The Story of Christmas
By Maxwell Pereira
mfjpkamath@gmail.com

Though India does not witness the kind of fervour with which Christmas is celebrated around the world - not necessarily only in the Christian world - be it in the Americas or the Europas, Christian Africa, countries that formed former Russia, or down under in Australia, it nevertheless continues to be among the major festivals celebrated by one and all here irrespective of caste or creed or religious belief.

The word Christmas comes from the words Cristes maesse, or "Christ's Mass." Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus for members of the Christian religion. Most historians peg the first celebration of Christmas to Rome in 336 A.D. To many today, Christmas is only associated with Santa Claus, the Christmas tree and gifts, decorations and goodies! It is also necessary to remember what the day is about, and is observed in commemoration of.

When Emperor Caesar Augustus ruled in Rome, and Israel was governed by King Herod, in the village of Nazareth lived Joseph and Mary. Joseph was a carpenter and Mary was a young virgin who would become his wife. Mary told Joseph of a dream in which she was visited by an angel who told her she had been chosen to bear the Son of God and his name was to be Jesus.

Soon the emperor wanted to impose a new tax, and asked all to register themselves in the towns of their birth. Joseph and Mary left Nazareth for Bethlehem. Mary, who was with child, and close to the birth, rode on a donkey while Joseph walked beside her.

After travelling many days when they reached Bethlehem it was night. They looked for a place to rest but there were no empty rooms when they reached the inn. As they were being turned away Joseph mentioned his wife was with child and close to birth. The inn keeper took pity on them and told them of some caves in the nearby hills where shepherds would stay with their cows and sheep.

So Joseph and Mary went up into the hills and found the caves. Joseph cleaned one that was being used as a stable and made beds of fresh hay. Mary gave birth to a son, and Joseph placed him in a feeding trough in the manger which he used as a crib. They named the child Jesus, as the angel had said.

When the child was born a great star appeared over Bethlehem that could be seen for miles around. In the fields nearby shepherds were tending their flocks. An angel appeared to them surrounded by bright light. The shepherds were frightened and tried to run, but he told them not to fear. "I bring you tidings of great joy," he said, "For unto you is born this day in Bethlehem - a Saviour who is Christ the Lord." Suddenly the sky was filled with angels, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men." The shepherds set out for Bethlehem, and saw the child wrapped in swaddling clothes inside the stable in the caves.

As the star shined over Bethlehem, in the east three kings would see it. They knew it was a sign and they set off to follow the star. There was Caspar - the young King of Tarsus, Melchior - a long bearded old man and leader of Arabia, and Balthazar - the king from Ethiopia. They travelled on camels for many days over the mountains, and through the deserts, and plains. Always following the bright star. When they finally arrived in Bethlehem they found the child in the manger. The 3 kings bowed to their knees and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They would stay the night in the cave and the next day returned to their lands to spread the news.

This nativity scene - the star, the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, the angels, the heavenly host and the wise men - coming from the books Matthew and Luke in the Bible, are replicated in the form of the 'crib' in every Christian home at Christmas time.

Christmas is now both a holiday and a holy day - an important day everywhere on the religious calendar. There are two reasons why Christmas is considered a big deal: Christians constitute 2.1 billion of a total of nearly 6.5bn world population, making it the largest religion worldwide. Then like it is before Diwali in India, worldwide the weeks leading up to Christmas are the biggest shopping weeks of the year.

No one knows whether Jesus was really born on December 25. Christian leaders in 336 A.D. set that date in an attempt to eclipse a popular pagan holiday in Rome - Saturnalia, that celebrated the winter solstice. Originally, the celebration of Christmas involved a simple mass, but over time Christmas has replaced a number of other holidays in many other countries, and a large number of traditions have been absorbed into the celebration in the process.

The tradition of gifts seems to have started with the gifts that the wise men (the Magi) brought to Jesus. However, no one was really in the habit of exchanging elaborate gifts until late in the 1800s. The story of Santa Claus combined with an amazing retailing phenomenon that has grown since the turn of the century, has made gift giving a central focus of the Christmas tradition. Greeting with Christmas cards started in London in 1843, in America in 1846. And now cashed in on for its commercial potential extensively, by every card manufacturing company in the world.

Having an evergreen tree in the living room is a German tradition, started as early as in 700 A.D. In the 1800s the tradition of a Christmas tree was widespread in Germany, then moved to England and then to America through Pennsylvanian German immigrants. In Victorian times, people had already started decorating trees with candies and cakes hung with ribbon. Martin Luther, in the 16th century, is credited as being the first person to put candles on a tree. In 1880, Woolworths first sold manufactured Christmas tree ornaments, and they caught on very quickly. The first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared in 1882. Then in 1923, Calvin Coolidge ceremoniously lit the first outdoor tree at the Presidential White House, starting that long tradition - fake snow and tinsel...

In the west and snowbound countries, holly is invariably draped over the mantel and staircase. This was to replace mistletoe, which apparently was used as a decoration in houses for thousands of years. But mistletoe was also associated with many pagan rituals. And for Scandinavians, the goddess of love (Frigga) is strongly associated with mistletoe. So the church forbade the use of mistletoe in any form, mindful of its idolatrous associations, and suggested holly as a substitute. The sharply pointed leaves were to symbolize the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries, His drops of blood.

"Yuletide" for "Christmastime" is a term derived from the Yule log, which in olden days was a huge log used as the foundation of the holiday fires. Bringing the Yule log in was, as recently as the 19th century, as much a part of the pre-Christmas festivities as putting up an evergreen tree today. Up until the 19th century, the custom of burning the Yule log flourished in England, France, Germany and among the South Slavs. Out of oak, families carved a heavy, wooden block. They placed it into the floor of their hearth. It glowed throughout the year under the flames of household fires, until gradually it became ash.

The tradition of hanging large oversized stockings originated when the original Saint Nicholas left his very first gifts of gold coins in the stockings of three poor girls who needed the money for their wedding dowries. The girls had hung their stockings by the fire to dry.

Which brings us to the legend of Santa Claus: This lovable old gift-giver with a hearty laugh had his origins in a real person, Nicholas, a saint of the 4th century. He was born in the ancient Lycian seaport of Patara, travelled extensively - to Palestine and Egypt; and became Bishop of Myra after returning to Lycia. Was imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and attended the first Council (325) of Nicaea. After his death, when Italian sailors stole his remains from Myra where they lay buried in a church… and took them to Bari in Italy, this removal greatly increased the saint's popularity to soon make Bari a pilgrimage centre. Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy; and his fame spread far and wide. But the Nicholas' cult disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas (a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country's English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents.

Poinsettias were attached to Christmas, starting in 1828. In warm climates, the poinsettia grows outdoors as a winter-flowering leggy shrub, and can be grown indoors too as a potted plant. What appear to be petals are actually coloured leaf-like bracts that surround a central cluster of tiny yellow flowers.

Fruitcake is another Christmas embellishment among other goodies. Many people feel that these cakes improve greatly with age. When they are well saturated with alcoholic liquors, which raise the spirits and keep down mold, and are buried in powdered sugar in tightly closed tins, they have been enjoyed as long as 25 years after baking.

Like all Jewish festivals start at sundown (not the calendar midnight) of the previous day - when candles and lanterns get lit, and continue till sundown the next day - Christmas celebrations too commenced on Christmas Eve. Christmas season lasts till Epiphany - the feast of the Three Kings - and hence the 12 Days of Christmas! There was in the past, also the tradition of giving gifts throughout the 12 days, rather than stacking them all up on the morning of December 25.

Finally, the tradition of Carols: In the Middle Ages in England and France, carols were dances accompanied by singing. In the French Midi, the "carol" was a kind of round dance. In time, the word "carol" changed its meaning, referring only to certain kinds of songs. The Anglo-Saxon tradition favoured gathering together small choirs on the village green to sing carols and Christmas songs for the pleasure of passers-by. Though in recent times a variety of new carols have been added, the old traditional ones remained a handful and hence it is estimated that each traditional carol is known to be repeated/ heard at least 700 or more times in a season! The legend of Santa has added to the list of Christmas songs, the likes of Jingle Bells and Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer too….

1800 words: 23.12.2005:Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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