What is Christmas? The history and Meaning Behind Your Favorite Holiday Traditions

The month of December is not like any other month of the year. It’s the holiday season! Everything is wonderfully decorated with Christmas trees, red ribbons and tons of colorful lights. The streets, the houses, the stores are captivating, charming and glamorous. It’s time for having fun, giving and receiving gifts, spending quality time with the family, playing in the snow while listening to “Joy to the World” and other beautiful Christmas carols.

How did it all start though? What is Christmas? Where does it come from, together with all the traditions?

Is it a food festival? The best time of the year to go snowboarding or skiing? Is it a family mandatory thing to check on your busy to-do list at the end of the year? A religious celebration? The perfect opportunity to take some days off and go to the mountains with your loved one?

I’ve heard an interesting story these days. Two women were doing their Christmas shopping. As they were in this cute little boutique store, they saw the nativity Christmas scene on a shelf. As they saw it, they started rolling their eyes saying: “Well look at that: even the church is trying to take over Christmas. That’s some nerve!” I hope this makes some of you smile. 🙂 As the saying goes: ignorance is bliss. Without further ado, let’s look at some historical facts and see what’s being celebrated these holidays.

Where Christmas celebrations and traditions come from:

Wikipedia tells us that Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world, especially in the Western Church. The Western Christianity is the Latin Church and Protestantism (together with branches of these such as independent Catholicism and Restoration churches taken together). The large majority of the world’s 2.4 billion Christians are Western Christians.

Before Christmas though, the month of December debuts with Saint Nicholas holiday on December 6th and it’s important to take a look at it, in order to better understand the origin of some of the main Christmas traditions.

Saint Nicholas is an observance and not a federal public holiday in the USA. In Europe the holiday has probably more relevance and impact. It’s important to note though, that both the American Santa Claus and the British Father Christmas derive from Saint Nicholas.

The main custom associated with Saint Nicholas Day is children leaving their shoes in the hallway on Saint Nicholas Eve, hoping that Saint Nicholas will place some coins and goodies inside. In most countries, children expect some coins, sweets or little toys that can fit inside the shoes and/or on top of the shoes (according to parents creativity and gift size). The children know their shoes or boots need to be super clean for St. Nicholas to be generous when he visits. That is why they clean them nicely the night before, then wait for the morning to come and enjoy their shoes full of nice little surprises.

We had the St. Nicholas tradition in my family as I was growing up, so I couldn’t wait for 6th December to come. As any kid I wanted to receive lots and lots of goodies. My trick to accomplish this goal was to always choose the biggest boots I owned, and place those in the hallway for St. Nicholas to fill them up. Later I shared the tip with my brother so that he would put his boots there, instead of his favorite tennis shoes. He used to receive a little less every time, as he would put smaller shoes, which obviously would fill up with less goodies than my big winter boots. Happy kids, what can I say. 🙂 Great memories though as “St. Nicholas” would always choose the nicest little gifts that would make a little girl so happy. It was a really beautiful tradition I grew up with and quite special to understand later where this December custom really came from.

Who was Saint Nicholas? Was he a real person or just a legend?

St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop who lived in the 4th century in Myra in Asia Minor, which then was part of Greece, but today it would be Turkey. He was born in Myra, in the Roman Empire as an only child to Christian parents. Both of his parents tragically died during an epidemic, leaving him to be raised by his uncle, the bishop of Patara. His parents left him a fortune. So Nicholas received a lot of money, but instead of spending it on himself, he made the firm decision to devote his inheritance to works of charity, helping those in need.

There are many stories about Nicholas’ generosity. The most famous though is the one about the man with three daughters. A man from Patara lost all his money, and he had to support his three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty, as the father didn’t have money for their dowry. One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold – down the chimney according to some – or he threw it through an open window, according to others. Anyhow, it is believed that the bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry. And this way the first daughter had the money for the dowry and she was able to get married. Nicholas repeated the generous gift with the second daughter, throwing another bag with gold coins in the house again, during the night, so that nobody sees him. But the father was determined to discover the person who gave them the gold coins so generously. So he hid by the fire every night, until he caught Nicholas dropping the bag of gold in the house during the night again, so that the third daughter could also get married. Being very humble and not wanting to draw any attention to himself, Saint Nicholas asked the man not to tell others about him being their benefactor. But soon the news got out and the people who would receive a secret gift, would immediately think that maybe it was from Nicholas.

Therefore the tradition that involved leaving gifts and coins in shoes or boots came from Saint Nicholas nice reputation of gift-giving. The Europeans who immigrated to the United States took with them the customs and traditions associated with Saint Nicholas’ Day. The records show that celebrations associated with Saint Nicholas holiday took place in New York and other places starting the the early 1800s.

The image of St. Nicholas is found frequently on Byzantine seals. And according to the Catholic church, in the later middle ages, approximately four hundred churches were dedicated in his honor only in England. It is believed that Saint Nicholas has been represented by Christian artists more frequently than any other saint, except for Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Another interesting fact about St. Nicholas is that he suffered for his faith. During the last great persecution under the emperor Diocletian (244 – 312), is it believed that Nicholas was imprisoned for his Christian faith for 8-9 years from 303 – 311. He died on December 6, 352 according to some writings, and the day of his death became a day of celebration.

All the above is closely related to our Christmas theme, as St. Nicholas story ultimately led to the story of Santa Claus.

Apparently it started in Germany and the Netherlands that Nicholas as the patron saint of children would secretly give gifts on December 6 as described above, and from there the idea of Santa Claus developed. Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas or simply called Santa is a legendary figure originating in the Western Christian culture. Santa Claus brings gifts to the well behaved and nice children on Christmas Eve on December 24th and in the early morning of Christmas Day on December 25th.

What does the word “Christmas” mean and why is it celebrated on 25th December?

Christmas means “Christ-mass”. A Mass service, also called Communion or Eucharist, is the time where Christians remember that Jesus Christ died for them on a cross to forgive their sins and then came back to life, resurrecting powerfully from the dead after three days in the grave. And later ascending to heaven. Because Jesus was born at night as the Bible says, the “Christ-Mass” service was the only one allowed to take place after the sunset and before the sunrise the next day, so people had it at midnight. Therefore Christ-Mass was shortened to Christmas.

Christmas is a very important holiday for Christians, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ the Son of God, born from virgin Mary. The Holy Book (the Bible) mentions many supernatural details related to the birth of Jesus, but it remains silent regarding the exact day when it happened. December 25th is not mentioned in the Bible as the date when Jesus was born. Truth is that the earliest Christians were not even celebrating his birth.

The date of December 25 was pretty much a guess for the exact birthday of Jesus. Some say that it must have been Spring as the shepherds were out with their sheep and other say that could have been late summer / early fall, maybe around the Jewish festival of the Tabernacles. Others believe it must have been around January 6th according to calculations, but the truth is that the exact birth date of Jesus is not known.

The first time when Christmas was celebrated on 25th December, was in the year 336, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. After becoming a Christian, Constantine wanted to eliminate the pagan festivals. So instead of the pagan sun and solstice festivals, the Roman festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – Birth of Unconquered Sun and the Saturnalia Festival of Emancipation, Christians started celebrating the birth of Christ. A few years later after the emperor Constantine decided on the Christmas celebration, it was Pope Julius I who officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.

Some people are not happy with this as they feel their holy celebration should not have been chosen this way. A theologian answered this criticism by saying about Christmas: “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.”

So, “from Jewish Hanukkah to Pagan Winter Solstice to Germanic Yule to Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun); the sheer number of celebration days with trees, decorations, yule logs, mistletoe and feasts seem to point to a season of celebration to which Christians added the birth of Jesus as a counter-cultural event and possibly even an escape from the pagan holidays for early believers.”

Is there a Christian meaning behind ancient traditions?

Evergreen Trees were the symbol of eternal life. Martin Luther introduced them to the Reformation Church as a picture of the endless life in Christ. He brought a tree to his family on Christmas Eve which he lit with candles.

Candles are a picture of Christ being the Light of the world. (John 8, The Bible)

Red is the color of Christmas that speaks of the Christ’s blood and death for humanity.

Gifts are a reminder of the gifts that baby Jesus received from the wise men, the magi that visited him from far away.

The Yule Log was a symbol by which all the men in the family would carry a log large enough to burn for 12 days in the house. This way they were identifying with Christ and His Cross. The fire would be started with a fragment from the previous years, reflecting the eternal existence of Christ before His birth. This tradition speaks of warmth, unity, joy and the security of an endless life.

Mistletoe was a symbol from the Roman empire. Under the mistletoe the broken friendships were restored. For Christians, Jesus Christ is the one that gave the believers peace with God.

Bells are about ringing the news. In Christianity, Christ is the good news, the best news ever.

So Christmas before any ancient tradition is about Christ, God the Savior. Born supernaturally, baby Jesus came to bring abundant joy, peace and love as the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible present him. He was born in a poor cold manger and after 33 years he died on a cruel cross out of love for humanity, to forgive the sins and make peace with God. Then after three days in the grave, he came back to life and ascended into the heavens, staying at the right side of God Almighty. So that the joy of Christmas would be a permanent joy that can last eternally for anyone who receives his precious gift of love. Isn’t that the most amazing story?

However we look at Christmas and all the fun traditions, tons of lights and beautiful decorations around us, I think it’s good to remember what the first Noel (Christmas) was all about. There was just a poor manger in Bethlehem, there little baby Jesus together with Mary and Joseph, surrounded by animals to keep him warm. Plus a bunch of poor shepherds as the little baby’s first guests. They came after being informed supernaturally by an army of angels singing in the skies, sharing the good news on that unique and perfect night. What a fascinating story!

Why do we sing Christmas carols and where do they come from originally?

The Early Christians wanted to replace the pagan solstice celebrations giving people Christian songs to sing for Christmas. In 129, a Roman Bishop required that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” to be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760 by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Then composers all over Europe started to write Christmas carols. The problem was that the carols were sung in Latin, which the common people could not understand, therefore they didn’t like them much.

Things changed for better when St. Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi and his followers acted in the first play in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them. And that he was born into a poor family like theirs, not in a rich famous family. In the plays people sang songs that were telling the Christmas story in a language that everyone could understand and join in. These new carols also spread to countries like France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

In the modern times we live in, I think it’s the Christmas carols that continue to tell the story of the birth of Jesus most beautifully. There are many glorious carols, probably one of the best ever being “Joy to the World”, written by Isaac Watts. The carol is a repetition of God’s promises. It’s about assurance, blessing and encouraging promises that people can repeat to themselves during and beyond the Christmas season. There are plenty other sublime carols like: “Silent Night”, “O come, o come, Emmanuel”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “The First Noel”, etc.

You may or may not be a Christmas enthusiast, but I think pretty much anyone would enjoy this traditional Christmas carol sung by a children’s choir: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come / Let earth receive her King / Let every heart prepare Him room / And Heaven and nature sing / And Heaven and nature sing / And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing…”

I trust this little journey through some of the Christmas traditions and history was worthwhile. Here’s to a very Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year 2019 to you and your loved ones! 🙂

Emilia is Marketing Director at Appointfix, an app helping professionals and small businesses easily schedule appointments and reduce client no-shows using automated text reminders. Feel free to drop her an email at emilia.pustan@appointfix.com.