It would be easy enough to imagine Christmas as a simple continuum of tradition dating from the birth of Christ. You’d begin with the nativity story, apply the December 25th date to Jesus’ birth, establish the gift-giving precedent of the magi and work from there. Over the centuries, classic Christmas traditions would accumulate: perhaps beginning with the Yule log, followed by the Christmas tree and finally winding up in the present day with giant inflatable snowmen and icicle lights.
The history of Christmas, however, is hardly a continuum. It is a varied and riotous story, one that actually predates the birth of Christ. Early Europeans marked the year’s longest night — the winter solstice — as the beginning of longer days and the rebirth of the sun. They slaughtered livestock that could not be kept through the winter and feasted from late December through January. German pagans honored Oden, a frightening god who flew over settlements at night, blessing some people and cursing others. The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated yuletide and each family burnt a giant log and feasted until it turned to ash.
Early Christmas, however, was not the peaceful, albeit busy family holiday we know today. Christmas’ proximity to Saturnalia resulted in it its absorbing some of the Roman festival’s excesses. Christmas in the middle ages featured feasting, drinking, riotous behavior and caroling for money. Religious puritans disapproved of such excess in the name of Christ and considered the holiday blasphemous. Oliver Cromwell went so far as to cancel Christmas when he seized control of England in 1645. Decorations were forbidden and soldiers patrolled the street in search of celebrants cooking meat. Puritans in the American colonies took a similarly dour view of Christmas: Yuletide festivities were outlawed in Boston from 1659 though 1681.
But by the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, Christmas began to take on the tame associations it has today. People wrote popular stories about Christmas that invented and appropriated old traditions, presenting them as the customs of the English gentry. Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, introduced a Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1846. An engraving of the couple with their children in front of the tree popularized the custom throughout England and the United States.
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Christmas Day is celebrated as a major festival and public holiday in countries around the world, including many whose populations are mostly non-Christian. In some non-Christian countries, periods of former colonial rule introduced the celebration; in others, Christian minorities or foreign cultural influences have led populations to observe the holiday. Countries such as Japan, where Christmas is popular despite there being only a small number of Christians, have adopted many of the secular aspects of Christmas, such as gift-giving, decorations and Christmas trees.
Countries in which Christmas is not a formal public holiday include China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Thailand, Nepal, Iran, Turkey and North Korea. Christmas celebrations around the world can vary in form, reflecting differing cultural and national traditions.
Among countries with a strong Christian tradition, a variety of Christmas celebrations have developed that incorporates regional and local cultures. For Christians, participating in a religious service plays an important part in the recognition of the season. Christmas, along with Easter, is the period of highest annual church attendance.
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In Catholic countries, people hold religious processions or parades in the days preceding Christmas. In other countries, secular processions or parades featuring Santa Claus and other seasonal figures are often held. Family reunions and the exchange of gifts are a widespread feature of the season. Gift giving takes place on Christmas Day in most countries. Others practice gift giving on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, and January 6, Epiphany.
In Rome, people celebrated the raucous festival of Saturnalia from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24 in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The celebration consisted of a carnival-like period of feasting, carousing, gambling, gift-giving and upended social positions. Slaves could don their masters’ clothes and refuse orders and children had command over adults. Two other Roman festivals are a feast in honor of Rome’s children, and Mithras, a celebration in honor of the infant god Mithras, also fell near the solstice.
By the fourth century, the church decided that Christians needed a December holiday to rival solstice celebrations. Church leaders selected Dec. 25 for the Feast of the Nativity. Christmas gained ground over the next several hundred years, becoming a full-fledged holiday by the ninth century, although it was still less important than Good Friday and Easter.
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The practice of putting up special decorations at Christmas has a long history. In the 15th century, it was recorded that in London it was the custom at Christmas for every house and all the parish churches to be “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green”. The heart-shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolize the coming to earth of Jesus, while holly was seen as protection against pagans and witches, its thorns and red berries held to represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion and the blood he shed.
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Nativity scenes are known from 10th-century Rome. Different types of decorations developed across the Christian world, dependent on local tradition and available resources. The first commercially produced decorations appeared in Germany in the 1860s, inspired by paper chains made by children. In countries where a representation of the Nativity Scene is very popular, people are encouraged to compete and create the most original or realistic ones. Within some families, the pieces used to make the representation are considered a valuable family heirloom.