Christmas tree custom was introduced in the United States by German settlers in the 1700’s. But it did not become widely popular until the mid-1800’s, when a German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, married Queen Victoria of England and had a decorated Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle. Today a Christmas tree decorated with glittering ornaments, candy canes, and electric lights is the focus of many family Christmas celebrations. Huge outdoor trees are also set up in many communities. Two of the largest in the United States are put up each year in Rockefeller Plaza, in New York City, and on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C.

New decorations have been added to traditional ones. The poinsettia, a bright tropical plant, was discovered by Joel R. Poinsett, a U.S. minister to Mexico in the 1800’s. It became a popular Christmas decoration because its leaves showed the traditional Christmas colors—green, standing for the continuation of life, and red, standing for the blood shed by Christ.

Christmas Cards. The first Christmas greeting card was created in 1843 by John C. Horsley, a British artist. His card was designed like a postcard, lithographed in black and white and colored by hand. It showed a family having Christmas dinner. Another British artist, William Egley, designed a card at about the same time. Both these early cards bore the now-familiar message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

By the 1860’s, Christmas cards were popular throughout Britain. Louis Prang, a German emigrant printer, began to design and sell colored Christmas cards in the United States in 1874. In less than ten years, his shop was turning out 5,000,000 cards a year. Today greeting cards have become a major industry, and billions of cards are sent all over the world each year.

Family Gatherings. In medieval Europe, Christmas was a wild celebration of feasting, dancing, and merrymaking that lasted for weeks. Today it is a time for families and friends to get together, often for a special meal. Foods of the season include turkey, goose, duck, fish, roast beef, and an abundance of other good things to eat and drink. In some European countries, the custom of serving a roast suckling pig with an apple in its mouth is still observed.

Of all Christmas desserts, perhaps the most popular in Britain and the United States are mince pie and plum pudding. Superstition says that eating mince pie on Christmas brings good luck. In many lands, specially baked cakes and cookies are traditional. Preparation of these treats is begun weeks ahead of Christmas dinner.

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Christmas Arts

Since early times, Christmas has served as an inspiration for music, art, and poems and stories. Many of these works have become closely associated with the holiday.

Music. Christmas music covers a wide range, from light popular tunes to regal works such as Handel’s Messiah. Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors are often performed during the Christmas season.

Carols are the most traditional Christmas music. Early carols were based on dance tunes and refrains from ballads and folk songs. During the Protestant Reformation in England, carols were banned. This was because the Puritans, who took control of the country in the mid-1600’s, felt that the music and merrymaking associated with Christmas were pagan customs. Carols returned after 1660, when the monarchy was restored.

Most of the carols we sing today were written in the 1800’s. They include “Silent Night, Holy Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Joy to the World.” These traditional songs have been joined by modern ones, such as “White Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and even “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Bells are also a traditional part of Christmas music. Every Christmas Eve, church and cathedral bells ring loud and clear to call families to church services. Bells are used as decorations on Christmas trees, wreaths, and gift wrappings.

Art. The scene of the nativity has been painted by many artists. Among them were some of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Sandro Botticelli. The nativity is also depicted in three-dimensional crèche scenes. (Crèche is the French word for “crib.”) St. Francis of Assisi is given credit for setting up the first crèche, using live figures, in Greccio, Italy, in 1223. In many Catholic countries, the crèche is the center of a Christmas Eve pageant that tells the story of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the infant Christ.

Literature. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most popular Christmas stories ever written. Several film versions of this tale have been made. “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry (William Porter), is another well-known story. It tells of the efforts of a young husband and wife to find gifts for each other.

The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” has been part of Christmas in the United States since 1823, when it was first published. Clement C. Moore wrote it for his family, and it did much to create the present image of Santa Claus. These traditional Christmas works have been joined by some modern favorites, such as Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

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Religious Ceremonies

Religious ceremonies marking the birth of Christ begin some four weeks before Christmas. The fourth Sunday before Christmas Day is the first day of Advent, the period of preparation that comes before the holiday. Many people keep track of the days in this period with Advent calendars or Advent candles. The calendars have Christmas scenes and tiny windows, one of which is opened each day to uncover a picture or verse. The candles carry the dates leading up to Christmas and are burned a set amount each day, so that on Christmas day they are used up.

Many people also have Advent wreaths in their homes. These wreaths have four candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent. Each Sunday, the family lights candles—one candle the first Sunday, two candles the next, and so on—and prays.

In churches, children often take part in nativity pageants, in which they act out the scenes of the Christmas story. On Christmas Eve, churches are decorated with evergreens and candles, and special candlelight and carol services are held. Most churches also hold services on Christmas Day. The message at these services is the central message of Christmas: Peace and goodwill among all people.

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Christmas Customs around the World

Christmas is celebrated in many ways. Here are some of the traditional customs in countries around the world.

France. Children in France welcome the visit of Père Noël at Christmastime. Instead of hanging stockings, they leave their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts. On Christmas Eve, after midnight Mass, many families have a special supper called Le réveillon. Turkey is the favorite food on Christmas Day, followed by a special Christmas cake called buche de Noël.

Scandinavia. In the Scandinavian countries, Christmas gifts are brought by a jolly old man called Jultomten in Sweden and Julenissen in Norway and Denmark. His elflike helpers, who sometimes help people throughout the year, are called the tomtar. In Sweden the Christmas season begins on December 13, St. Lucia Day. On this day the oldest daughter of the house—dressed in white and wearing a wreath with candles on her head—serves coffee and buns in bed to the rest of the family.

Germany. For German children, Christmas festivities begin on December 6, when they leave their lists of Christmas wishes for St. Nicholas and receive candy in return. Christmas gifts are brought by the Weihnachtsmann. A Christmas tree, often decorated with small, spicy cookies, is the focus of many family celebrations. Fruit-filled breads called stollen are a seasonal treat.

Christmas in the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, which is now in Israel, Christmas Eve is marked with a colorful procession. People file through the narrow streets carrying an image of Jesus in a cradle to the Church of the Nativity, where it is placed in a special glass and marble manger. Pilgrims from all parts of the world take part.

Italy. A nativity scene called a presepio, rather than a Christmas tree, is the focus of celebrations in most Italian homes. The figure of the Christ child is added to the scene on Christmas Eve. Many families have a Christmas Eve supper of capitone, or fried eels. Other Christmas specialties include panettone (a bread with dried fruit) and torrone (a candy made with nuts and honey). Presents are brought on Epiphany by La Befana, a kindly witch. But Italian parents tell their children that La Befana will leave only ashes if they are naughty.

Britain. British children hope to receive gifts from Father Christmas, and they enjoy a Christmas dinner of roast turkey and mince pie or plum pudding. Wassail, a punch made from ale, apples, spices, and other ingredients, is served. People go from house to house singing carols, often to raise money for charity.

Japan. Because there are relatively few Christians in Japan, Christmas is not widely celebrated. But many Western Christmas customs have been adopted by Japan. People exchange gifts, and streets and stores are decorated with evergreens and bright lights.

Mexico. In Mexico and many other Latin American countries, children have a Christmas party that includes a piñata. This is an earthenware jug or papier-mâché figure filled with candies and small toys. It hangs by a rope from the ceiling or a tree branch, and the children take turns putting on a blindfold and hitting it with a stick until it breaks and the sweets and toys tumble out. In the days leading up to Christmas, people take part in posada processions that re-enact the search of Mary and Joseph for lodgings in Bethlehem.

The Netherlands. Saint Nicholas brings presents to Dutch children on the eve of December 6. He is said to arrive by boat from Spain, and he rides through the streets on a white horse. He is assisted by his helper, Swarte Piet (Black Pete).

Elaine Pascoe
Writer, The New Book of Knowledge Annual

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