The history of a Christmas festival dates back over 4000 years. Ancient Midwinter festivities celebrated the return of the Sun from cold and darkness. Midwinter was a turning point between the Old Year and the New Year. Fire was a symbol of hope and boughs of greenery symbolized the eternal cycle of creation.
Many of today’s Christmas traditions were celebrated centuries before the Christ Child was born. The Twelve Days of Christmas, blazing fires, the yule log, the giving of gifts, carnivals or parades complete with floats, carolers who sing while going from house to house, holiday feasts and church processions are all rooted in the customs observed by early Mesopotamians.
The practice of tree worship has been found in many ancient cultures. Often, trees were brought indoors and decorated to ensure a good crop for the coming year. Trees have also been linked to divinity. Egyptians associated a palm tree with the god Baal-Tamar, while the Greeks and Romans believed that the mother of Adonis was changed into a fir tree. Adonis was one of her branches brought to life.
The modern Christmas tree was likely born in the 8th century, when St. Boniface was converting the Germanic tribes. The tribes worshipped oak trees, decorating them for the winter solstice. St. Boniface cut down an enormous oak tree, that was central to the worship of a particular tribe, but a fir tree grew in its place. The evergreen was offered as a symbol of Christianity, which the newly converted Germans began decorating for Christmas.
The origin of Santa Claus begins in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an area in present day Turkey. By all accounts St. Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children. After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra, but in 1087 Italian sailors purportedly stole his remains and removed them to Bari, Italy, greatly increasing St. Nicholas’ popularity throughout Europe.
His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims he that he could perform miracles and devotion to him increased. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing white beard, and bishop’s mitre.
In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travellers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him and some time around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.
After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.
The Nativity Scene
In the year 1223, St. Francis of Assisi introduced a living crib scene at his Christmas Eve Mass in the village of Grecchio, Italy. He wanted to inspire greater religious feelings, and help in the interpretation of the story of the birth of Jesus. News of this live nativity scene spread and people began putting crib figures in their local churches, and then in their homes. From Italy the custom of displaying a Nativity Scene spread.
There are events and stories which surround the Nativity of Christ. Some are accepted as the Gospel truths while others are considered dubious (yet interesting to read) in the sense that they may have been subjected to later embellishments in the course of storytelling and translating; or simply that there were story fragments which did not give a full enough text such as the Gospel of St Peter to make them worth keeping in the New Testament. Two main gospels, (the Infant Narratives), contain accounts of the Nativity. The oldest is from the protoevangelium of St James. The Eastern Christian Church accepts many of these stories as part of the Old Liturgy of the Nativity. Many Western Christians have put them in the ‘appocryphal gospels’ which are legendary stories based on a true event.
Until The Norman invasion of Britain, Christian imagery tended to be very Byzantine, (characterized by formality of design, frontal stylized presentation of figures, rich use of color especially gold), in style, and the stories in the Nativity Cycle were often painted onto church walls as a visual aid to largely illiterate congregations. The Normans, with the blessing of Rome, set about destroying these images by painting over them, because they were “Not Western,” and a new order was evolved. However, as they covered all the old picture-stories with Limewash, they were actually being preserved rather than destroyed. Today many restored churches in England have this wonderful old witness to the early stories of Christ’s nativity for all to see.
Today, there are hundreds upon hundreds of styles and materials used to make Nativity Scenes. From fine Italian marbles, full-sized wax museum pieces, ornate sculptured Teak wood, to even kindergarten-produced tissue rolls with glued Styrofoam balls – all representing the miracle of the birth and adoration of Jesus Christ.
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Whether you do just a few things or have a list a mile long, enjoy this holiday season and make wonderful memories with your Christmas traditions, as someday these traditions maybe what your kid does with their kids!