From the Old English ‘Cristes Mæsse’ ~ meaning the ‘mass of Christ’ ~ the story of Christmas begins with the birth of a babe in Bethlehem.
Many Christmas customs are based on the birth of Christ. Such as giving presents because of the Wise Men, who brought presents to the baby Jesus. Christmas carols based on Christ's birth and scenes of the birth with figures of shepherds, the Wise Men, and animals surrounding the baby Jesus.
But some of the ways people celebrate Christmas have nothing to do with Christ's birthday. Many bits of older holidays have crept into Christmas!
It wasn't until about 200 years after Christ's death that Christians even thought about celebrating his birth. No one knows the exact date of his birth. It is believed that December the 25th was chosen to turn people away from celebrating other holidays in this time of the year.
Saturnalia, was the Romans holiday that they celebrated in December. It was a time of feasting and parties.
Also, in northern Europe there was a holiday known
as Yule. They celebrated this holiday by making
great fires. They then would dance around the fires,
yelling for the winter to end.
In time, Christmas took the place of these holidays. But people kept some of the old customs -- such as burning a Yule log and having feasts and parties. The word Yule is still used as a name for the Christmas season.
As time went on, new customs crept into Christmas.
One was the Christmas tree, which was started in
Germany. As the Germans settled in new lands they
brought with them this tradition.
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 religous play depicted the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
A fir tree hung with apples was used to symbolize the Garden of Eden — the Paradise Tree. The play ended with the prophecy of a saviour coming, and so was often performed during the Advent season.
It is held that Protestant reformer Martin Luther first adorned trees with light. While coming home one December evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir inspired him to recreate the effect by placing candles on the branches of a small fir tree inside his home
The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert from his native Germany. The famous Illustrated News etching in 1848, featuring the Royal Family of Victoria, Albert and their children gathered around a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, popularized the tree throughout Victorian England. Brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans, in the late 19th century.
The origin of Santa Claus begins in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an area in present day Turkey. By all accounts St. Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children. After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra, but in 1087 Italian sailors purportedly stole his remains and removed them to Bari, Italy, greatly increasing St. Nicholas’ popularity throughout Europe.
His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims he that he could perform miracles and devotion to him increased. 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 travellers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him and some time around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.
After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.