1. The name “Christmas”
I have read that the origin of what is called Christmas today is a combination of the Catholic Mass of Christ (the Christ Mass) and Saint Nicholas Day (sometimes called the Feast of Saint Nicholas).
The name of “Christmas” is observable in name of the Christ Mass, but that is a celebration by the Catholic church in recognition of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ – and no gifts are given at this mass. Saint Nicholas Day was combined with the Mass of Christ, the combination which was propagated by department stores in the early 1900’s to include gift-giving as part of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, largely as a marketing ploy for the sale of goods.
A conclusion for the name “Christmas” to which I come based on these facts is that the Christ Mass recognizes Christ’s sacrifice, while its name (Christ Mass) was adopted as Christmas, which is the celebration of Christ’s birth, with Saint Nicholas Day sort of stirred in the mix to include the giving of gifts. For more about Saint Nicholas, see next topic.
2. The legend of Santa Claus
The legend of Santa Claus began with a real man named Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the then-Greek village of Patara (in the region that today is on the southern coast of Turkey at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea). Nicholas’ parents were very wealthy. And Nicholas parents were also devout Christians, and they raised Nicholas in a Christian lifestyle. Nicholas’ parents both died in an epidemic when Nicholas was very young.
Nicholas lived by the teachings of Jesus, and he used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God, and he was made the Catholic Bishop of Myra when he was still young. He became well-known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered, was exiled, and was imprisoned for his faith in Christ. The Roman prisons under Diocletian’s reign were filled with bishops, priests, and deacons, so much so that real criminals such as thieves and murderers were often allowed to walk free. Nicholas was eventually released from Roman prison, after which he attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Nicholas died on December 6, AD 343, and Saint Nicholas Day is still celebrated on the anniversary of his death (that is, December 6).
Over the years many stories and legends have been shared among mankind about Saint Nicholas’ life and deeds, and the entirety of these stories and legends help us to understand why he is beloved and revered as a protector and a helper of the needy. He was thought of so highly that the first European settlers to arrive in the New World brought with them thoughts and traditions associated with Saint Nicholas. One of the legends of Saint Nicholas that was brought over was that St. Nick would magically leave nuts, apples, and sweets in the shoes or stockings of children left by their beds.
The New York elite in the 1820’s succeeded in domesticating Christmas (reference “The Name ‘Christmas’” in point 1 above) through a new "Santa Claus" tradition invented by Washington Irving, John Pintard and Clement Clarke Moore. A poem written by Moore (commonly known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) was printed in four new almanacs in 1824, just one year after it was printed in a Troy, New York, paper. The poem and other descriptions of the Santa Claus ritual appeared in more and more local papers. More than anything else, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (the original name of the poem) introduced the custom of a cozy, domestic Santa Christmas tradition to the nation.
Other artists and writers continued the change to an elf-like Saint Nicholas, unlike the stately European bishop Saint Nicholas. In 1863, during the Civil War, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual black-and-white drawings in Harper's Weekly, based on the descriptions found in the poem and in Washington Irving's work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an always-present clay pipe. Nast's Santa supported the Union, and President Lincoln believed this contributed to the Union troops' success by demoralizing Confederate soldiers. As Nast drew “Santas” until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint's name shifted to Santa Claus, a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.
Influenced by German immigrants who loved Christmas, and by Clement Clarke Moore and Washington Irving, by Charles Dickens, by the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church, and by church musicians embracing carol singing, churches began to bring Christmas observances into their lives. The growth of Sunday Schools in cities exposed hundreds of thousands of children to Christianity. Initially opposed to Christmas observance, by the 1850’s Sunday Schools had discovered that a Christmas tree, Santa, and gifts greatly improved attendance. So, in a strange twist of fate, the new "secular" Santa Claus, no longer seen as a religious figure, helped return Christmas observance to churches.
3. The Christmas tree
The Christmas tree today is a common custom to most of us. There are many interesting connections to ancient traditions such as Egyptian and Roman customs, early Christian practices, and Victorian nostalgia. However, most scholars point to Germany as being the origin of the Christmas tree.
One of the earliest stories relating back to Germany is about Saint Boniface. In AD 722, he encountered some pagans who were about to sacrifice a child at the base of a huge oak tree. He cut down the tree to prevent the sacrifice and a fir tree grew up at the base of the oak. He then told everyone that this lovely evergreen, with its branches pointing to heaven, was a holy tree - the tree of the Christ child, and a symbol of His promise of eternal life.
In the 1840s and 50s, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularized the Christmas tree in England. Prince Albert decorated a tree and ever since that time, the English, because of their love for their Queen, copied her Christmas customs including the Christmas tree and ornaments. An engraving of the Royal Family celebrating Christmas at Windsor was published in 1848 and their German traditions were copied and adapted.
Another story about the origin of the Christmas tree says that late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope that spring would soon come.
Another legend that has not been proved is that Martin Luther is responsible for the origin of the Christmas tree. This story says that one Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through the snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of the snow glistened trees. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moon light. When he got home, he set up a small fir tree and shared the story with his children. He decorated the Christmas tree with small candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth.
Research into customs of various cultures shows that greenery was often brought into homes at the time of the winter solstice. It symbolized life in the midst of death in many cultures. The Romans were known to deck their homes with evergreens during the time around January 15. Living trees were also brought into homes during the old Germany feast of Yule, which originally was a two-month feast beginning in November. The Yule tree was planted in a tub and brought into the home. But there is no evidence that the Christmas tree is a direct descendent of the Yule tree. Evidence does point to the Paradise tree however.
This story goes back to the 11th century religious plays. One of the most popular was the Paradise Play. The play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Paradise. The only prop on the stage was the Paradise tree, a fir tree adorned with apples. The play would end with the promise of the coming Savior and His Incarnation. The people had grown so accustomed to the Paradise tree, that they began putting their own Paradise tree up in their homes on December 24.
The facts of the origins of these and other Christmas traditions are interesting, and their origins perhaps will affect your decisions when establishing your own traditions in your own family. I encourage you as a Christian to make Christ the pointed focus of Christmas. And do not think with condemnation about others’ traditions if they are not the same as yours but rather explain your traditions with clarity. Make the birth of Christ the reason that you personally celebrate Christmas, but regardless of your opinions of other traditions, whenever possible, as much as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone (see Romans 12:18).