The History Of Christmas Past: Worldwide Christmas Traditions

The word Christmas is actually a contraction of Christ and Mass, which is another name for a religious service.  It is observed on December 25th in most nations..  It is the traditional day of observance of Jesus’ birth, although His actual birthday is thought to be in the late fall.  The ancient Middle English word Christemasses, was first used on 1038 A.D.  In the early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter x (chi) is the first letter of Christ (Xpiotoc).   This is where the abbreviation “Xmas” came from.

Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century Bishop (overseer) of a church in Asia Minor (now Turkey) who attended the Council of Nicea.  He is not only one of the most popular of saints, he is known as the Patron Saint of Children and His day is actually December 6th, but he gave throughout the year.  He not only left toys but clothing, shoes, etc. for especially needy children.  Children of the rich had no need of St. Nicholas but the poor received little if anything. The Dutch name for Saint Nicholas was Sinterklaas, hence the name Santa Clause.  Santa is simply Spanish for Saint.  

During the time in history that Jesus Christ was born as a human, (5 A.D.-0) nations were expecting a great king coming out of the Jews.  These nations may have been influenced by Daniel and his writings, since he knew when and where the Christ would be born (Micah 5:2).  The Persian’s and the Hebrews had similar beliefs, more than any other nation at that time.  They also believed in one God, did not idols and saw light as a symbol of God.  

How perfectly fitting that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Savior since the name means “house of bread”.  He is known as the Bread of Life and that He was in a manger which is a feeding trough that usually had grain.  This fits with Jesus saying “I am the Bread of Life”.  But where would they would find Baby Jesus?  They had been following the star, but this only pointed them in the right direction, toward Judea.  But how could they know exactly where to find Him in a fairly large country or city?  The Old Testament prophet Micah knew the Savior would be born in Bethlehem.  Daniel must have known this and passed this on to others in Babylonia.  

And “…when they saw the star, they rejoiced, with exceeding great joy (Matthew 2:10)” knowing this must be the place.  But it was only when the star came directly over [literally, “stood over” like someone or something stood over] the child did they knew for certain where the infant would be. This explains the “exceeding great joy” since they finally found Him.  They had left months or perhaps a year earlier and had travel thousands of miles and now the star showed them precisely where the new King was.  Jesus is described as a star…the Bright and Shining Star, the Bright and Morning Star and a Saving Star (Ish. 60:1-4, Rev. 22:16, Num. 24:17).
The angel Gabriel’s message to Mary was that, even though she had never been married and had known no man, still a virgin, that her son would be the Son of God.  The angel also told Joseph not to leave Mary or divorce her, since her pregnancy is a result of a miraculous conception.  Since there was no room at any of the inns in Bethlehem, they had no choice but to stay in a stable, surrounded by animals with only the hay for a birthing bed and a manger for a baby crib.

And it came to pass that Joseph came out of Galilee…into Judea, unto the city of David, called Bethlehem…with Mary his espoused wife, due with child at any moment.  And when they were there, the exact day she was to deliver her child, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in some clothing and placed Him in the feeding manger.  

And there in the same country were shepherds in the fields, abiding there, tending their flocks over night.  Then, the angel of the Lord came right up to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified.  The angel told them, don’t be afraid and notice that I am bringing you good tidings of a great joy which shall be to everyone.   This very day, born in the City of David, is a Savior which is Christ the Lord.  Here will be the sign for you when you see Him:  He will be the Babe wrapped in clothing, lying in a manger.  

At that moment, there was with this angel, a multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will toward everyone.  Immediately after the angels went back up toward heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem right now to see this come to pass, which the Lord told us about.  So they rushed to Bethlehem and there found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger just as they had been told.

Christmas is the most widely celebrated holiday in the world. There are as many different traditions as there are nations that observe it.  For example the poinsettias were embraced by America when their Mexican representative, Joel R. Poinsett, brought back this green and red plant that flowers in the winter.  Christmas, as we know it today, is largely a product of the Victorian Age in the 1860’s.  

Santa Claus or more specifically, Saint Nicholas, was Europe’s most popular image of Christmas and by the end of the Renaissance was its most admired saint.  His benevolence was primarily directed toward children and their necessities of life and not originally toys.  For example, even a lump of coal was something of value in the dead of winter and considered practical.  However, don’t pout children, it was accompanied with other trinkets or toys in stockings.  

Swiss and German children who were well-behaved, were said to be most deserving of Kris Kringle’s gifts.  The friendly witch, La Befana, rides her broom down Italian chimney’s to stuff children’s stockings with toys.  In Scandinavia, it was Jultomten who brought presents in a goat-powered sleigh.  To the English, it was Father Christmas.  Pere Noel is the French version of this children’s stocking stuffer.  

Many years ago Babouschka believes she gave the Three Wise Men wrong directions to Bethlehem and thus to baby Jesus.  To make amends she leaves presents by Russian children’s bedsides, in the hope that one of them would be the baby Jesus.

In Nordic countries, the people observed this time of the year, from December 21st through January, as a celebration of the sun’s beginning it’s trek form the shortest day light-period (darkest day) to increasingly longer day’s with sun.

The Finns thoroughly enjoy 'Hyvää Joulua!' or the “peace of Christmas” on Christmas Eve.  Most of the nation resides in a sauna that night listening to a national broadcast. Tradition holds that this is a day of observation of departed friends and family.  Gravesitse are visited and those departed are remembered.  Perhaps this is where the “peace” comes from.

Norway is the birthplace of the Yule Log, which is the Norse word for wheel.  This refers to the circuit the sun takes annually with Christmas being it’s beginning point of it’s circuit.

During the 17th century in early America and England, observing Christmas was illegal.  Thus, certain customs were born.  For example, the candy cane was a disguised reference to Jesus Christ. The red strips represented the bloodied strips He received and the white strips declared His purity.  The j-shaped is obviously symbolic of His name.

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Jesus' birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.

Christmas (Christ-Mass) as we know it today, most historians agree, began in Germany, though Catholics and Lutherans still disagree about whom celebrated it first. The earliest record of an evergreen being decorated in a Christian celebration was in 1521 in the Alsace region of Germany. A prominent Lutheran minister of the day cried blasphemy: “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ.”

As for Christmas’ future, you and your family have yet to fulfill it.  You may have your own traditions or might want to start your own.  You can even borrow one from the above nationalities.  What is your ethnic heritage? Our family puts up the Christmas tree (thanks Germany for this contribution) on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Whatever your family traditions are, Merry Christmas to you and yours from our family.  A Savior has been born for us, so rejoice, and to all a good night.

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