What is Christmas?
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.
Christmas is both a holiday and a holy day. In America it is one of the biggest event of the year (especially for kids), and for members of the Christian religions it is an important day on the religious calendar.
During the Christmas season in America, many people take their children to a mall where they can "meet Santa."The federal government, all state governments, all schools/colleges/universities and the vast majority of businesses in America give employees one or two days off at Christmas, making it an important holiday (other federal holidays are: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving). In the Roman Catholic calendar, Christmas is one of six holy feast days celebrated in America, the others being: Circumcision (New Year's Day), Ascension, Assumption (Mary's assumption into heaven, August 15), All Saints (November 1), and the Immaculate Conception (December 8).
Why is Christmas such a big deal?
There are two reasons why Christmas is such a big deal:
According to the 1994 "Britannica Book of the Year," there are 1.8 billion Christians in a total world population of 5.5 billion, making it the largest religion worldwide. In America, 241 million out of a total population of 281 million people are Christians -- that's 85 percent. Because Christians follow Jesus, the birth of Jesus is important to them.
In America, the weeks leading up to Christmas are the biggest shopping weeks of the year. Many retailers make up to 70 percent of their annual revenue in the month preceding Christmas. Therefore, retailers hype the event beyond belief.
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.
Why do people give each other presents on Christmas day?
The tradition of gifts seems to have started with the gifts that the wise men (the Magi) brought to Jesus. As recounted in the Bible's book of Matthew, "On coming to the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh."As mentioned in the previous question, however, no one was really in the habit of exchanging elaborate gifts until late in the 1800s. The Santa Claus story (described later), combined with an amazing retailing phenomenon that has grown since the turn of the century, has made gift giving a central focus of the Christmas tradition.
Why is there a small evergreen tree in the living room?
This is a German tradition, started as early as 700 A.D. In the 1800s the tradition of a Christmas tree was widespread in Germany, then moved to England and then to America through Pennsylvanian German immigrants.
Who is this Santa Claus person?
Why is Santa characterized as a short, fat and jolly pipe smoker?
Why does Santa wear such outlandish clothes?
Why does he ride around in a sleigh? Pulled by reindeer? That lands on rooftops? So he can climb down the chimney? With a big sack full of toys? Which he leaves under the tree for good girls and boys?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Santa Claus started with a real person, Saint Nicholas, a minor saint from the fourth century:
According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and, when young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and attended the first Council (325) of Nicaea. After his death he was buried in his church at Myra, and by the sixth century his shrine there had become well known. In 1087, Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly increased the saint's popularity in Europe, and Bari became one of the most crowded of all pilgrimage centres. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola, Bari.
Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was reputed to have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution, and he restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a brine tub. In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, Switz., and Moscow. Thousands of European churches were dedicated to him, one as early as the sixth century, built by the Roman emperor Justinian I, at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Nicholas' miracles were a favourite subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays, and his traditional feast day was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread European custom in which a boy was elected bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).
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.
("Nicholas, SAINT", Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.)It is amazing but true that the common, popular view of Santa that we all have today, along with all the crazy things around Santa like the sleigh, the reindeer and the chimney, all came largely from two publishing events that occurred in the 1800s and one advertising campaign in this century. Clement Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas" in 1822 for his family. It was picked up by a newspaper, then reprinted in magazines and it spread like wildfire. Moore admitted authorship in 1838. If you read the poem you will find that he names the reindeer, invents the sleigh, comes up with the chimney and the bag of toys, etc. Nearly everyone in America has been able to recognize or recite this poem since the 1830s.
Then, between 1863 and 1886, Harper's Weekly (a popular magazine of the time) ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images come the concepts of Santa's workshop, Santa reading letters, Santa checking his list and so on. Coca-Cola also played a role in the Santa image by running a set of paintings by Haddon Sundblom in its ads between 1931 to 1964.
The red and white suit came, actually, from the original Saint Nicholas. Those colors were the colors of the traditional bishop's robes.
See also A Brief History of Santa for a good set of Santa pictures.