Christmas is a season of cheerful music and gifts. Children look forward to open their presents on Christmas morning. In modern America, the advertisements of Christmas merchandise start in late November, after Thanksgiving Day. At the entrances of many stores, people dressed in Santa Claus costumes ring bells to ask for donations while Christmas carols play in the background. Frenzied shoppers crowd the shopping malls looking for bargains and the merchants prepare for one of the busiest and most profitable seasons of the year. But shopping is not what Christmas is about. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ which has been celebrated for many centuries in different ways.
The Biblical Story
The nativity of Jesus is told in the books of Luke and Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible.
The gospel of Matthew describes how Joseph and Mary were betrothed, but that Mary was found to be pregnant before Joseph and Mary got together. As Joseph considered breaking the engagement, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid of marrying Mary and that the son which would be born should be named Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-21 - The Story of Joseph and Mary
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
The gospel of Luke describes how an angel of the Lord appears before some shepherds and tells them about the birth of a Savior in the town of David, and that the baby would be found in a manger. The shepherds then go to Bethlehem where they find Mary, Joseph and the baby, and they spread the news about what they had been told.
Luke 2:8-21 - The Shepherds and the Angels
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
The gospel of Matthew describes the visit of the magi, or wise men, who saw a star signaling the birth of the king of the Jews. They traveled to Jerusalem and asked King Herod where they could find this king so that they could worship him. Herod sent them to Bethlehem, and the magi followed the star until it stopped over the place where the child was. The magi presented gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.
Matthew 2:1-12 - The Visit of the Magi
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." 3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' " 7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Why December 25?
The gospels of Matthew and Luke do not mention a date or time of year for the birth of Jesus. Christmas was traditionally celebrated on December 25 by Roman Christians as early as the year 330. Before then, the birth of Jesus was celebrated by Eastern Christianity around midnight on January 6 as part of the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on January 7. This difference of 12 days compensates for the days that were lost from the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to correct for the shift in the vernal equinox caused by defining a year as 365.25 days long, when it is actually 11 minutes shorter. The accumulated error was 10 days when the reform was made, but countries with many Orthodox Christians, such as Russia, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 20th century when the accumulated error was greater.
December 25th is very close to the winter solstice on December 22 which is when the Sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky. The winter solstice has been celebrated since ancient times because it signals the gradual lengthening of days and shortening of nights. Many ancient cultures tracked the path of the sun to identify the winter solstice by aligning stones or by building astronomical observatories. The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch of Stonehenge, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BCE. The Caracol observatory in Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico shows evidence of being built as early as about 600 AD. The Romans introduced the festival of Saturnalia around 217 BCE which consisted of one week of celebrations from December 17 until December 23. Some scholars have speculated that the date of the celebration of Christmas was changed to distinguish it from the pagan Roman holidays.
Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus and the tradition for gift giving.
The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas originates from the offerings by the wise men to the baby Jesus. Over time, these traditions have expanded to include people renowned for their generosity, such as Saint Nicholas, and have given rise to legends such as Santa Claus. In many Western cultures, Santa Claus brings gifts to the homes of good children during the overnight hours of Christmas Eve on December 24th, but in many Latin American countries, it is the three wise men and not Santa Claus who bring gifts for children on January 6th.
Saint Nicholas was born in the year 270. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians who died during an epidemic when Nicholas was still young. Nicholas was raised by his uncle who was the bishop Patara, a prosperous city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Under his uncle's guidance, Nicholas became a priest, and later became the Bishop of Myra which is now the city of Demre on the south coast of Turkey. Bishop Nicholas had a reputation for secretly giving to the poor. He would put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus. His devoted followers spread word of his generosity thereby creating a larger following. Nicholas died on December 6, 343. Saint Nicholas has been revered by Catholic and Orthodox Christians since the Middle Ages, and he is also honored by the Anglican and Lutheran churches.
Christmas trees, poinsettias and boughs of holly
The winter solstice has usually been celebrated with decorations of green shrubs as a symbol of the profuse greenery that will come in the spring with the return of longer days. The Romans used firs, and the ancient Egyptians used palms in their winter solstice festivals. In Germany, people placed evergreen trees inside their houses from at least 700 AD. These traditions were brought to America by German immigrants, but the New England Puritans considered the trees a pagan symbol. On Christmas Eve, the trees were decorated with tiny candles which was a great fire hazard. The use of Christmas trees became widespread in the United States in the late 19th century. The popularity of Christmas trees increased after 1903 when the Ever-Ready Company started selling strings of ready-made lights.
Poinsettias are native to Mexico. They were cultivated by the Aztecs to produce a red dye. Poinsettias are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett who was a physician, statesman and botanist. During his appointment as the first United States Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830, Poinsett sent samples of the colorful plants to his South Carolina greenhouse. The poinsettia has large red and white upper leaves that turn from green to brilliant red in the month of December. The leaves are often mistaken for flowers. In Mexico the poinsettias are called "Flor de Noche Buena" which means "Flower of the Holy Night", In the warm climate of Mexico, poinsettias can grow into bushes taller than a person.
Holly and mistletoe are often used in Christmas decorations. Holly has very shiny green leaves and bright red berries. Boughs of holly can be crafted into wreaths that are used to adorn doors and tables. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant found on a wide range of host trees in the Southern and Eastern portions of the United States. Mistletoe has evergreen leaves and white berries. It is usually hung from the top of a door frame or a chandelier. According to Christmas custom, two people who meet under the mistletoe must kiss.
A typical Christmas dinner will include a roasted turkey with stuffing flavored with herbs, celery and onion. There will also be gravy, mashed or sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a variety of vegetables such as green beans and carrots. Dessert will include several types of cakes, pies, and cookies accompanied with eggnog which is a popular Christmas drink. The tradition of having a lavish family dinner as a way to celebrate Christmas was popularized by Charles Dickens in his book A Christmas Carol published in 1843. This was also the year in which the first first commercial Christmas and New Year's card was designed and printed in London, England. Dickens depicted the character Ebenezer Scrooge as a mean and oppressing employer who became generous and kind after the apparition of three ghosts forced him to realize the emptiness of his life. In the end, Scrooge buys the biggest goose in the butcher's shop and has it delivered to his employee Bob Cratchit who is the father of an invalid son nicknamed Tiny Tim. At Christmas dinner, Tiny Tim offers the blessing "God bless us, every one!".
Christmas music and Christmas carols
It is not unusual to hear Christmas music at the beginning of December. By the middle of December most shopping centers pipe a steady stream of Christmas carols to the customers. A few days before Christmas, radio and television stations feature Christmas music almost exclusively. The carol "Silent Night" was originally written as a German poem ("Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht") in 1816 by a priest named Joseph Mohr, and the melody was composed by the Austrian church organist Franz Xaver Gruber. "O Christmas Tree", is also a Christmas carol of German origin ("O Tannenbaum"); its melody is an old folk tune.
The Nutcracker is a ballet adaptation by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky of the story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" by E. T. A. Hoffmann. The ballet premiered on March 19, 1892. The music of this ballet has become a tradition at Christmas time in the United States and it is featured in telecasts, video, and radio. The ballet opens during a Christmas Eve party where the godfather of young Clara distributes some toys to the children, and presents a nutcracker doll to Clara. As the young girl falls asleep, she dreams that the nutcracker doll comes to life and leads a squadron of toy soldiers against an army of mice around a Christmas tree. The ballet includes exotic Spanish, Arabian, and Chinese musical themes, and the beautiful ethereal sound of the celesta in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"