Christmas Stories, traditions, and facts
The Beginning of Christmas Celebrations (Christ's Mass)
The earliest Christians believed that celebrating birthdays was heathen and unholy, but sometime during the fourth century these attitudes changed.
Because the bible didn't actually specify the date when Jesus was born, Pope Juleps I of the fourth century designated December 25 as the official date for the feast of Jesus'nativity. This celebration of Jesus'birth soon became widespread and touched the hearts of many. The very first Christmas carols ever written were composed by the Christians of this period.
The Christmas Tree
In the 16th century, it was common for the people of Germany to decorate fir trees with roses, apples, and colored paper. They would have these trees inside and out. It is also believed that Martin Luther, a famous religious reformer, was the first to light a Christmas tree with candles. Some say that this idea originated as he was walking home one dark winter night very near Christmas time. He was struck by the beauty of starlight shining through the branches of a small fir tree outside of his house. He decided to try to duplicate the scene by using candles attached to the branches of his tree inside the house. In Great Britain, the Christmas tree was not used much until the 19th century, and was brought to America (Pennsylvania) by the Germans in the 1820's.
Saint Nicholas -- Sint Nickolaas -- Sinter Klaas -- Santa Claus
St. Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in what is now modern-day Turkey and during the course of his lifetime became a monk and well-known bishop. He was a Godly, kindhearted man who left the comforts of home to travel the countryside to help the sick and poor, and he gave away all of his earthly inheritance. The people respected and admired St. Nicholas for his selflessness in helping those in need, so they created many legends to retell the stories of his kindness to others. He became known as the patron saint of children and sailors, and when he died the people celebrated the unselfish life that he had led. To honor St. Nicholas and to keep his memory alive for future generations they declared an annual feast day be held each year on December 6 which marked the anniversary of his death. St. Nicholas became the most celebrated saint of Europe, especially among the Dutch communities.
When the Dutch families came to America many of them settled in New York which introduced their rich heritage to the settlers who had come there before them. Their traditional celebrations of the feast day of St. Nicholas caught the attention of many. The Dutch called St. Nicholas, Sint Nikolaas, which later was shortened to Sinter Klaas, and because the Sinter Klaas stories of their past generations were an important part of their celebrations, they retold these entertaining stories year after year to the delight of all that heard them.
Through the years the stories of Sinter Klaas began to grow, and Sinter Klaas himself began taking on new looks. Of the many different images he was given, one described him as a rascal that wore a blue three-cornered hat, a red waistcoat, and yellow stockings. The images of stockings hung from a fireplace filled with toys that we still use today, came from this era and originated from background images of wood engravings that were given to members of the New York Historical Society in 1804 by John Pintard.
The rest of America came to know and love the stories of Sinter Klaas partly due to Washington Irving naming St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York in his book, "The History of New York" written in 1809. In time the English who lived in New York adopted Sinter Klaas from the Dutch and renamed him Santa Claus. They included Santa Claus along with their other English customs of the Yule log, caroling, mistletoe, and gift giving.
The stores began advertising Christmas shopping in 1820 as more and more people adopted the tradition of gift giving at Christmas. Then in 1822 Clemente Clarke Moore wrote and published the Christmas poem, "An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas", depicting Santa as a jolly old elf that flew from house to house in his miniature sleigh with eight flying reindeer who delivered presents to all the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. By 1840 the images of this popular new Santa Claus started popping up in newspaper advertisements, and a shop in Philadelphia placed the first life-size model of Santa in front of their shop which drew thousands of children and parents. Then other stores copied the Philadelphia store's use of a live Santa in hopes of drawing more customers to their shops. And by 1846 the first Christmas cards were made for purchase.
By 1850 it became fashionable to adopt the foreign custom of bringing an evergreen tree indoors and decorating it with lighted candles, much like the one first introduced by Martin Luther in the 16th century when he brought one indoors and put candles on it to illustrate to his children how the stars twinkled through the trees in the woods at night. The evergreen tree represented the Holy Trinity according to the legend of a monk who had used the shape of a fir tree to explain the Holy Trinity to the people in Germany during the 7th century. It was revered as God's tree by the converted people. Then in 1881 Santa inherited another new look to go along with the sleigh and the eight flying reindeer that Clemente Moore's story had given to him. He was now given a red suit trimmed in white fir with a matching cap, and a wife, Mrs. Claus, plus some elves and a workshop located at the North Pole. A political cartoonist named Thomas Nast is who gave him these things when he published a cartoon interpretation of Clement Moore's poem.
In the early 1890's the Salvation army thought up another great use for Santa by dressing up unemployed men in red and white Santa suits and sending them out into the streets to solicit donations to pay for Christmas meals for needy families. It worked very well and we are still blessed by the sounds of the bell ringers at Christmastime even though they no longer dress up. By the early 1900's celebrating the Christmas holiday had become widespread in America, and gift giving became an important part of the Christmas tradition, but centered mainly around children at that time.
The legends of St. Nicholas' life of giving traveled far and wide. They became the inspiration behind the many other Christmastime bearers of gifts that followed, such as Kris Kringle or Christkind of Switzerland and Germany, Father Christmas of England, La Befana of Italy, Jultomten of Scandinavia, Pere Noel of France, and Babouschka of Russia.
The Origin of the Candy Cane
Most of us do not realize the origin of the Candy Cane and its symbolism.
A candy maker in Indiana wanted to make a special kind of candy that would tell the story of Christmas.
He decided to begin with a stick of pure, white, hard candy. The white would symbolize Jesus birth from a virgin, and His sinless life.
He made it hard to let us know that Jesus is the "Solid Rock," and to symbolize the firm promises of God.
Next he bent it into the form of a "J" to stand for Jesus. Turned upside down, it looks like a shepherds staff, reminding us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
Finally, he decided to put stripes on it to remind us that Jesus suffered and died for us three thin stripes to represent the scourging that Jesus received before His death, and one thick one to represent the blood that He shed for us on the cross.
Every true candy cane will have these symbols on them, reminding us that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, who came to earth so that we could be with our Heavenly Father forever.
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Last Updated: February 22, 2002