Origins of Christmas Customs|
The custom of sending Christmas cards started in the United Kingdom in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas cards, and with his friend John Horsley who was an artist, they designed the first card. As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers from about 1860. The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. Snow scenes were also popular.
In the 1910s and 1920s, homemade cards became popular. They were often unusual shapes and had things such as foil and ribbon on them. These were usually too delicate to send through the post and were given by hand.
Nowadays, cards have all sorts of pictures on them: jokes, winter pictures, Father Christmas, or romantic scenes of life in past times. Charities often sell their own Christmas cards as a way of raising money at Christmas.
Charities also make money from seals or stickers used to seal the card envelopes. This custom started in Denmark in the early 1900s by a postal worker who thought it would be a good way for charities to raise money, as well as making the cards more decorative. It was a great success: over four million were sold in the first year! Soon Sweden and Norway adopted the custom and then it spread all over Europe and to America.
Why December 25th?
No one is quite sure why Christmas Day is celebrated on the 25th of December. It is probably because the Winter Solstice took place in December. The Winter Solstice is the day where there is the shortest time between the sun rising and the sun setting. It happens between December 22nd and December 25th. To pagans this meant that the winter was over and spring was coming. They had a festival to celebrate it and worshipped the sun for winning over the darkness of winter. Christians believe that Jesus is the light of the world, so the early Christians thought that this was the right time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Christmas was first celebrated as a proper day in the 4th century, the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (he was the first Christian Roman Emperor). He first bought the Roman pagan 'sun-day' (the first day of the week) and the 'sabbath' (the Christians holy day) together to what we now call Sunday.
The name 'Christmas' comes from the Mass of Christ (or Jesus). A Mass service (it is sometimes called Communion or Eucharist) is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then came back to life. The 'Christ-Mass' service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset, so people had it at Midnight! The word Christmas derives from the midnight Christ Mass observed by Roman Catholics.
Mistletoe is a plant that grows on willow and apple trees. The practice of hanging mistletoe in the house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of friendship and that is where the custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from!
The custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from England. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing!
The poinsettia was made widely known because of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett (why we call them Ponsettia!). He was the first Ambassador from the U.S.A. to Mexico in 1825. Mr. Poinsett also founded the scientific institution in the United States called the Smithsonian Institute. Poinsett had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taxco area in Mexico in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.
Yes! There was a real Saint Nicholas! He was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century AD in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.
The most famous story about St. Nicholas goes like this:
There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn't get married. (A dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the bride's parents on the wedding day. This still happens in some countries, even today.) One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house. The oldest daughter was then able to be married. This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas. Because of his kindness Nicholas was made a Saint.
How Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus
In the 16th Century in Europe, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became very unpopular. But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in the United Kingdom, he became Father Christmas, a character from old children's stories; in France, he was then known as Père Nöel; in Germany, the Christ Child or Christ Kind. In the early U.S.A. his name was Kris Kringle. Later, Dutch settlers in the United States took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became Sinter Klass or as we now say Santa Claus!
Saint Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories. In the new stories and pictures about him, his Bishop's robes soon became the hat and coat that he wears today.
No one knows how St. Nicholas' traditional white horse became a sleigh and pack of reindeer. A picture in a Victorian book show them: and the poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas,' written in 1882, by Doctor Clement Clarke Moore for his children, describes the eight reindeer and gives them their names.
Thomas Nast was a leading illustrator in America from the 1860's to the early 1900's. He is perhaps most famous for his Christmas illustrations. It is Nast that dressed him in the coat and hat with fur trim that we know today. He also originated the concept that Santa Claus lived in the North Pole - this way Santa would be a citizen of the world rather than belonging to one country.
The evergreen fir tree has been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice as it made them think of the spring to come. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.
In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and gold-covered apples. Then glass makers made special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today. At first, a figure of the Baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time, it changed to an angel that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the Wisemen saw.
In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars. Because of the danger of fire, in 1895 Ralph Morris invented the electric Christmas lights similar to the ones we use today but larger.