A Christmas History

It’s that time of year! Bells are ringing outside of grocery stores, pictures of kids crying on Santa’s lap are filling your Facebook feed, and the post office is loving all the Christmas greetings getting sent to our next door neighbors.

Now call me a cliché, but it’s most certainly my favorite time of year. Not because of all the trivialities of Christmas gift shopping and fighting over the last Polly Pocket or whatever toys children are into now. But because of the history and all of the meaning behind it! Perhaps it will be easier to show you.

Celebrations surrounding the middle of winter marking the winter solstice have long been celebrated in a multitude of cultures, quite a time before Christmas was even considered a holiday. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule, in Rome, Saturnalia, etc etc. But the first recorded account of Christmas specifically was December 25th, AD 336 in Rome. In Rome in that time period they used the Roman Julius calendar, so the 25th of December as they knew it would now correspond with January 7th.

In the 3rd century, the date of the nativity vastly fascinated Roman citizens. Before celebrating Christmas, formerly recorded as Crīstesmæsse, in Roman culture they celebrated Saturnalia. It’s believed that Pope Julius chose December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ because it was the prior pagan date to celebrate the winter solstice. He thought that choosing the same date would guide more attention to Christmas. Though at some point in the late 4th century in a sermon from Saint Augustine, he argued that, “He (Jesus) was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”

Christmas later spread throughout Europe, reaching England in the late 6th century, and becoming a federal holiday in the United States on June 26th, 1870. Though, during the early 17th century Europe was taken over by the Puritan religion, thus replacing prior custom Catholic traditions. Oliver Cromwell took over England in 1645 and vowed to rid the country of its “decadence.” Thus, leading to the removal of Christmas, claiming it to be too drunken and secular. Though, due to popular demand, Charles II was later restored to the throne, and with him the celebration of Christmas.

The idea of gift giving started close to the beginning of the holidays creation, often in association with the idea that Jesus was the Lord’s gift to humanity. But it’s base claim as one the biggest Christmas traditions only came about during the spread of capitalism in the early 1800s.

Now the idea of Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, existed long before the Roman creation of Christmas. It’s commonly believed St. Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern day Turkey. He was greatly admired for his piety and kindness, so many legends arose of him giving away all his belongings to charity and traveling the countryside to care for poor and sick. (One of the best-known St. Nicholas stories is the time he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married.) Many stories spread about him leaving gifts for children in shoes and stockings circa 1200 to 1500, but he didn’t become associated with Christmas until much later.

Today, most modern families celebrate Christmas with smoked ham dinners around dinning room tables, and leaving presents wrapped under evergreen trees for their loved ones. But the everlasting affect of Christmas has lasted much longer than any of our modern traditions. So this year when you’re partaking in such familial traditions, wrapping presents and lighting candles on Christmas Eve, perhaps remember the origin of Christmas and the struggle that brought it to us today. Dare I say, remember the magic that led it to this very moment.

And with that, from our UHS Talk student staff to you, we wish you a very merry Christmas!

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