WEST ORANGE, NJ - As we head into Christmas, how many of us recall some of the cultural and spiritual history of Christmas Eve and Christmas? Here's a round up of some fun facts and reminders of what the holiday represents, what it looks like now and how it got there.
The word Christmas is old English, 'Cristes maesse,' meaning 'Christ's mass.' It is a day that celebrates the birth of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament gospels. Christmas ends the Advent season in the traditional church.
The world celebrates Christmas on December 25, but in recent years, astronomers have contested that this date is inaccurate. The (London) Telegraph States:
"They found that a bright star which appeared over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago pinpointed the date of Christ's birth as June 17 rather than December 25.
The researchers claim the 'Christmas star' was most likely a magnificent conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were so close together they would have shone unusually brightly as a single "beacon of light" which appeared suddenly.
Australian astronomer Dave Reneke used complex computer software to chart the exact positions of all celestial bodies and map the night sky as it would have appeared over the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago.
Using St Matthew's Gospel as a reference point, Mr Reneke pinpointed the planetary conjunction, which appeared in the constellation of Leo, to the exact date of June 17 in the year 2BC."
Despite the possibility that Christmas should really be celebrated in June, it has been celebrated in December since about 300 AD.
After Thanksgiving, several christian churches begin a period called "Advent," the Latin, "Adventus," or arrival. It is a four week period where a candle is lit for each week as the church waits for Jesus's birth on Christmas Day. The candles are placed in an Advent wreath, made of evergreens, and representing life and eternity. Each candle stands for something different: God's people, hope; Old Testament prophets, peace; John the Baptist, love; and Mary, Mother of Jesus, joy. The center candle represents Jesus and his birth. Christians prepare for Christ's birth in many ways. They send Christmas cards (the first card was mailed in the United States in 1875); decorate their homes and buy presents. Christmas music is played and sung.
The word for 'carol' comes from the Greek for 'Choros' or 'dancing in a circle'. Many famous carols were written to accompany religious events, but as time went on, they came to represent songs especially about Christmas. As time went on, contemporary songs and pop songs have added to the list of what has become a worldwide tradition: Christmas carols and Christmas music.
The center of Christmas decorations in the home is the Christmas tree. This tradition was brought from Germany to the United States in the late 1700s but did not become popular until the mid 1800s. (its origins come from pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, when boughs were brought into homes and decorated). Christmas was considered so sacred by the Puritans that it was illegal to engage in any 'frivolity' surrounding Christmas. That began to change as the tree gained popularity across Europe and immigrants moving to America brought more of their traditions with them. Trees were originally decorated with candles, nuts, and fruits. Homemade ornaments were added, along with glass ornaments, and electricity brought electric lights. Electricity also brought with it the addition of outdoor lighting and decor. Evergreens, special family decor, and also, nativity, or creche, are also found.
The creche contains a scene of the manger, with Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, animals, shepherds, angels, and the three Wise Men that came with gifts for the baby: gold, frankincense, and myrhh. In other countries, such as France, the Wise Men are placed outside the creche until the Feast of the Epiphany (the 'Manifestation' of God the son as a human being - Jesus). It is also called the Feast of the Three Kings, especially in Latin culture. This holiday occurs about 12 days after Christmas.
Certainly the most iconic figure of the season is Santa Claus. Between 260 and 280 AD, Nicholas was born in Patara, part of what is now Turkey. He became a Bishop and was beloved for his compassionate heart and humanitarian efforts. He was ultimately canonized and became known as St. Nicholas. Stories of his selfless kindness continued to spread and grow in folkloric culture, and his 'feast' day, St. Nicholas day, was celebrated on December 6. It seems to have begun in Western Europe in the Netherlands around 1163, and spread to France, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland and England. It then spread through Eastern and Central Europe.
In 1809, American author Washington Irving published Knickerbocker's History of New York and referenced a whimsical and jovial character called St. Nicholas. In 1821, the first American lithograph book Children's Friend, spoke of "Sante Claus" who came from the North Pole in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. However, in 1823, A Visit From St. Nicholas, a poem written by Clement Moore and now more popularly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" was published, forever changing the American public's notion of Santa Claus. Additional writings by authors and illustrations by famed cartoonist Thomas Nast, began to portray Santa Claus in his red suit and NC Wyeth, another famous American artist and illustrator, firmly defined the image of Santa for the American public.
Christmas Eve may be celebrated by attending a Candelit service, or a midnight mass/service. The exchange of gifts, originating from the Magi's three gifts to the Christ child, may follow, and continue on Christmas morning.
Many other cultural traditions surround the Christmas season, especially as it pertains to special meals. From seafood, to sausages, dumplings, and roasted hams, turkeys, and goose, each family may have their special meals firmly established in their own unique cultural roots.
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