I apologize for the error in the print version of this story that published Dec. 22. The end of the article did not jump to the inside. It has been corrected in the online version as well as the e-edition.
Christmas has a long, and often controversial, history. There are many variations of the holiday celebrated all over the world. People around the world observe the holiday with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature.
Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the birthday of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends, and waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. According to history.com, Dec. 25 – Christmas Day – has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870.
Before the birth of Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice because it meant the worst of winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from Dec. 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
Today, there are still many Christians who don’t celebrate the holiday at all because of the uncertainty revolving around the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Some historians and theologists point to the fact that shepherds wouldn’t have been herding sheep in the winter, so it is more likely that Jesus was born in the spring. Other Christians celebrate Christmas, but don’t consider it a religious holiday.
Because Christmas was considered a pagan holiday due to the raucous celebrations surrounding so it was cancelled in the early 17th century across Europe and parts of the United States.
When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.
The pilgrims that came to America in 1620 were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began celebrating Christmas. As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift-giving.
The legend of Santa Claus has been traced back to a monk born in Turkey who gave away all of his wealth, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors. The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore’s poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today, according to history.com.
The American version of the Santa Claus figure received its inspiration and its name from the Dutch legend of Sinter Klaas, brought by settlers to New York in the 17th century.
According to thenorthpole.com/history, the name appeared in the American press as “St. A Claus,” as early as 1773, but it was the popular author Washington Irving who gave Americans their first detailed information about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the arrival of the saint on horseback (unaccompanied by Black Peter) each Eve of Saint Nicholas.
This Dutch-American Saint Nick achieved his fully Americanized form in 1823 in the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, or as it’s more commonly known, The Night Before Christmas, by writer Clement Clarke Moore. Moore included such details as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’ laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas, referred to as an elf, returns up the chimney.
In the Protestant areas of central and northern Germany, St. Nicholas later became known as der Weinachtsmann. In England he came to be called Father Christmas. St. Nicholas made his way to the United States with Dutch immigrants and was referred to as Santa Claus.
In North American poetry and illustrations, Santa Claus, in his white beard, red jacket and pompom-topped cap, would sally forth on the night before Christmas in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer, and climb down chimneys to leave his Christmas gifts in stockings children set out on the fireplace’s mantelpiece.
Children naturally wanted to know where Santa Claus actually came from. Where did he live when he wasn’t delivering presents? Those questions gave rise to the legend that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole, where his workshop was also located.
Over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere came together and created the whole world’s Santa Claus.
For more information on the history of Christmas, visit https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas.
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