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THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS



Christmas Around The World

Many nations distribute stamps each year to commemorate Christmas. Austria, 1999

Russia banned Christmas celebration from 1917 until 1992. Several Christian denominations, notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, Puritans, and some fundamentalists, view Christmas as a pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible.

In the southern hemisphere, Christmas is during the summer. This clashes with the traditional winter iconography, resulting in oddities such as a red fur-coated Santa Claus surfing in for a turkey barbecue on Australia's Bondi Beach. Japan has adopted Santa Claus for its secular Christmas celebration, but New Year's Day is a far more important holiday. In India, Christmas is often called bada din ("the big day"), and celebration revolves around Santa Claus and shopping. In South Korea, Christmas is celebrated as an official holiday.

Santa Claus and other bringers of gifts

Gift-giving is a near-universal part of Christmas celebrations. The concept of a mythical figure who brings gifts to children derives from Saint Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in fourth century Lycia, Asia Minor. He made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine in his youth and soon thereafter became Bishop of Myra. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian and released after the accession of Constantine. He may have been present at the Council of Nicaea, though there is no record of his attendance. He died on December 6 in 345 or 352. In 1087, Italian merchants stole his body at Myra and brought it to Bari in Italy. His relics are preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari. An oily substance known as Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from his relics.

The Dutch recognized a Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave gifts on the eve of his feast day of December 6. He became associated with Christmas in 19th century America and was renamed Santa Claus or Saint Nick. In the Anglo-American tradition, this jovial fellow arrives on Christmas Eve on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and lands on the roofs of houses. He then climbs down the chimney, leaves gifts for the children, and eats the food they leave for him. He spends the rest of the year making toys and keeping lists on the behaviour of the children.

Saint NicholasOne belief in the United Kingdom, United States, and other countries passed down through the generations is the idea of lists of good children and bad children. Throughout the year, Santa supposedly adds names of children to either the good or bad list depending on their behaviour. When it gets closer to Christmas time, parents use the belief to encourage children to behave well. Those who are on the bad list receive a booby prize, such as a piece of coal or a switch with which their parents beat them, rather than presents.

The French equivalent of Santa, Pre Nol, evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In other versions, elves make the holiday toys. His wife is referred to as Mrs. Claus. Many shopping malls in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia have a Santa Claus children can visit to ask for presents.

The current tradition in several Latin American countries (such as Venezuela) holds that while Santa makes the toys, he then gives them to the Baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children's homes. This story is meant to be a reconciliation between traditional religious beliefs and modern day globalization, most notably the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.

In many countries, children leave empty containers for Santa to fill with small gifts such as toys, candy, or fruit. In the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada children hang a Christmas stocking by the fireplace on Christmas Eve because Santa is said to come down the chimney the night before Christmas to fill them. In other countries, children put their empty shoes out for Santa to fill on the night before Christmas, or for Saint Nicholas to fill on December 5, the eve of his saint's day. Family members and friends also bestow gifts on each other.

NEXT: Christmas Trees and Decorations



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