Many in the Christian faith celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Christmas Day (December 25) has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
Centuries before the arrival of Christ Jesus, the early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many people celebrated the winter solstice on December 21 when they thought the worst of the winter was behind them. Longer days and extended hours of sunlight were on the way.
The Norse celebrated a winter feast, “Jól “ (that the Emglish pronounce as “Yule”) from December 21 through January.
In the early years of Christianity, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were the events recognized as important. The birth of Jesus was recognized in the Bible, but it was not celebrated. There is no Biblical reference for Jesus’ birth date. Officials with the Catholic church decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday during the fourth century. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring. History lists Pope Julius I as choosing December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity. That date was allegedly an effort to absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. The new custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century.
According the Phrase Finder at phrases.org.uk, the first commercially available Christmas card had the phrase, ”A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” That was in 1843 when Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published.
It was also the time that Christmas as we know it came into being.
Notwithstanding, the use of ‘Merry Christmas’ as a seasonal salutation predates that by some 300 years. It was an English Catholic Bishop, John Fisher, who wished the season’s greetings in a letter to Thomas Cromwell on December 22, 1534 - as recorded in Strype Ecclesiastical memorials, 1816):
And this our Lord God send you a mery Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire. (sic)
According to stnicholascenter.org, St. Nicholas came to the new world with the first Europeans. The first colonists centuries later were religious purists and did not bring St. Nicholas traditions with them.
The 19th century was a time of cultural transition and the New York Historical Society promoted Nicholas, patron saint of both society and city.
New York writers and others wanted to domesticate the Christmas holiday. Popular celebrations became riotous and featured drunken men and public disorder. Christmas of old was not the image we imagine of families gathered cozily around hearth and tree, exchanging pretty gifts and singing carols while smiling benevolently at children.
All of this began to change as a new understanding of family life and the place of children was emerging. Childhood was coming to be seen as a stage of life in which greater protection, sheltering, training, and education were needed. Thus, the season came gradually to be tamed, turning toward shops and home. St. Nicholas took on new attributes to fit the changing times as well.
Alexander Anderson created the first American image of Nicholas for the first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The accompanying poem ends, “Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I’ll serve you ever while I live.”
That was the birth of what we have known as Santa Claus for the last 200 years.
The religious aspect of Christmas doesn’t carry the same reverence it did only a few years ago. Although everyone did not observe Christmas with religious reverence, it was still comforting to see Jesus recognized in grand style for a month each year.
Secularists are trying their best to eliminate the element of Christ from everything, not just from the month of December.
We all need to realize that the true Christmas spirit many of us grew up with is all about what’s in your heart and what you convey to others.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had that generosity of spirit all year long?