The history of Christmas

By Jaime Thomas, Class of 2011

The history of Christmas is something to learn because Christmas as we know is a relatively new phenomenon. The celebration of Christmas as a joyous commemoration of peace, love and the advent of Jesus Christ has only been  popularly celebrated since about the 1820’s when a book called  The Keeping of Christmas at Brace Bridge Hall was published by Washington Irving.

The date universally recognized, December 25th, as marking the birth of Christ and officially opening the Christmas season was contested for hundreds of years. Historians agree that this popular character really existed. “Father Christmas”, as some call him, was in fact a bishop named Nicholas who lived in the territory of Turkey during the fourth century A.D . He was very wealthy and generous, and he loved to make children happy. Often, he would give gifts to the poorest children, sometimes by throwing them into their windows. After Nicholas died, he was canonized as a saint.  His feast day is December 6, a holiday in many countries. He is the patron saint of children and seafarers.  In the Netherlands, the saint’s name is Sinter Nicholas.
The figure of Santa Claus has inspired many Christmas stories and movies that have introduced popular details to Christmas traditions and characters. This is the case of the poem “The Night before Christmas”, by American writer Clement Clark Moore.  Moore created Santa’s reindeer and later, illustrator Thomas Nast depicted a fat Santa in the red dress and hat that he wears today.  Christmas parties have become more popular within the years. Nowadays Christmas Eve is celebrated with fireworks, parties,  games, and Christmas activities. From these changes, many new customs and traditions have been born.  The word “Christmas” means “Mass of Christ,” later shortened to Christ-Mass. The even shorter form – “Xmas”- was first used in Europe in the 1500s. It is derived from the Greek alphabet, in which X is the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek, that is, Xristos, therefore “X-Mass.”
The legend behind the tradition of hanging and filling Christmas stockings is part of the story of St. Nicholas. He threw bags of money through an open window to pay the dowry of three young women whose father could not afford to pay for their marriages. Children all over the world continue still to hang Christmas stockings from the fireplace hoping that Santa Claus will fill them with gifts. In some countries, Santa Claus leaves holiday presents in children’s shoes instead of stockings.
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