Christmas in Pop Culture History

Christmas History, Trivia, and Fun Facts

Christmas History Highlights

  • St. Nicholas lived in Turkey, where he served as a bishop in the town of Myra, during the fourth century. Sinter Klaas (St. Nicholas) brought gifts at Christmastime, according to legend, either through an open window or down a chimney. He was generous, often supplying dowries for young brides-to-be.
  • The word Christmas originated as a compound word, meaning “Christ’s Mass”. It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. “Cristes” is from Greek Christos and “mæsse” is from Latin missa (the holy mass).
  • While it marks the celebration of the birth of Jesus, experts are slightly fuzzy about His actual birth date. Record-keeping for regular people was virtually non-existent 20 centuries ago and, over the course of this time, two calendars were used – the older Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar we use today. Basically, the Julian calendar was off by 11 minutes a year, which doesn’t sound like much, but after ten, one hundred or a thousand years it can really add up.
  • In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII kicked his new and better version off, and even that took a few centuries to spread around the world. 170 years after most of the rest of the world changed, in England and its American colonies, the dates jumped from Wednesday 2 September 1752 to Thursday 14 September 1752 within 24 hours.

Christmas In America

The earliest Christian people came to America through New England (the very religious Pilgrims and Puritans) and Virginia (a more working-class, less religious lot). Many, if not most, were English at first, but Spanish, Dutch, French, Swedish, and Portuguese came to the new world as well. For every group it was difficult, and a significant number of each died shortly after arriving in the new world. There was a wide diversity in religious beliefs as well – Protestants and Catholics who each believed the other were heretics.

Many came for religious freedom, either out of desperation and rebellion (the Puritans in New England), or generosity (The Quakers in Pennsylvania). It was a little easier surviving in the south, and there was more freedom in living and in playing.

Christmas is celebrated at about the same time as the Winter Solstice, a period of time when the days are shortest and the nights are longest. The shortest days occurring meant that longer days were just beginning, and this period had been celebrated in one form or another since man’s earliest days, which is why some Christians are leery of the ‘pagan’ roots of the holiday.

Gift-giving started in the late 1700s when less-Puritan beliefs filtered into the American culture. Credit for the gifts started out as spreading some goodwill and cheers and evolved into gifts ‘from’ instead of ‘in’ the Christmas Spirit. By the early 1800s the German/Dutch Sinterklaas (Saint Nicolas), wearing his red suit, was the person leaving the gifts.

Christmas became an official Federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to unite north and south after the Civil War in 1870. Prior to that, it was an event celebrated in churches and very localized.

The Nativity of Jesus

In the village of Nazareth lived Joseph and Mary. One night Mary told Joseph she had a dream that an angel came to her and told her she had been chosen to bear the son of God. When the people of Israel were instructed to return to their towns of birth Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem; Joseph on foot, Mary on a donkey. It is said they traveled many days and only rested one night, all while Mary was with child.

The couple arrived in Bethlehem at night, but there was nowhere with a vacancy for them to stay. One innkeeper directed Joseph and Mary towards a stable room in a cave where they could rest the night. The following night, Mary gave birth to baby Jesus in the stable room.

When the child was born, a bright star shone over Bethlehem, scaring the shepherds. When they tried to run, an angel appeared and told them to not fear and that a savior had been born.

Three kings in the east – Caspar, King of Tarsus; Melchoir, leader of Arabia; and Balthazar, King from Ethiopia – knew the star as a sign and traveled many days and many miles to reach the small stable room in Bethlehem. When the three kings reached Bethlehem, they bowed to the child and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense (used in perfumery and aromatherapy), and myrrh (highly valued in ancient times).

To make a very long story as short as possible, Jesus was probably born between 6 and 4 BC. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew are the most reliable sources of information, but they were not specific on dates.

The Guy In The Red Suit

Greek native, Nicholas, born a few hundred years after Jesus Christ, had prior to that led a very righteous life, helping many people, particularly by providing children with gold coins. Raised as a devout Christian, Nicholas took all of his wealth and, following the words of God, gave it to the poor and needy. It is known that he had a special love for helping the needy, children, and sailors.

Nicholas was sent to prison in the 4th century by the Roman Emperor Diocletian who persecuted the Christians while in reign. Nicholas was tortured in prison but then released when Constantine became the new emperor. After moving to the Netherlands, he adopted the native language and was renamed Sinterklauss (Saint Nickolaas).

He continued helping children and was revered by many faiths including Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox Christians, and Anglicans, but some in the Protestant faith did not like the whole celebratory aspect regarding saints and outward celebrations like Christmas. Through this time, Nicholas apparently worked out of the mainstream until he later moved to the North Pole.

Santa Claus, according to historians, has been living in the North Pole since at least the 1820s.

Author Washington Irving gave the first detailed information about St. Nick in 1809. Then, in 1823, Saint Nick was fully Americanized in the poem by Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” now known as “The Night Before Christmas”. The first image of our modern Santa Claus was illustrated by Thomas Nast who drew full-bellied Santa for Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine in the 1800s.

The Christmas Tree

The most famous Christmas Tree in America has been the Rockefeller Christmas Tree in New York City. The first tree was placed by workers while it was still under construction, but the first official tree was presented in 1933, after 30 Rock, as the center is called, opened.

The official National Christmas Tree has been set on the White House Grounds since 1923, and an inside tree has been in the White House every year since the mid-1800s.

The New York Rockefeller Tree is probably America’s Most Famous. Each year, over a million locals and visitors, plus millions more on television since 1951, come to see the official lighting, now with over 40,000 lights and miles of wire.

How did we get to the point where a million people will come to New York to see the official lighting of America’s most viewed Christmas Tree? It started about 570 years ago…

In the 1440’s the ‘Brotherhood of Blackheads’ erected what is probably the first official Christmas Tree. They were basically a single men’s club in Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) who “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame,” according to Balthasar Russow, a well-known chronicler of the era later wrote. Simply put, it was a party.

Within one hundred years, the Christmas Tree tradition had spread to what we now call Germany where they decorated the trees with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels, paper flowers, and other festive items. The trees were considered a social event, being placed in public squares and other areas where the entire community could join in festivities. Some of the very wealthy (Protestants) included trees in their homes, in part as a snub to the Catholic tradition of keeping cribs (a basic Nativity scene) in their homes.

By the early 1800s, more homes began including their trees, starting in Germany, and in America, probably with German immigrants who came to Lancaster, Pennsylvania (who claim the first Christmas Tree in 1821) or the German settlers in Easton, PA reportedly setting up the first tree in 1816. Then again, it could have been the unnamed Hessian (German) captured soldier in 1776.

Christmas became an official Federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant, in an attempt to unite north and south after the Civil War, in 1870. Prior to that, it was an event celebrated in churches and very localized.

By this time, Christmas Trees were in many American Households and were very carefully lit up by small candles in the trees. Melted wax was used to keep the candles on the branches. In the early 1900s, special candleholders were used; and by 1914 small lanterns had replaced the candles, although still with a significant fire-risk.

Edward H. Johnson, an associate of inventor Thomas Edison, had Christmas tree light bulbs especially made for himself. He proudly displayed his Christmas tree, which was hand-wired with 80 red, white, and blue electric incandescent light bulbs, about the size of walnuts, on December 22, 1882, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City, making him the father of electric Christmas Tree lights.

In 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House, which featured about 100 multi-colored lights. It took several decades (until about 1950) before most American homes had electricity and the lights were made inexpensive enough, enabling the widespread use of electrical lights like we have today.

Christmas Trivia

Santa, Elvis Presley, Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, and Daniel Boone are the only PEZ’s that have been made in the likeness of real people that were sold to the public!

Mistletoe and Holly: 200 years before the birth of Christ, Druids used mistletoe to decorate their homes while celebrating the coming of winter. They believed the plant had special healing power. Scandinavians viewed the mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony and associated it with their goddess of love, Frigga. It is believed that is why it is now a custom to kiss under the mistletoe. The church banned the use of mistletoe at Christmas because of its pagan origin and in its place used the holly plant.

Stockings: Back when Saint Nicholas was out doing good, there was a kind family whose mother got sick and died. The father lost all the family’s money and his three daughters had to move into a peasant’s cottage. After washing their clothes one night, the girls hung their stockings over the fireplace to dry. That night after everyone went to sleep Saint Nick climbed on their roof and dropped down the chimney small bags of gold that landed in the stockings. The next morning the girls discovered the gold in their stockings and were able to live happy lives afterward. This story also tells us where the story of Santa coming through the chimney originated from.

Reindeer: the names of the original eight reindeer were taken from Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Night Before Christmas”

Christmas cookies: In Medieval Germany, families would decorate their trees with cookies or wafers. Often they would find some of the treats missing, and fabricated the story that Santa took them (although it was probably mice).

Santa Names Around The World

Père Noël in France
St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas) in Holland
Jultomten – Sweden
Father Christmas in England
Christkind in Germany
Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) – Russia
Santa Kurohsu – Japan
Joulupukki (Old Man Christmas) – Finland
Sion Corn – Wales
Papai Noel Peru, Brazil
Gwiazdor (Star man) – Poland

Christmas is the only time of year where it is socially acceptable and encouraged to sit in front of a dead tree and eat candy out of old socks.

A lady lost her handbag in the bustle of Christmas shopping. It was found by an honest little boy and returned to her. Looking in her purse, she commented, “Hmmm… That’s funny. When I lost my bag there was a $20 bill in it. Now there are twenty $1 bills.” The boy quickly replied, “That’s right, lady. The last time I found a lady’s purse, she didn’t have any change for a reward.”

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