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Seasonal Focus 802b Background Copyright 2003 Kenneth P Mowery

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The article below about the history and development of the Christmas holiday was taken from Wikipedia the free encyclopedia.  It is presented here with the hope that it will both enrich and inform your life.  The internal links have been preserved making this article a valuable source of information regarding Christmas and how Christmas has been observed around the world over the centuries. Merry Christmas!

Christmas Article Page 2

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The origins of Christmas

The Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, each year beginning on December 17 in a festival called the Saturnalia. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice, which at that time fell on December 25 (today, following calendar reform, it falls on December 21). During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and temporarily freed their slaves. With the lengthening of daylight, these and other winter festivities continued through January 1, the festival of Kalends, when Romans marked the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and year.

By the fourth century another factor was also at work. Many Romans also celebrated the solstice on December 25 with festivities in honor of the rebirth of Sol Invictus, the "Invincible Sun God", or with rituals to glorify Mithra, the ancient Persian god of light (see Mithraism). Sol Invictus was a cult to which both Constantine himself before his confession of Christianity, and his predecessor Diocletian who had rebuilt the Roman Empire, were especially devoted, and to whom the latter had attributed his military successes (though Constantine saw Christ as having delivered him from the former Roman order's designs - Diocletian at one time had had Constantine living under his eye, against his will, separating him from his father). Constantine is therefore assumed to have found it convenient to find a common major festival for both Sol Invictus and Christianity.

Dates of celebration

Christmas is now celebrated on December 25 in Catholic, Protestant, and most Orthodox churches. The Coptic, Jerusalem, Russian, Serbian and Georgian Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on January 7. This date results from their having accepted neither the reforms of the Gregorian calendar nor the Revised Julian calendar, with their ecclesiastic December 25 thus falling on the civil (Gregorian) date of January 7 from 1900 to 2099. The Armenian Church places much more emphasis on the Epiphany, the visitation by the Magi, than on Christmas.

Some scholars suggest that December 25 is a date of convenience chosen for other reasons, related to the time of Emperor Constantine. December 25 in the Roman world was the Natalis Solis Invicti, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, but it may not have been as early as Christmas, if it was a Roman reaction to the Church being persecuted then. It may have served as an attempt to eclipse a precious Devotion of Christians, amidst attempts to kill all Christians off. Many of the earliest Christian Writings were destroyed during those persecutions. But this can be questioned insofar as early Christians regarded the celebration of birthdays to be pagan.

St. Hippolytus, who was already knowledgably defending the Faith in Writing at the turn of the century, entering the third AD, said that Christ was born Wednesday, December 25, in the 42nd year of Augustus' reign (see his Commentary on Daniel - circa 204 AD -, Bk. 4, Ch. 23).

Additional calculations are made on the basis of the 6-year almanac of Priestly Rotations, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some believe that this almanac lists the week when John the Baptist's father would have served as a high priest. As it is implied John the Baptist could only be conceived during that particular week; and as his conception is believed to be tied to that of Jesus, it is claimed that an approximate date of December 25 can be arrived at for the birth of Jesus. However, most scholars (e.g. see Catholic Encyclopedia in sources), believe this calculation to be unreliable as it is based on a string of assumptions.

Dates for the more secular aspects of the Christmas celebration are similarly varied. In the United Kingdom, the Christmas season traditionally runs for twelve days following Christmas Day. These twelve days of Christmas, a period of feasting and merrymaking, end on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany. This period corresponds with the liturgical season of Christmas. Medieval laws in Sweden declared a Christmas peace (julefrid) to be twenty days, during which fines for robbery and manslaughter were doubled. Swedish children still celebrate a party, throwing out the Christmas tree (julgransplundring), on the 20th day of Christmas (January 13, Knut's day).

In practice, the Christmas period has grown longer in some countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, and now begins many weeks before Christmas, allowing more time for shopping and get-togethers. It extends beyond Christmas Day up to New Year's Day. This later holiday has its own parties. In some instances, including Scotland's Hogmanay—which occurs at the New Year—it is celebrated more than Christmas.

Countries that celebrate Christmas on December 25 recognize the previous day as Christmas Eve, and vary on the naming of December 26. In the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland, Christmas Day and the following day are called First and Second Christmas Day. In many European and Commonwealth countries, December 26 is referred to as Boxing Day, while in Ireland and Romania it is known as St. Stephen's Day.

Customs and celebrations

An enormous number of customs, with either secular, religious, or national aspects, surround Christmas, and vary from country to country. Most of the familiar traditional practices and symbols of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas ham, the Yule Log, holly, mistletoe, and the giving of presents, were adapted or appropriated by Christian missionaries from the earlier Ásatrú pagan midwinter holiday of Yule. This celebration of the winter solstice was widespread and popular in northern Europe long before the arrival of Christianity, and the word for Christmas in the Scandinavian languages is still today the pagan jul (=yule). The Christmas tree is believed to have first been used in Germany.

Rather than attempting to suppress every tradition owned by pagans, Pope Gregory I allowed Christian missionaries to allow the innocuous ones as a means to make things already familiar ready aids to re-education through such props for illustrating new understandings of things long before them but ignorantly percieved, giving a rich Christian significance to things that, for lack of such Understanding, stood to bear the reflection of heathen culture.[2] The give and take between religious and governmental authorities and celebrators of Christmas continued through the years. Places where conservative Christian theocracies flourished, as in Cromwellian England and in the early New England colonies, were among those where celebrations were suppressed.[3] After the Russian Revolution, Christmas celebrations were banned in the Soviet Union for the next seventy-five years. A few newer religions, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, some Puritan groups, and some ultraconservative fundamentalist denominations, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible, and do not celebrate it (although they are coming at it from a view detached from the historic Church).

Christmas cards

Christmas cards are extremely popular in the United States and Europe, in part as a way to maintain relationships with distant relatives and friends, and with business acquaintances. Many families enclose an annual family photograph, or a family newsletter telling activities of family members during the preceding year.

Decorations

Decorating a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments, and the decoration of the interior of the home with garlands and evergreen foliage, particularly holly and mistletoe, are common traditions. In North and South America and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights, and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures.

The traditional Christmas flower is the poinsettia. Other popular holiday plants are holly, red amaryllis and Christmas cactus.

Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well, hanging Christmas banners from street lights or placing Christmas trees in the town square. In the United States, decorations once commonly included religious themes. This practice has led to much adjudication, as opponents insist that it amounts to the government endorsing one particular religious faith. In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Lynch v. Donnelly) that a city-owned Christmas display including a Christian nativity scene was depicting the historical origins of Christmas, and was not in violation of the First Amendment ("separation of church and state").

Social aspects and entertainment

In many countries, businesses, schools, and communities have Christmas parties and dances during the several weeks before Christmas Day. Christmas pageants, common in Latin America, may include a retelling of the story of the birth of Christ. Groups may go caroling, visiting neighborhood homes to sing Christmas songs. Others are reminded by the holiday of man's fellowship with man, and do volunteer work, or hold fundraising drives for charities.

On Christmas Day or on Christmas Eve, a special meal of Christmas dishes is usually served, for which there are traditional menus in each country. In some regions, particularly in Eastern Europe, these family feasts are preceded by a period of fasting. Candy and treats are also part of the Christmas celebration in many countries.

Economics of Christmas

Christmas is typically the largest annual stimulus for the economies of celebrating nations. Sales increase in almost all retail areas and shops introduce new products, as people purchase gifts, decorations, and supplies. In the United States, the Christmas shopping season now begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Christmas Day is the only day in the year that most shops and businesses are closed. The economic impact continues after the holiday, with Christmas sales and New Year's sales, when stores sell off excess inventories.

Many Christians, as well as anti-consumerists both religious and secular, decry the "commercialization" of Christmas. They accuse the Christmas season of being dominated by money and greed, at the expense of the holiday's more important values. Frustrations over these issues and others can lead to a rise in Christmastime social problems.

In North America, studios release many high-budget movies in the holiday season, most of them being Christmas films and fantasy movies, both to capture holiday crowds and to position themselves for Oscars. Next to summer, this is the second most lucrative season for the industry. Christmas movies generally open no later than late November, as their themes are not so popular once the season is over. The winter movie season spans from the first week of November until mid-February.

Social impact of Christmas

Because of the focus on celebration, friends, and family, people who are without these, or who have recently suffered losses, are more likely to suffer from depression during Christmas. This increases the demands for counseling services during the period.

Suicide and murder rates may spike during the holiday season, but the peak months for suicide are May and June. Because of holiday celebrations involving alcohol, drunk driving-related fatalities may also increase.

Non-Christians in predominantly Christian nations may be left bereft of entertainment around Christmas. The cliché recreation for them is "movies and Chinese food"; movie theaters remaining open to bring in holiday dollars and Chinese restaurants being less likely to be closed. However, that is generally only in large urban areas; in other communities, practically everything is closed.

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