Monday, December 24, 2007

(since I won't have time to do this tomorrow)

Christmas is the annual Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In most places, Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25. This is not considered to be the actual date of Jesus' birth, since that is not known. The Armenian Apostolic Church observes Christmas on January 6, and Eastern Orthodox Churches that still use the Julian Calendar celebrate it on January 7.

The word "Christmas" is as a contraction of "Christ's mass", derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. In early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ, and since the mid-16th century Χ was used as an abbreviation for Christ, so "Xmas" is often used as an abbreviation for Christmas.

The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day in 800. Around the 12th century, the remnants of the former Saturnalian traditions of the Romans were transferred to the Twelve Days of Christmas (26 December – 6 January). Christmas during the Middle Ages was a public festival, incorporating ivy, holly, and other evergreens, as well as gift-giving. Modern traditions have come to include the display of Nativity scenes, Holly and Christmas trees, the exchange of gifts and cards, and the arrival of Father Christmas or Santa Claus on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Popular Christmas themes include the promotion of goodwill and peace.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

The Nativity of Jesus refers to the Christian belief that the Messiah was born to the Virgin Mary. According to Biblical accounts, Jesus was born to Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. Although popular tradition states the birth took place in a stable surrounded by animals, these are not mentioned in the Bible. However, Luke mentions that he as placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds in the fields were told of the birth by an angel, and were the first to see the child. Nativity scenes traditionally include the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar, although their names and number are not referred to in the Biblical narrative, who are said to have followed a star, known as the Star of Bethlehem, found Jesus, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In part, the Christmas celebration was created by the early Church in order to entice pagans to convert to Christianity without losing their own winter celebrations. Certain prominent gods and goddesses of other religions had their birthdays celebrated on December 25, including Ishtar, Sol Invictus and Mithras. Various traditions were adopted from other winter festivals including Saturnalia (a time of feasting and merrymaking which included the making and giving of small presents, as well as drinking, gambling, and public nudity); Natalis Solis Invicti (a Roman festival worshiping several solar dieties); the winter solstice; Yule; and Mid-Winter Night.

Christmas during the Middle Ages remained a public festival, incorporating ivy, holly, and other evergreens, as well as gift-giving. There were feasts, and caroling also became popular. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day, and there was special Christmas ale.

In 1647, following the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas. The Restoration of 1660 ended the ban, but many clergy still disapproved of Christmas celebrations. In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas. In Boston, the celebration was outlawed from 1659 to 1681, although it was still observed in Virginia and New York. Christmas fell out of favor in the U.S. after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom.

By the 1820s, Christmas was thought to be dying out and efforts were made to revive it. In 1820, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published and played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess. Interest in Christmas was revived in America by several short stories by Washington Irving and by Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas". This poem popularized the tradition of exchanging gifts. Christmas was declared a U.S. Federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.

The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew a new image each year beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.

The origin of Santa Claus begins in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (in present day Turkey). St. Nicholas was a generous man and particularly devoted to children. His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims he that he could perform miracles. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing white beard, and bishop's mitre. In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travelers. Around the 12th century, an official church holiday, The Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6), was created in his honor. This day was marked by gift-giving and charity.

Father Christmas was first recorded in the 15th century, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French have Père Noël. In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana arrives on the eve of the Epiphany bringing gifts (La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way and now, brings gifts to all children). In several Latin American countries, Santa makes the toys and gives them to Baby Jesus, who delivers them to the children's homes. In Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Alto Adige/Südtirol (Italy) and Liechtenstein, the Christkind brings the presents. The German version of Santa Claus is Weihnachtsman. In Holland, Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes.

The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century, though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century. In 16th-century Germany fir trees were decorated, both indoors and out, with apples, roses, gilded candies, and colored paper. In the Middle Ages, a popular religious play depicted the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and used a fir tree hung with apples to symbolize the tree. It is held that Protestant reformer Martin Luther first adorned trees with light. The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert (a German). The trees then became popularize throughout Victorian England. German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States.

Mistletoe was used by Druid priests 200 years before the birth of Christ in their winter celebrations. They revered the plant since it had no roots yet remained green during the cold months of winter. The ancient Celtics believed mistletoe to have magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility, and to ward of evil spirits. The plant was also seen as a symbol of peace, and it is said that among Romans, enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their weapons and embrace. Scandanavians associated the plant with their goddess of love, and it may be from this that we derive the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. Those who kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year.


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