A Christmas lesson

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Selma Times-Journal

Most of us believe the celebration of Christmas dates back almost 2,000 years, and in some ways it does.

But many of the traditions we enjoy have emerged in the last century.

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As late as the Civil War era, Christmas was not considered an especially important holiday, even by Christians, according to Valerie Burnes, who teaches history at Judson College.

“Even students at Judson after the Civil War didn’t go home for Christmas. They spent Christmas here and didn’t swap presents or anything like that,” Burnes said. “They didn’t do trees or anything. Just had a dinner.”

The word Christmas comes from the words Cristes maesse, or “Christ’s Mass.” Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus for members of the Christian religion. Most historians peg the first celebration of Christmas to Rome in 336 A.D., according to www.howstuffworks.com.

According to many reports, the early church, however, prior to 336 A.D., did not put a special emphasis on the birth of Christ, instead focusing on his divinity.

“There is nothing actually Biblical about our Christian traditions,” Burnes said. “It was important in the church calendar, but people didn’t do as much.”

As for the gift-giving tradition, most historians date that back to Saint Nicholas, a saint from the fourth century who was known for his generosity and kindness, as well as for his miracles.

“That’s how the tradition of gift giving came about – he would do it in secret because you weren’t supposed to gain glory for your works,” Burnes said.

Saint Nicholas was imprisoned by the Romans during their persecution of Christians, but was later released, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He was revered for almost 1,000 years as a favorite saint. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “After the Reformation, Nicholas’ cult disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country’s English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents.”

According to Daniel Boorstin in his book “The Americans,” Christmas was largely a non-event in America until the 1860s. 1867 was the first year that Macy’s department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve. 1874 was the year of the first window displays with a Christmas theme at Macy’s. It has snowballed from there.

The Christmas tree is a German tradition dating as far back as 700 A.D.

“They put the lit candles on the tree,” Burnes said of the German influence. “They used to put a pickle in the tree. It was kind of a hunt and search

– who can find the pickle.”

A lot of traditions, including many of our Christmas carols, come from Germany, Burnes said.

Martin Luther, in the 16th century, is credited as being the first person to put candles on a tree, and the first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared in 1882. Calvin Coolidge in 1923 ceremoniously lit the first outdoor tree at the White House, starting that long tradition.

The 12 days of Christmas are the 12 days that separate Christmas day on Dec. 25 from Epiphany, which is celebrated Jan. 6.

What about the contemporary image of Santa Claus?

When Clement Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas” in 1822 for his family, it was picked up by a newspaper, then reprinted in magazines. In the poem, Moore gave us the image of a rosy-cheeked St. Nick, with a sack of toys, coming down the chimney, complete with a white beard. He also named the eight tiny reindeer who pulled Santa’s sleigh, according to www.howthingswork.com.

Artist Thomas Nast helped complete the image, when between 1863 and 1886, Harper’s Weekly (a popular magazine of the time) ran a series of engravings that depicted Santa.

The red and white suit came, however, from the original Saint Nicholas. Those colors were the colors of the traditional bishop’s robes, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.