Christmas: History and traditions

Chonmipem Horam

Christmas is celebrated to mark the birth of Lord Jesus Christ, which happened over 2000 years ago. The most important celebration since the 12th Century for Christians, Christmas means ‘Mass of Christ’ or ‘Celebration of Christ’. For people throughout history, this is the time for celebration.

According to the scripture, Jesus’ birth was foretold in the book of Old Testament. ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)’.

Christians mark this holy day as the birth of Jesus Christ and celebrate it across the world as Christmas Day.

Many important traditions such as gifts’ exchange, decorating trees, festive meals, singing carols, burning of Yule log were followed even before the birth of Jesus Christ and became a part of Christmas history.

The festival also derives much from the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the local European customs.

Christmas in Ancient times-

As per legend, the history of Christmas traditions dates back to 4000 years. Many of these traditions began with Mesopotamians’ 12-day celebrations of New Year, called `Zagmuth`. The Mesopotamians, who believed in many Gods, held this festival to support their chief God ‘Marduk’ in a battle with the monsters of chaos at the beginning of winters. This tradition called for the king to lay his life at the end of the year and return with the chief God to battle at his side.

During this ancient time, people were mainly hunters. The seasons and weather played a significant part in their life and they thus worshiped nature’s forces like the Sun. In north Europe, the Norsemen worshipped the Sun, the wheel of whose chariot was called ‘houl’. Yule is supposed to have originated in this word as these men marked Winter Solstice with drinking and dancing around bonfires.

The Romans also held a festival called `Saturnalia` in the middle of December until the first of January to honor their God Saturn. As a tradition, the Romans used to exchange gifts, hold feasts and decorate their homes to bring good luck. Whereas in ancient Scandinavia, people would burn a Yule log in a special fire and gather around it to hold a great feast. This festival was called `Yuletide` when carols and songs were sung on the winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.

The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a festival called `Sacea`, where exchange of station of a person in life took place and slaves could become masters.

Post-Christianity era-

But later, with Christianity on the rise, the Church decided to curb various celebrations and make only one particular way for the followers.

It is believed that the gospel did not mention the birth of Christ. It was the Bishop of Rome, `Julius I` in 350 AD who declared 25 December to be observed as the birth of Jesus Christ and since then it is commemorated worldwide as Christmas Day. For this reason, the puritans of UK had the celebrations banned in the 17th century.

The celebrations were revived in Victorian England when writers like Charles Dickens depicted how Christmas should be celebrated through stories like A Christmas Carol. It was taken up heartily by the rich Britons, who migrated to the new found Americas and the US led various new traditions in the 19th and 20th century like sending cards and singing carols in the Church.

When compared with the olden times, Christmas traditions changed drastically in the 19th century. St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, and Christmas tree became prominent symbols among people.

The ritual of hanging socks or stockings to collect gifts were practiced by the early Dutch settlers in New York on St Nicholas Day eve on Dec 5. St. Nicholas was considered a patron saint. It is from Nicholas that the true story of Santa begins. Known throughout the history for his generosity and love, especially among children, he led a life assisting the needy, the sick and the suffering.

The story of modern Santa came when Caricaturist and cartoonist Thomas Nast was assigned to draw Harper Magazine’s December cover in 1860s on Santa visiting the US Army Camp. Here, he portrays Santa as a plump, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, on a sleigh distributing Christmas gifts to the soldiers.

The custom of putting up Christmas trees came from Germany. It was not until in the beginning of 19th century that it spread to the other regions. It is believed to have been popularized by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, when their decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in an American magazine.

In 1880s, the first electric Christmas tree made an appearance, courtesy Thomas Edison. Later, during the time of Benjamin Harrison in 1889, the first Christmas tree was put up in the White House. Over the years, this has been a tradition practiced by almost all the Presidents of the US and is prevalent widely. The Christmas tree, especially coniferous (real or artificial), is kept at home on the eve of Christmas till the 6 th of January. It is adorned with lights, ornaments, garlands and a star is often placed at the top of the tree, depicting the star of Bethlehem.

One notable thing is that Christians across the world start preparing the coming of Jesus Christ with the celebration of Advent Christmas. The season begins with the 4th Sunday before Christmas.

Christmas celebration today has become truly very universal but also commercialized. People tend to spend more than they actually have!

In India especially, Christmas is celebrated as a universal festival. Almost all people of different religions and communities join their Christian friends to celebrate with splendor and gaiety. In Great Britain, they follow a tradition called `Boxing Day`` where alms are given to the needy the next day of Christmas.

But though the mode of celebrations varies in every country, the real meaning of Christmas remains the same. Besides decorating houses, putting up Christmas trees, singing carols, throwing parties, exchange of gifts; it is a time to embrace Him with an open heart, mind and soul because we are saved by His grace through the gift of God. ‘For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life` (John 3:16)


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