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A History of Christmas

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke tell the story of a young virgin named Mary (or "Miriam") who was chosen by God to bear a Son, the promised Messiah. His birth was foretold by the Hebrew Prophets. Isaiah 7:14 is one such prophecy which read, "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel." Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, whose family was from a little town called Bethlehem. During that time, the Roman government required a census, and Joseph was required to return to Bethlehem to be counted with his wife Mary. While on their way, Mary went into labor, and the young couple sought shelter for a night. Because there was no room for them in the inn, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger. The Son of God came into the world as a humble baby.

The birth of Jesus was announced to two separate groups of people. Magi from the East had been told that a prominent star would lead them to a King, so they came to present gifts of gold, frankincese and myrrh. The star led them to the manger where Jesus lay. Immediately recognizing that He was the King, the Magi rejoiced and worshiped Him. Meanwhile, a host of angels appeared to a group of shepherds who were watching over their flock at night. "Glory to God in the highest," they said, "and on earth peace, good will toward men." The shepherds quickly traveled to the manger, and they too worshiped the Christ Child. Jesus was worthy of worship from all, from the humble shepherds to the honored wise men.

Although the actual date of Christ's birth is not known, early Christians began celebrating the miraculous birth of the Messiah during the winter months. There is evidence suggesting that Christians celebrated the birth of Christ in December. In 375 A.D., the Western Church declared December 25 as the official date of Christmas, while the Eastern Church celebrates the holiday on January 6.

Today, Christmas is unfortunately equally connected with Santa Claus as with Christ. St. Nicholas was a bishop in Asia Minor who lived during the 4th century. Many miracles were attributed to his ministry, and he soon became the patron saint of sailors and children, as well as the countries Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Sicily, and Switzerland. As the centuries progressed, legends grew up around St. Nicholas. He was very concerned about the poor and gave away much of his wealth to help others. One story tells of St. Nicholas throwing a gift of gold down the chimney of a house in which a poor family lived. The gold fell into stockings which were hung to dry on the fireplace. In the 19th century, a figure named Christkindlein, or the "Christ child" became popular in Europe. He was believed to deliver gifts in secret to children and travelled with a dwarf-like helper named Pelznickel. "Christkindlein" eventually became Kriss Kringle. And his character soon became entwined with St. Nicholas to form the character of Santa Claus.

Advent is the month preceding Christmas. Christians used to hang advent wreaths adorned with four candles on them, each symbolizing one week. As each week passed, one candle was lighted. The candles were meant to remind families that Jesus came as the Light of the World. Other Christmas symbols include holly and ivy, because the spiked leaves and red berries are reminders of the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus head during his crucifixion. The red and white striped candy cane came to be associated with the holiday when a candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy as a witness to the truth of the Gospel. He began with a stick of pure white, hard candy. The white color symbolized the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus. The hardness of the candy represented the Solid Rock, the foundation of the Church, and the firmness of the promises of God. The candymaker formed the candy into a "J" to represent the name of Jesus, as well as the staff of the Jesus, who is the "Good Shepherd." The candymaker then stained the white candy with red stripes to represent the stripes of the scourging Jesus received at His crucifixion, and the stripes by which we are healed.

The symbol of the Christmas tree began in the 7th century. According to tradition, a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the Word of God to the people. He used the triangular shape of the local-grown fir tree to describe the Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Converted Christians continued the use of the tree as a symbol of the Christian faith. By the 12th century, fir trees were hung from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe as a symbol of Christianity. In the 16th century, it is believed that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther decorated a small tree with candles to tell the story of Christ's birth and how the stars twinkled through the dark night. Soon, trees were being decorated in houses all across Germany. Real silver was produced into strands of tinsel and hung on the tree along with candles and other small ornaments. Before long, the symbol of the Christmas tree spread across Europe. During the Victorian era, Queen Victoria made Christmas trees even more fashionable. Young Victorian ladies quilled snowflakes and stars, made paper baskets, and fashioned bead decorations for their trees. Germany also imported lovely angels to top the tree. Soon, ornaments were being manufactured and sold to the masses. Garlands, glass tree ornaments, glitter and small toys adorned trees that became more elaborate through the years.