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Christmas Traditions

By: Ann Summar

Date Posted: 1998-12-25

When you think of Christmas, what comes to mind? Gifts? Old St. Nick? A brightly decorated Christmas tree? Whatever images appear, one thing is certain. Christmas is one of the most universally enjoyed holidays of the year. People of all cultures and ages enjoy the holiday and join in the Yuletide spirit. While most know the religious origins of Christmas, such as Mary and Joseph, the Christ Child, the Three Wise Men and the Manger, many do not know the origins of other traditional holiday sights.

Santa Claus is probably the most beloved and recognized symbol of Christmas. His history of begins with a man called Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in the area which is now Turkey. Saint Nicholas was known for his charity and wisdom. Legends tell of a man who came from a wealthy family, gave all his money to the poor and had magical powers. When he died in 340 AD, his remains were buried in southern Italy and pilgrims came to visit his church and took stories of him home to their countries. In Europe during the 12th century Saint Nicholas Day became a day of gift giving and charity. Germany, France, and Holland celebrated December 6th as a religious holiday and gave gifts to their children and the poor. When the Dutch colonists traveled to America, they brought with them Sintirklass, an austere bishop who wore a red bishop's costume and rode on a white horse. The American image of Sintirklass evolved into that of a jolly elf, as described in Clement Mooreís ìTwas the Night Before Christmasî and Thomas Nastís illustrations. Different countries around the world have their own variations on Santa Claus, such as Italyís La Befana, a good witch who distributes gifts to children, Switzerlandís Christkindl, the Christ Child, Franceís Pere Noel. Spanish children wait for the Three Wisemen, and the English wait for Father Christmas, a thinner, more austere version of Santa Claus.

The Christmas tree dates back to ancient winter celebrations when trees were decorated with candles, apples, and sprigs for the arrival of spring and also as tributes to pagan gods. The idea of lighting the tree is said to have come from Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant religion, who was so inspired by the beauty of the moon shining between the trees in a forest that when he returned one night from a walk, he brought home a small evergreen and used candles to recreate the splendor he had seen. The use of indoor trees began in Germany when evergreens were brought into the home and decorated with candles and ribbons or in areas where trees were sparse, simple wooden triangles replaced the tree. The practice spread throughout Europe, eventually finding itís way into the home of Queen Victoria in 1841, decorated in candles and gingerbread. German immigrants brought the tradition to the United States, though its use was not widely accepted until the late 1800ís because many associated its presence with pagan spirits. When electric lights were introduced, the popularity of decorating Christmas trees grew tremendously. Today, Christmas trees can be found in homes, offices, and stores throughout the world.

Hanging stockings is another favorite tradition this time of year. According to lore, the tradition started when a kindly nobleman who had three daughters had lost his wife to illness and his money to useless inventions had to move to a tiny peasantís cottage where his daughters did their own cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Without a proper dowry, the girls could not be married and the father became depressed. St. Nicholas learned of the fatherís despair and came to the house late at night and spotted the stockings the daughters had left to dry by the hearth. He dropped bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the daughterís stockings. When they awoke, the girls were overjoyed to find enough gold to allow them to marry and the father lived a long and happy life. Children around the world have continued the tradition of hanging stockings on Christmas Eve and other countries have similar customs. In France, the children place their shoes near the fireplace; in Holland, they fill their shoes with hay and a carrot for the horse of Sintirklass; in Hungary, youngsters shine their shoes before setting them near the door or window sill and Italian children leave them outside for La Befana.

These are all everlasting traditions which bring happiness to adults and children alike during the Christmas season around the world both in years past and in those to come

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