Christmas Day in the United States is celebrated on December 25. Christmas is a religious, cultural and commercial holiday, a day when most Americans spend time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and sharing meals. It is a federal holiday - most shops and businesses are closed.
The famous Christmas Day dinner can vary according to the region and culture. Typical dishes on the menu are turkey, ham, goose, pork, jambalaya, and “seven fishes” salad. Side dishes include mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. All of this is followed by desserts such as flan, fruit pies, cookies, cakes, and Christmas pudding. Some typical seasonal drinks are eggnog, cider, mulled wine, punch, and hot chocolate.
Entertainment includes ballets, old movies on TV, carol singing. Nativity plays, pageants, concerts, performances, tree-lighting ceremonies take place in local communities. Towns and churches are decorated with nativity scenes incorporating baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, and angels in a manger.
Churches hold Christmas Eve candlelight or midnight services. Carol singers go from house to house. People decorate their homes with lights and displays outside and lighted Christmas trees and other decorations inside. Children especially look forward to receiving gifts Christmas morning, Santa Claus having come down the chimney to deliver them the night before. Some people volunteer to help out at homeless shelters, etc., or engage in other charitable work.
The Christmas shopping period starts with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Retailers begin their push for sales, as Christmas purchases bring in approximately $1 trillion. Almost 17 million cards and packages are sent across the States.
The ancient peoples of Europe would perform midwinter ceremonies, around the winter solstice, to mark the rebirth of the sun, when the days would start to get longer again. The Scandinavians had Yule, burning a log and feasting for as long as it burned. The Romans followed Saturnalia, a week-long hedonistic feast involving drinking, merrymaking, gift-giving, and also decorating homes with evergreens. People threw standards and norms aside: peasants would take over the city, masters would become slaves, men would dress as women, etc. The feast culminated in the birthday of Mithra, the sun-god, December 25. On December 25, 274, the sun-god was named the principal patron of the Roman empire and a temple was dedicated to him in the Campus Martius.
Emperor Constantine of the Western Roman Empire converted to Christianity in 313 AD and granted legal recognition to the religion. In an effort to unite his empire, he merged Christian and pagan festivals. The book The Paganism in Our Christianity states: “It was a definite Christian policy to take over the pagan festivals endeared to the people by tradition, and to give them a Christian significance.”The Roman Church held its first official observance on December 25, 336.
With the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, Christmas also spread. By the 8th century, most of Europe celebrated it, although Easter was more important. It began to take on more of the merrymaking features of the northern European festivals. In the Middle Ages, Christians attended church to worship on the day, but other rites were far from holy. For example, the poor would go to the homes of rich people to demand their best food and drink, vandalizing homes of any who refused.
Because of its pagan origins and boisterous customs, the Puritan-led government in England banned Christmas in 1644. The Puritans in New England followed suit, and it was banned from 1659 to 1681. Offenders were liable to a fine of five shillings. However, other parts of the country continued to observe it. In the 19th century, portrayals of Christmas in modern literature and religious and immigrants’ customs gave shape to the popularity of the day for the family. In 1870, it became a federal holiday.
The Celts and Druids in Europe saw evergreens as symbols of eternal life and would decorate their homes with them to revive the dying sun of midwinter. They would also burn a yule log. Mistletoe was sacred and held magical powers. In Scandinavia, if enemies met under mistletoe trees, they would lay down their weapons and give each other a kiss of peace. In medieval Germany, people honored Adam and Eve with a feast on December 24, decorating a paradise tree with apples and wafers. Candles were also used as decorations, symbolizing Christ. German settlers brought the custom to North America, but it was German Prince Albert and Queen Victoria of England who popularized the tradition during the 19th century.
The idea of Santa Claus principally came from the legend of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who helped the poor and sick. In the late 18th century, Dutch immigrants in New York gathered to commemorate his death. Their nickname for him was Sinter Klaas. Over the decades, the character known as Santa Claus began to take shape, with retail, poems, and illustrations contributing to his well-known image and story.
Some Facts About the Nativity
Jesus was not even born in December. The Jewish month of Chislev (November/December) was a time for cold and rainy weather. Shepherds and their flocks would not have been living outside at night, as the shepherds who received news of Jesus’ birth were doing. Plus, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem because of a decree by Caesar Augustus, who was particularly hated by the Jews. He would not have wanted to stir up even more anger against him by ordering people to travel in winter. It is likely that Jesus was born sometime in spring,
“The early Christians did not celebrate the birthday of Jesus; it was unrecorded,” states Professor Ferguson in his book The Religions of the Roman Empire. The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “The date of Christ’s birth is not known. The gospels indicate neither the day nor the month.”
The Bible does not mention that 3 wise men visited Jesus at the manger on the night of his birth. It states that astrologers, or magi, came from eastern parts, without specifying their names or number. It says that they visited the infant, or young child, in his house, some months later.