During the first two centuries after Jesus' death, Christmas was not celebrated. In AD 245, when a group of scholars attempted to pinpoint the exact date of Christ's birth, a church council denounced the endeavor, declaring that it would be wrong to celebrate the birth of Christ "as though He were a King Pharaoh."
In spite of official disapproval, various attempts were made to pinpoint the Nativity. The result was a confusion of dates: Jan. 1, Jan. 6, March 25, and May 20. The May date became the favored one, because the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:8) reports that the shepherds who received the announcement of the messiah's birth were watching their sheep by night. Shepherds guarded their flocks day and night only at lambing time, which was in the spring. In winter, the animals were generally kept in corrals, unwatched.
By the middle of the fourth century, Dec. 25 was associated with Christmas. Pope Julius (337-352) formally selected that date in AD 349.
But even before that, Dec. 25 was already a widely celebrated day in the Roman World. On that date, citizens observed the Natalis Solis Invicti (the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun) in honor of the sun god Mithras. The festival took place just after the winter solstice of the Julian calendar.
Many modern Christmas customs such as decorating a house with greenery, exchanging gifts, and enjoying festive meals originated with this pagan celebration. Scholars believe that Pope Julius selected Dec. 25 as the date of the Nativity in order to win over followers of Mithras.
In 17th-century England, Puritans objected to Christian celebrations that had no clear biblical basis. As a result, the English Parliament in 1643 outlawed Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays. However, Dec. 25 was so popular as a festive day, that by 1660 the citizens reclaimed it. Their neglect of the religious aspects of Dec. 25 resulted in the growing secularization of the holiday.
When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620, they brought with them a great dislike for Christmas. A Massachusetts law was enacted in 1659 that fined people for celebrating Dec. 25. But the day was so popular that the law was repealed in 1681, although strong religious opposition lasted into the next century.
The Christmas-tree tradition was started in Germany in the late-15th century. At that time, a popular theatrical performance, the Paradise Play, depicted the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and was represented by a fir tree decorated with apples. Soon the tree was placed in the homes of Christians, who interpreted it as a symbol of the coming Savior.
The apples were replaced with small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist. Later, the wafers were replaced by small pieces of pastry cut into shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers, and bells.
The first commercially printed Christmas cards originated in London in 1843. Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy British businessman and patron of the arts, commissioned London artist John Calcott Horsley to create a card he could proudly send to friends and professional acquaintances to wish them a "merry Christmas." Cole sent 1,000 cards in 1843.
The idea of using commercially printed cards caught on. Currently, Americans exchange nearly 3 billion Christmas cards annually, making Christmas the largest card-sending holiday in the United States.
Pennsylvania Germans claim to have initiated the Christmas-tree custom in America in the early 1800s. The first known exhibition of a Christmas tree was held in York, Pa., in 1830. Early trees were decorated with fruits, nuts, popcorn, toys, and candles. Today, more than 80 percent of American families buy and decorate a tree.
The original candy cane was born in the 1670s when the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral in Cologne Germany bent sticks of white sugar candy into canes to represent a shepherd's staff. Thus, the candy cane today is meant to symbolize the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem who first learned about the birth of Jesus.
The abbreviation "Xmas" comes from Greek Christians. "X" is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Xristos). By the 16th century, Xmas was widely used throughout Europe by Christians who knew that it meant "Christ's mass." Later, Christians unfamiliar with the Greek origin mistook the "X" as a sign of disrespect and an attempt by unbelievers to rid Christmas of its central meaning. Some Christians still disapprove of the abbreviation, claiming, incorrectly, that it takes the "Christ out of Christmas."
Christmas is the only religious holiday in America that is also a national holiday. In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas an official holiday. By 1890, all other states followed suit.
Of the many statements made about Christmas, one of the finest comes from President Calvin Coolidge: "Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society