Christmas is an age-old festival with a rich history. Almost every country that celebrates this festival carries a different historical significance associated with it. Let's have a look at how Christmas and its traditions came into being:
It is said that ancient people celebrated winter festivals such as Saturnalia, by decorating their homes with evergreen fir trees or branches to commemorate the arrival of spring, a time when winter would come to an end and the Sun God would finally appear. The tradition of the Christmas tree as we know today, probably has its origins in 16th century Germany, when Martin Luther, awed by the beauty of stars shining among evergreen trees at night, brought a tree in his home and lighted it with candles. Another German legend goes that Saint Boniface cut an oak tree to stop a group of pagans from sacrificing a young boy. To his surprise, a fir tree sprang from the oak tree which was a sign of Christianity for the saint.
His followers then lighted it with candles so that he could preach to the pagans at night. There is yet another German legend about the Christmas tree according to which a poor boy turned into Jesus, the Christ Child on Christmas morning after being given shelter by a family. The boy gave a fir tree branch to the family as a way of saying thanks. With the publication of a sketch of Queen Victoria and her family standing around a Christmas tree in 1846, this tradition became more popular in UK and USA.
Ancient Romans hung wreaths on their doors as signs of victory. The origins of the Advent wreath seems to be during the 16th century when pre-Christian Germans made wreaths out of evergreens which was a sign of eternal life, to commemorate the coming of spring. The circular shape of the wreath symbolizes God who has no beginning or end.
He is known by different names across the world but where did Santa really come from? As legend tells us, Saint Nicholas, a bishop in 4th century Turkey, once dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of a man's house who didn't have enough money to marry off his 3 daughters. The gold fell into stockings that had been left by the fireplace to dry. From here on, he became the saint of children as well as sailors after helping them safely make their sea voyage. St. Nicholas' feast day is celebrated on December 6 and since Pope Julius I decided December 25 to be the date of Christ's birth, the two events gradually became associated with one another. Apparently, Dutch settlers brought the concept of Saint Nicholas (also called 'Sinterklaas' in the Dutch language) to North America, thus the 'Santa Claus' we know today is really an Americanised Saint Nicholas/Sinterklaas!
During the 18th century, reindeer were domesticated in Scandinavian and Eastern European countries and were often used to pull sleighs for transportation. Santa's reindeer came into being with Clement Moore's (1822) poem “A visit from Saint Nicholas” also called “The night before Christmas”. The poem depicted Santa on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (namely, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen) who help him fly from house to house in order to deliver gifts. In later years, a ninth lead reindeer was added to the list which came into existence as a result of Robert L. May's story on Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, a misfit because of his glowing nose who helped Santa on a foggy Christmas eve. Santa's association with reindeer may also have been influenced by the images and stories of the pagan God of Thunder - Thor, who travelled the sky in a chariot pulled by two magical goats.
Christmas carols were originally pagan songs sung by the Early Europeans during their winter solstice celebrations. Early Christians replaced pagan songs with Christmas hymns (religious songs), written and sung in Latin. In 1223 in Italy, Christmas carols became popular through the Nativity plays of St. Francis of Assisi. As opposed to Latin, they were in a language that was understood by most people, which is the reason why carols spread to other European countries. Although their popularity declined during the Puritan movement in the 16th century, they became famous again in the mid-18th century.