Christmas is the time of the year when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus is believed to be the son of God who came to earth to die for our sins, so that we may live without condemnation. Along with this belief come several traditions from around the world on how to celebrate this special day. Lets take a look at some of the interesting origins of Christmas traditions.
The Bible indicates no date for Jesus’ birth. From historical records it seems likely that he was born between 7 BC and 2 BC. Many people prefer to use BCE (Before the Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ). It also seems likely that he was born either in the northern autumn (September-October) or spring (March-April).
Why then did early Christians celebrate his birth in December-January? Probably because this was a time when people held feasts and celebrations anyway. People had been celebrating the northern winter solstice since times immemorial. Major pagan festivals also happened at this time.
Another celebration at this time of year was the Jewish Feast of Lights (Hanukkah). Jesus was of course a Jew, and Christians transformed these feasts and infused them with new meaning.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a believer, he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The earliest record of Christmas being celebrated on 25 December is from his reign, in the year 336. The Julian calendar was used then. Some years later, Pope Julius I made 25 December the official day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
The Julian calendar, which was inaccurate, was updated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. This “Gregorian” calendar is the one most of the world uses today. But the “Orthodox” branches of Christianity (for example in Ethiopia, Egypt, Russia and Greece) still use the Julian calendar, so they celebrate Christmas on 6 or 7 January.
Although the secularised, commercial Christmas is only on 25 December, different Christian branches celebrate Christmas for a period ranging from 1 to 40 days.
Sending Christmas cards started in England in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole and his artist friend John Horsley printed and sold about 1 000 cards. As postage and the printing of cards became cheaper, ever more people started sending them. Christmas cards in the post, a popular custom for over 200 years, are now becoming a rarity.
The Christmas tree
Evergreen fir trees have been used in pagan and Christian midwinter festivals since ancient times. To pagans they symbolised the coming spring. To Christians they symbolised everlasting life in God. People use many different kinds of tree now. It is ironic that most artificial trees – and Christmas decorations – are made in China by workers who don’t know what they mean.
Tom Smith made the first Christmas crackers in London in the 1850s. His idea of introducing the “crackle” into wrapped sweets was a winner. His sons inserted hats, jokes and toys into the wrapping as well. Christmas crackers have no Christian meaning. It’s unclear why they became such a popular Christmas tradition, especially in England.