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Happy Holiday Series | The History of Christmas

Dec 19 | Happy Holiday Series | The History of Christmas

The time around the winter solstice has been a time of celebration as far back into antiquity as we can see. Each culture has created its own symbol set and traditions used to celebrate the various holidays of the season. Creative Tutors would like to wish everyone joy during this holiday season while we explore the traditions of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year.

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What's interesting is that Christmas, the most religious of the winter holidays, has many of its foundations in traditional pagan customs. Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, people around the world welcomed the lengthening days after the winter solstice with celebrations of birth and renewal. In Scandinavia, fathers and sons dragged home the biggest log they could find, the Yule log, which they burned in celebration of the sun's return. The people would feast for as long as the log burned; often for as many as twelve days. The people living in the area that is now Germany honored their pagan god Odin who rode through the night skies observing his people and deciding who would prosper during the coming year. As part of the Roman's Saturnalia celebration, held in recognition of their god of agriculture, they also celebrated Juvenalia; a feast for the children. But, it was not until the 4th century that the birth of Christ was declared a holiday and begun to be celebrated.

In an effort to assure that the fledgling Christian community would embrace the new holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, Pope Julius I chose December 25 to absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.  By 432 the nativity was being celebrated in Egypt; by the end of the 6th century the custom had spread to England; and by the end of the 8th century the people of Scandinavia were celebrating Christ's birth.

Many of our Christmas traditions have ancient roots in pagan times as well.

Christmas Tree - bringing evergreens into the home is a custom that dates at least back to the Egyptians. They would bring green date palm fronds into their homes during the winter solstice to symbolize life's triumph over death. Druids used holly and mistletoe to symbolize eternal life, and evergreen branches were used to ward away evil spirits. And, during the Middle Ages Germans and Scandinavians brought evergreen trees into their homes to express their hope in the coming spring.

Ornaments - it is believed that Martin Luther may have begun the tradition of decorating evergreens when he decorated a small fir tree with candles for his children.

Santa Claus - the modern US version of Santa Claus is believed to have its roots in the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas which was in turn based on the legend of St. Nicholas of Myra with a little of Odin thrown in for good measure. The Sinterklaas legend was brought to New York with Dutch settlers during the 18th century. Although the traditional Sinterklass wore robes, the modern Santa with his bright red suit is thought to be derived from an 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast.

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