The Origin of our Christmas Traditions

Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the world. What started with the Christian Church in the West has now become tradition in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Japan, Russia, China, and Ethiopia. In many corners of the world the celebration of Christmas has little at all to do with the birth of Jesus, and more to do with gift giving, and hope for peace on earth. Some traditions which started out having nothing at all to do with Christianity have made their way into our Christian traditions, and other traditions of Christian origins have now become part of a purely secular celebration of Christmas.

So as a study in the history and traditions of Christmas, I have created this list to add to your understanding of Christmas.

Index A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Links

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The Council of Tours in 567 established the period of Advent as a time of fasting before Christmas. They also proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany a sacred, festive season. According to present usage [1910], Advent is a period beginning with the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and embracing four Sundays. The first Sunday may be as early as November 27th, and then Advent has twenty-eight days, or as late as December 3rd, giving the season only twenty-one

The word Advent is from the Latin adventus for "coming" and is associated with the four weeks of preparation for Christmas. Advent blends together a penitential spirit, very similar to Lent, a liturgical theme of preparation for the Second and Final Coming of the Lord, called the Parousia, and a joyful theme of getting ready for the Bethlehem event. Since the 900s Advent has been considered the beginning of the Church year. This does not mean that Advent is the most important time of the year. Easter has always had this honor. The traditional color of Advent is purple or violet which symbolizes the penitential spirit. Religious traditions associated with Advent express all these themes. Catholic Network

Advent Calendars
A personal calendar can be made for the four weeks before Christmas. On the calendar, a person can mark the Advent Calendar with personal goals of preparation or acts of service to be done for others. Catholic Network
Advent House Advent House
This is a popular rendition of the Jesse Tree and is usually purchased in a religious goods store. It has windows to be opened each day during Advent, each displaying a feature of the coming of the Christ Child. On December 24 the door is opened, revealing the Nativity scene. Catholic Network
Advent Wreath
"Customarily the Advent Wreath is constructed of a circle of evergreen branches into which are inserted four candles. According to tradition, three of the candles are violet and the fourth is rose. However, four violet or white candles may also be used" (Book of Blessings 1510).

The rose candle is lit the third Sunday of Advent, for this color anticipates and symbolizes the Christmas Advent Wreath joy announced in the first word of the Entrance Antiphon: "Rejoice" (Latin, Gaudete). For this reason the Third Sunday is also called Gaudete Sunday (Catholic), and rose color vestments are permitted.

The Advent Wreath represents the long time when people lived in spiritual darkness, waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the Light of the world. Each year in Advent people wait once again in darkness for the coming of the Lord, His historical coming in the mystery of Bethlehem, His final coming at the end of time, and His special coming in every moment of grace. During Advent, family and friends can gather around the Advent Wreath lighting the appropriate candle(s), read from the daily Advent meditation and sing songs. Catholic Network

See Also Wreath

Angel Hair
One family in the village was too poor to have a decorated Christmas tree in their house. The mother had hung a few meager nuts and fruits on the small tree outside their door in hopes of bringing some cheer to her childrens' Christmas Day celebration.

On Christmas Eve, the spiders heard her prayers and hung their webs all over the tree. As the sun came up, its rays glittered and sparkled on the dew that was sprinkled on the webs and turned them to silver and gold.

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The BIBLE story
Text of the Biblical Account of Jesus Birth. On Line Resources: Bible Gateway (Luke 2, KJV)
Boxing Day
In English-speaking countries, the day following Christmas Day is called 'Boxing Day'. This word comes from the custom which started in the Middle Ages around 800 years ago: churches would open their 'alms boxe' (boxes in which people had placed gifts of money) and distribute the contents to poor people in the neighbourhood on the day after Christmas. The tradition continues today - small gifts are often given to delivery workers such as postal staff and children who deliver newspapers.

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There are many different reasons why candles are associated with Christmas, although no one knows when they first became connected!

It might have been because the Jewish Festival of light, called Hanukkah, is celebrated during winter and the early Christians might of taken the custom of burning candles from the Jews and put it to Christmas.

One of the earliest records of candles being used at Christmas is from the middle ages where a large candle was used to represent the star of Bethlehem and also that Jesus is sometimes called ‘the Light of the World’ by Christians. This might have started the custom of the Advent Crown.

Candy Cane
The white color of the Christmas candy symbolizes the Virgin Birth and the sinless nature of Jesus. The hardness of the candy symbolizes the solid rock,

Candy Canethe foundation of churches and the firmness of the promises made by God. The candies are made in a "J" shape to represent the name of Jesus and the shape of the staff of the "Good Shepherd". And the three red stripes on the candy represents the Trinity and the blood shed by Christ to let us have the promise of the eternal life.

Caroling in the neighborhood
In the Middle Ages in England and France, carols were dances accompanied by singing. In the French Midi, for example, 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. A number of currently very popular American Christmas carols come directly from France and England. How Stuff Works Christmas Card
Cards (Christmas Cards)
Christmas cards started in London in 1843 and in America in 1846. Today, about two billion Christmas cards are exchanged every year in the United States. How Stuff Works

The practice of sending Christmas greeting cards to friends was initiated by Sir Henry Cole in England. The year was 1843 and the first card was designed by J.C.Horsley. It was commercial - 1000 copies were sold in London. An English artist, William Egley, produced a popular card in 1849. From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the Christmas customs worldwide.

The first post that ordinary people could use was started in 1840 when the first ‘Penny Post’ public postal deliveries began. Before that, only very rich people could afford to sent anything in the post. The new Post Office was able to offer a Penny stamp because new railways were being built. These could carry much more post than the horse and carriage that had been used before. Also, railway trains could go a lot faster. Cards became even more popular in the UK when they could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one halfpenny - half the price of an ordinary letter.

As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers from about 1860. An engraved card by the artist William Egley, who illustrated some of Charles Dickens’s books, is on display in the British Museum. By the early 1900s, the custom had spread over Europe and had become especially popular in Germany.

There are about 25 tradition Christmas Carols, with hundreds of variations. Add to that more modern Christmas Songs, and you get Christmas music 24-7. The more traditional Carols will be played approximately 700 times each on a 24/7 radio station between Thanksgiving and Christmas. How Stuff Works

The Catholic Church valued music greatly and it is no wonder that the early Christmas songs date from 4th century (the earliest known is Jesus refulsit omnium by St.Hilary of Poitiers). The Mediaeval Christmas music followed the Gregorian tradition. In Renaissance Italy there emerged a lighter and more joyous kind of Christmas songs, more like the true carols (from the French word caroler, meaning to dance in a ring). These songs continued to be religious and in Latin, though. In Protestant countries the tradition, as everything Christmas-related, intensified.

Luther wrote and composed his song "From Heaven above I come to You". Music by Handel and Mendelssohn was adapted and used as Christmas carols. The old Finnish/Swedish collection Piae Cantiones was translated and published in English in mid - 19th century. The most famous of all, Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) was written by the Austrian parish priest Joseph Mohr and composed by Franz Gruber, church organist, in 1818. In 19th century and later many popular songs were written by composers (e.g. Adam, Sibelius). The themes of songs surpassed religion and the totality of Christmas paraphernalia found its way to carol music.

Here's a list of traditional Christmas Carols (and some more popular modern ones)
Since about 400 AD, Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus. 'Christ' means 'Messiah' or 'Anointed One' - the title given to Jesus - and 'Mass' was a religious festival.

Mary, Joseph, and Baby JesusIn the West today, the real meaning of Christmas is often forgotten. It has become a non-religious holiday! More children believe in Father Christmas than in Jesus. Christmas Day is a time for eating and drinking too much and watching television.

But the real Christmas story is found in the Christian Bible. It is told in two different books: Matthew and Luke chapters 1 and 2.

These chapters tell how Jesus was born as a baby to Mary. This was no ordinary birth! She was not married, she was a virgin, (yes, really!) and an angel had told her she would bear a special baby. Her husband-to-be, Joseph, did not believe her at first. Who would? Then an angel told him in a dream that it was true! Probably no one else believed it. So when they had to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem (near Jerusalem), to register their names with the ruling Roman government, they probably escaped many hard words from other people.

Arrival in Bethlehem brought worry and upset: there was no room for them to stay at the hotel. There was only space in the stable - the animal house for travellers' donkeys and horses.

Jesus was born that night, and as they had no bed for him, they used an animal feeding box filled with the dry grass the animals ate.

Christmas cards and pictures today make it all seem very nice. In truth, it must have been dirty and frightening for a young couple, far from their home and families. Possibly the birth was premature after the stress of the journey. This was a very poor place for Jesus to start his life on earth.
Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass
Christmas Eve is a big deal for religious reasons, such as the midnight mass, and also for retail reasons. 1867 was the first year that Macy's department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas Eve. In Jewish Traditions, holidays start at sundown the evening before (not at calendar midnight). The holiday starts with ceremony the evening before: rituals, candle-lighting, whatever... at sundown and they last until the following sundown, and then they're over. The celebration on Christmas Eve may follow this earlier tradition.How Stuff Works

Midnight mass and day services are held in the Churches during the eve and the day of Christmas. The message and sermons of love and redemption are given out. Large numbers of people gather to pray and thank god for his sacrifices that are believed to have saved mankind.

Christmas Day begins in a very special way with the Midnight Mass. Having this first of the Christmas Masses in the middle of the night is an old custom in the Church and is full of significance. In the first place it corresponds with the traditional belief that Christ was born at midnight. Secondly, from the material darkness around us, we are reminded of the spiritual darkness in the world which only Christ the Light can dispel.

The Midnight Mass is surrounded by family traditions which vary according to national heritage or personal preference. There is, for instance, one delightful way of waking the younger children for Mass. Some member of the family dressed as an angel and carrying a lighted candle, goes to each bed and sings a carol. After Mass many people share a special breakfast with their family.

The French are especially fond of this night meal or reveillon, and serve their own traditional dishes. Other families place the Christ-Child in the crib on their return, and often the head of the family reads the Gospel aloud at the crib or at the breakfast table. This time after Mass also lends itself to the singing of carols and the quiet re-explanation of the Christmas story which children never tire of hearing. The second Mass of Christmas Day is the Mass at dawn, traditionally called the Shepherds' Mass. Just as the shepherds went eagerly to the crib to adore the Lord and to receive His great gift of light, so we also go to the altar where the same Lord comes just as truly to us. The theme of light is prominent in this Mass. Outside, the natural light is increasing.

In Bethlehem the Light is manifested to a few more men. Over and over in the Mass texts light is mentioned: The Introit begins, "A Light shall shine upon us this day; for the Lord is born to us." These words can be read again at home, perhaps at the lighting of the Christ-Candle. (See The Christ-Candle for explanation of the candle.) Because the feast of Christmas is so great, the Church does not stop rejoicing after one or even two special Masses. She continues her worship with a third, the Mass of the Day. In this Mass, our attention is directed towards the divinity of the Child born in Bethlehem.

We rejoice in His governing power and wisdom in the Introit. The Epistle refers us back to the Midnight Mass with the passage: "Thou art My Son, today have I begotten Thee." The progressive manifestation of Christ continues. From swaddling clothes and a lowly stable we move to might and majesty, throne and sceptre. From the adoration of Mary and Joseph and a few shepherds, we go to the adoration of all the earth. The great feast of Christ's manifestation, the Epiphany, is foreshadowed in the Gradual and Communion when we say, "All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God."

It is natural that Christian families, in the spirit of the Masses, feel a desire to continue expressing their joy throughout the whole of Christmas Day. This expression takes varied forms.

Christmas Gardens
Baltimore, 1930s. If you're not from the Northeast, you probably have no idea what Christmas gardens are. Think again, hon. The Baltimore holiday garden is set up indoors, not out, and doesn't even involve plants, except for the Christmas tree around which it's clustered. Typically it takes the form of a tiny idealized village, set amid a plaster-of-Paris landscape and peopled with miniature citizens. Model trains are usually involved. Almost invariably you will find a Nativity scene, although some traditionalists believe train gardens have become too secular and remove the creche, relocating it to a place of honor elsewhere in the room. "The custom is known only to Baltimore and many of the smaller towns of Pennsylvania," according to a 1936 article in The Sun, "particularly those settled originally by people of German origin." The Sun reports "Baltimore's gardens have departed far from the prototype. (They) have become so fascinated by mechanical gadgets that the religious theme has almost disappeared." Local VFW halls and fire departments have very elaborate gardens, referred to as a "Train Garden". some as large as hundreds of square feet and taking months to get ready. .
Christmas Trees
700-1000 A.D., Germany. Though Martin Luther, the German monk and church reformer, first started the modern concept of indoor tree decorations, the tree has been associated with celebrations since yore. In the Middle Ages, the Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope for the forthcoming spring. The modern Christmas tree evolved from these evergreen trees that were regarded as a symbol of life. The tradition then spread to other parts of Europe and the entire world.

According to a legend, the Christmas tree is associated with the birth of Jesus Christ. It is believed that on the night of the birth of Christ, all kinds of living creatures came to Bethlehem with gifts. The olive tree came along with its fruit and the palm with its date but the fir had nothing to gift the newborn king. So an angel, taking pity on the fir, commanded a cluster of stars to shine on its beautiful boughs. Baby Jesus smiled on seeing the lighted tree, and blessed it. Consequently, the fir tree is always lighted with many decorations on it, to please little children during Christmas. How Stuff Works

Another belief is that the triangular shape of the tree symbolizes the Trinity and points upwards towards the God. While the light, gift and decorations on the Christmas tree mean heaven; love and charity respectively.

Another Opinion - Christian Origins:

In spite of the many attempts on the part of some historians to trace the origin of the Christmas tree to mythology, the custom and the symbolism are completely Christian. The Christmas tree resulted from a combination of the medieval Paradise tree and the Christmas candle.

One of the most popular of the medieval German mystery plays was the Paradise play, representing the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. This play became a favorite for Advent because it usually ended with the consoling promise of a Savior. As a matter of fact, the closing scenes led directly to the story of Bethlehem. In this play, the Garden of Eden was represented by a large tree symbolizing the "Tree of Discernment of Good and Evil."

The Paradise tree was usually surrounded by lighted candles and the play enacted within the circle of lights. The Paradise tree gradually found its way into the homes of the people. The custom arose of setting it up once a year in honor of Adam and Eve on their feast, December 24. This particular feast, never celebrated in the Latin Church, was borrowed from the Eastern Rite. At this time the tree was bedecked with the symbolic apple, but further than that it bore no other resemblance to our present Christmas tree. But, at the same time, Christ was not forgotten. The Christmas candle in honor of Christ, the light of the world, was placed on top of a wooden pyramid, adorned with tinsel and colored glass balls.

It was during the fifteenth century that more ornamentation began to appear on the tree. Since the Paradise tree already bore the fruit of Adam and Eve's sin, it was now thought proper to add a symbol of the "saving fruit" of the Blessed Sacrament. Accordingly, small white wafers were placed on its branches. Later, when imaginations began working overtime, shapes of men, birds, roosters, lions and other animals were also hung on the tree. But it was insisted that these latter had to be cut from brown dough; the wafers were made from white dough.

People living in the sixteenth century finally began to notice the similarity between the tree and the Christmas pyramid. The tree was, so to say, a living pyramid and they might well combine the two ... the tree and the lights. From then on, it became the Christmas tree. As time went on, the cookie forms disappeared and ornaments, made in symbolic shapes, took their place. By now, these have been replaced by meaningless decorated balls. However, even these need not lose their symbolism. The colored balls become more meaningful and more beautiful if religious pictures, symbolizing Christmas, are pasted or painted upon them. Your religious Christmas cards can supply you with ample pictures for this. The children will delight in attaching the pictures to the ornaments, or even making symbolic paper ornaments to hang on the tree.

On Christmas, after the tree has been decorated. Daddy may wish to read the special blessing for the tree. This can be found in the Christmas booklets that are obtainable at religious book stores. You will find that explaining the true history of the tree, giving it proper decorations and reading the blessing will give it far, more Christmas meaning for every member of the family.

crèche (Christmas Crèche)
The tradition of having a nativity scene or "crèche" was made popular by St. Francis of Assisi. It is a reproduction of the cave in Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus in a manger, shepherds, angels, and animals. Each night during Advent, children are encouraged to place in the manger one piece of straw for each good deed done that day by a family member. This Advent tradition combines the spirit of conversion and the coming of Jesus. Catholic Network

Christmas Crèche Even before decorated Christmas trees became the custom, the crèche already had pride of place in people's homes. The crèches depicted the Infant Jesus or scenes from the lives of Christ and the saints. These figures were made of wax, bread dough or spun glass and were set in an imaginary landscape of flowers, waterfalls and animals evocative of paradise. The appeal of crèches can be seen in France as early as the XVIIth century. In aristocratic and middle class homes, the forerunners of the domestic crèche began to appear in the form of decorated glass-fronted boxes called grottoes or rockeries. The Neapolitan crèches were particularly successful. When Provencal santons appeared in the XVIIIth century, the family crèche became even more widespread and some of them contained up to 40 different characters. In Quebec, the Christmas crèche was already part of religious traditions from the beginning of New France. Nonetheless, it is only after 1875 that crèches began to appear in houses and become part of family routines. The custom of setting up a under the Christmas tree became widespread during the 1930s. Many families built their own small stables to shelter commercially-bought figures. Later still, whole villages made up of little houses spread out around the crèche appeared at the foot of the tree. See Also Nativity.

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December 25
336 Rome. When Christianity was made official religion of the Roman Empire, the date of Christmas was set to as an attempt to eclipse the larger celebrations of Mithras and Io Saturnalia, or sun worship celebrated on that date. How Stuff Works

The traditional date for the appearance of Santa Claus, obviously from the birthdate of Jesus (the word Christmas is from old English, meaning Christ's mass). This date is near the shortest day of the year, from old times an important agricultural and solar feasting period in Europe. The actual birthday of Jesus is not known and thus the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day as was most convenient. The best fit seemed to be around the old Roman Saturnalia festival (17 - 21 December), a traditional pagan festivity with tumultuous and unruly celebrations. Moreover, in 273 Emperor Aurelianus had invented a new pagan religion, the cult of Sol Invictus (invincible sun, the same as the Iranian god Mithra), the birthday of this god being 25th December (natalis sol invicti). The Christian priests obviously saw this choice as doubly meritorious: using the old customary and popular feasting date but changing the rough pagan ways into a more civilized commemoration.

The first mention of the birthday of Jesus is from the year 354. Gradually all Christian churches, except Armenians (celebrating 6th January which date is for others the baptismal day of Jesus and the day of the three Magi), accepted the day. In American/English tradition the Christmas Day itself is the day for Santa, in German/Scandinavian tradition the Christmas Eve is reserved for presents.

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Christmas Tree, Electric Lights
1882, USA.How Stuff Works
Santa's Elves

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Figgy Pudding
Father Christmas
See Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Feast and Treats
Enhancing the Christmas and fun spirit are some of the delicacies that include the Christmas pie, cookies, Christmas cakes, ginger bread, turkey meat, pudding, wine, and brandy. Some dishes that you can include in your menu this Christmas are almond baklava, apple squares, biscotti di vino, caramel popcorn, Turkish baklava, sour cherry bars, peanut clusters, nutmeg rolls and so on. As for drinks, try out the eggnog, Santa’s punch, and hot cranberry punch along with the quintessential Wine.
Figgy Pudding
Figgy pudding was a huge part of the traditional Christmas feast in England, as gross as that might sound. It would be brought into the room with much ballyhoo, sometimes aflame. Most amazing of all, people apparently ate it and, furthermore, liked it!
See Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
Frosty the Snowman
Imitation is the sincerest form of capitalizing on someone else's idea. So it went with the writing duo of Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins in 1949, as Gene Autry's performance of John Marks' "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" sold 2 million copies in its first season. Three things came to mind: 1) We could write something that stupid. 2) Those guys are making a fortune. 3) We want money, too. Ipso facto, "Frosty."

Frosty The Snowman

Over the course of the aging winter, the pair had ascribed anthropomorphic qualities to any number of holiday trappings before they finally came across the concept of the irrepressible snowman. They tin-pan alleyed a catchy tune from it, and before summer was warm they found themselves at the doorstep of Mr. Autry, promising him they had 'the next big thing' for the Christmas to come. Autry was an easy sale; he was hoping for a chance to follow up on last year's triumph, and snatched it up greedily.

Somehow, it worked. It was another hit - not a Rudolph by a long shot, but it did manage to burrow down into the public consciousness enough that Frosty joined the pantheon of Christmas icons. Nelson and Rollins sold Autry another song at the same time - just in case. And that's how the Easter ballad "Here comes Peter Cottontail" was born.

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. How Stuff Works - Reference to The Joy of Cooking

One of the largest makers of Fruitcake is Collin Street Bakery located in Corsicana, Texas.

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Gift Giving
Late 1800s, USA, secular, promoted first by large department stores such as Macy's in New York City. Roots in the gifts of the Magi from the Bible. How Stuff WorksBrightly wrapped Christmas Gift

There are many roots of this custom. There is St.Nicholas the anonymous benefactor, there is the tradition of Magi giving precious gifts to Jesus, there is the Roman custom of giving gifts of good luck to children during Saturnalia. The day of gift giving varies greatly in different Christian cultures and times:

6th December - in memory of St. Nicholas
24th December - Christmas Eve
25th December - Birthday of Jesus
1st of January - the New year
6th of January - The Epiphany, day of the Three Wise men, the Magi

The giver of the presents are many: Jesus himself, Old Father Christmas, Santa Claus, a Goat, Befana (the female Santa in Italy), the three Magi, Christmas gnomes, various Saints, the Kolyada (in Russia), the Joulupukki (in Finland). The oldest Finnish tradition did not necessarily involve a giver of the presents at all: an unseen person threw the gifts in from the door and quickly disappeared.

Almost every family has unconsciously or consciously established a traditional time for opening the gifts. The gift exchange is always a "family event"--no one ever thinks of opening his gifts alone. This is an occasion when all are united, and there is community rejoicing over every present.

Christmas Eve is an appropriate time for the exchange of gifts, after the Christ-Child has been placed in the manger, and the special prayers before the crib--and a round of Christmas carols- -are over. If the gifts are given out before the Midnight Mass, the children can concentrate more easily on the great mystery which is celebrated, when the Greatest Gift is given to all alike, even those who have received no material expression of Christmas love. And then, too, Christmas Day with its two additional Masses can be devoted more to the contemplation of the Christmas mystery and the demands of Christmas hospitality.

But other families like to wait until the return from Midnight Mass, when gifts are opened before the family retires for the rest of the night. Christmas morning remains the rule in still other homes as the time for the gift exchange. In some homes, parents suggest that the children immediately choose one of their favorite gifts to be given to the poor, as a special sacrifice of gratitude to the Christ-Child--but a sacrifice done with a radiant face and a joyous spirit. Christmas gifts of clothing also provide opportunity for parents to introduce or encourage the lovely family custom of first wearing the new clothes to Church--as a sign of our gratitude for God's goodness and overflowing generosity towards us. There has been great interest lately in the question of just who should bring the gifts at Christmas.

Many families feel that the over-emphasis on Santa Claus greatly detracts from the central mystery of the feast, and they either make known the fact that the parents themselves are the givers, or in many families, the children are told that the Christ-Child Himself has bestowed the presents. Others restore the stately bishop's mitre and crosier to Santa Claus, and good St. Nicholas is the one who brings the children's toys and gifts--perhaps after a preliminary visit to see how the children are behaving on the eve of his feastday, December 5.

GingerbreadGingerbread House
This spicy treat has been a holiday player for centuries, ever since Medieval Crusaders returned from the Middle East bringing home a hitherto unknown series of foods that would become its essential ingredients and spices, sugars, almonds and citrus fruits. Catholic monks began to bake gingerbread for saints’ days and festivals, constructing it into specially designed theme "cakes." Often depicting celebrated saints and religious motifs, they depended on large and elaborately-carved "cookie boards" that impressed an all-over surface pattern onto a fairly stiff rolled dough. These wonderful early carvings are now rare and all too often seen only in books or museums. Journal of Antiques
Gingerbread Houses
The Glastonbury Thron
The Glastonbury thorn legend ties in Christ's death as well as the celebration of his birth. The legend goes that soon after the death of Christ, Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain to spread the message of Christianity. When he traveled there from the Holy Land he brought with him his staff. Being tired from his journey, he lay down to rest. In doing so, he pushed his staff into the ground beside him. When he awoke, he found that the staff had taken root and begun to grow and blossom. It is said he left it there and it has flowered every Christmas and every spring . It is also said that a puritan trying to cut down the tree was blinded by a spllinter of the wood before he could do so. The original thorn did eventually die but not before many cuttings had been taken. It is one of these very cuttings which is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey today.
Father Christmas needs helpers, goes the rationale behind this, mainly Scandinavian tradition. There are a number of gnomes (In Finnish tontut, in Swedish tomtar, Nisse in Denmark and Norway), which help Father Christmas to manufacture the presents and distribute them (We in Northern Europe just do believe in industrial production).

The tale of gnomes goes back to pagan times, when there was widespread belief in house gnomes which supposedly guarded homes against any evil (evil was ubiquitous in Viking times). These gnomes were mostly benevolent but they could be nasty if they were not properly treated. They were clad in grey with red caps. The cult of gnomes withstood the onslaught of Christianity and was eventually linked with things Christian. The oral traditions were fixed in writing in 19th century when a succession of writers (Grimm Brothers, Thiele,Topelius, Rydberg) and artists (Hansen, Nyström) created the true Christmas gnomes.


Originally these apparitions were active throughout the year but nowadays they are firmly entrenched in the Christmas time, although in Finland the children are scared by "tontut" who watch behind the windows and keep tally of the good behaviour the year round. As with all Christmas customs, local or global, the origins are forgotten and everything is intertwined with the modern folklore, Disney (whose seven dwarves bear marked resemblance to Christmas gnomes) and all ...
The Norwegian "Nisse" is not like his American relative Santa Claus. The Norwegian "Nisse" differs from both Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. In modern Norway we have really two types of "nisser".

The name "Nisse" probably derives from St. Nicholas. But "nisser" - which are elves (or gnomes) are old figures which existed long before the birth of Christ. There are several types of "nisser" in Norway. The most known is the "Fjøsnisse" which is a "nisse" who takes care of the animals on the farms. The "Fjøsnisse" is very short and often bearded and lives in a barn or a stable. He wears clothes of wool and often has a red knitted hat. The "Fjøsnisse" often plays tricks on people. Sometimes he will scare people by blowing out the lights in the barn or he will scare the farm dog at night. You can hear the dogs bark! He can become very friendly with the people that live on the farm, but one should never forget to give him a large portion of porridge on Christmas Eve - or else he will play tricks for example move the animals around in the barn, braid the horses' mane and tail, and other tricks like that.........

Of course we also have a Christmas nisse (julenissen) which in most homes is more or less identical to Santa Claus. The "Julenisse" brings presents to all the nice children on Christmas Eve. He is not as shy as Santa though, since the "julenisse" delivers the presents himself. He does not come down the chimney in the middle of the night. Christmas in Norway

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
In the legend, the magi from the East came along with gifts to see and get blessing from the newborn king. These three men bring gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts for baby Jesus. The gift of gold symbolizes Jesus as the King of kings. Frankincense is also a unique gift. In the Exodus 30:34-38 God told Moses that frankincense was only to be offered on the brazen alter in front of the Holy of Holies and on the Day of Atonement.

Similar to the frankincense, myrrh is a burial ointment and it has cleansing qualities. The gifts the magi brought to Jesus foretold about God’s plan. They symbolize faith, hope and love all in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

They followed the direction of the star- East - and eventually found the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying. To bring honour to the child, they brought rich gifts: gold, frankincense (a resin which burns with a beautiful smell), and myrrh (plant oil with a very strong sweet smell). These gifts tell us in pictures three key things about Jesus:

Gold: a gift fit for a King

Frankincense: burnt in worship of God

Myrrh: a sign of mortal human-ness - it was used to bury the dead

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As a substitute for Mistletoe, the sharp thorns symbolize the crown of thorns used at crusifiction, and the red berries, drops of Jesus' blood.How Stuff Works

Holly For centuries, holly has been the subject of myths, legends, and customary observances. Holly is conventionally associated with masculinity and a symbol of good luck. It decorates the home at Christmas time, and is regarded as a symbol of delight and merriment that brings up thoughts of celebration and good cheer. The Romans used the plant to decorate their houses, temples, and deities for Saturnalia, the mid-winter feast. They exchanged holly boughs as symbols of kindness and friendship. This practice is believed to be the predecessor of holly's use in Christmas celebrations. Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. As Christians increased in number and their customs prevailed, Holly lost its pagan associations and became a symbol of Christmas.

The plant has come to stand for tranquility, joy and merriment. People often settle disputes under a holly tree. Holly is believed to frighten off witches and evil spirits and protect the home from thunder and lightning. In Western England it is believed that twigs of holly around a young girl's bed on Christmas Eve would keep away naughty little goblins. In Germany, a piece that has been used in church decorations is regarded as magic against lightning. The English also mention the "he holly and the she holly" as being the deciding factor in who will dominate the household in the following year, the "he holly" have thorny leaves while a "she holly" have smooth ones. . Other beliefs include, putting a sprig of holly on the bedpost would bring sweet dreams and also making a tonic from holly could be a cure for cold.

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Ivy has been a symbol of eternal life in the pagan world and then came to represent new promise and eternal life in the Christian world. Ivy is more of an English Christmas green than an American one. It is considered a feeble clinging plant, rather feminine in nature, not at all like the masculine sturdy holly leaf. It was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.

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The Jesse Tree
Jesse Tree
Cathoic. During Advent, biblical persons representing the ancestors of Jesus, either in faith or bloodline, are gradually added onto a tree or branch, named after the father of David,. The symbols such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesse, David, Solomon, Joseph and Mary can be drawn, cut out or purchased. Catholic Network

"and Jesse was the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon ... Asa of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat of Joram ... Josiah was the father of Jeconiah ... Eliakim of Azor, Azor of Zadok ... Matthan of Jacob, Jacob of Joseph, the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus called Messiah." (Matthew 1, v 6-16) (The New English Bible, Cambridge University Press, NY, 2nd Ed., 1970). So the human family is a tree and one branch of that tree leads from Jesse, through King David, to Jesus. The Jesse Tree is an ancient Catholic symbol of the descent of Jesus. Traditionally, in Catholic schools, at various times of the year, the children would hang the names of all the ancestors of Jesus on the tree. Since Jesse is one of the first, it is called The Jesse Tree. >A HREF="">St Joan Catholic Church

Jingle Bells.
Brace yourself. Jingle Bells is not a Christmas song.
"It's my little deuce coupe - you don't know what I got..." It's the 19th Century equivalent of "Little Deuce Coupe." Written by James Pierpont in 1857, and republished in 1859, it memorializes the 'cutter' drag races in Boston, where spiffed out sleighs would race between Medford and Malden Squares, and the drivers would try to pick up the local chickies.

Young James was a rogue; he abandoned his family several times, took up arms for the Confederacy (his father was a Boston Abolitionist minister), and, after his first wife died, he abandoned his children to take another wife, who may or may have already been pregnant with Pierpont's child. He was living the fast times in the horse and buggy days, but if you really look hard, you'll see that rock-and-roll was out there, even before it had a beat.
Take the last verse (seldom included) Now the ground is white || Go it while you’re young, || Take the girls to night || And sing this sleighing song; || Just get a bob tailed bay || Two forty as his speed. || Hitch him to an open sleigh || And crack, you’ll take the lead.

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See Maji

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Among the Romans who remained pagan, the laurel leaf was sacred to the sun god Apollo. In the Christian sect it came to symbolize the triumph of Humanity as represented by the Son Man. Bay is also a name used for laurel. As the bay tree, the true laurel of the Ancients, is scarce in England. Substitutions such the common cherry laurel, the Portugal laurel, the Aucuba and others are often used. A British Christmas carol about the three kings leans heavily on the word "laurel".

"We come walking with our staves, wreathed with laurel: We seek the King Jesus, Him that saves, To Bring Him laurel..."

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Magi (Maji)The Three Wise Men - The Magi
From old Persian language, a priest of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The Bible gives us the direction, East and the legend states that the wise men were from Persia (Iran) - Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar - thus being priests of Zarathustra religion, the mages. Obviously the pilgrimage had some religious significance for these men, otherwise they would not have taken the trouble and risk of travelling so far. But what was it? An astrological phenomenon, the Star? This is just about all we know about As a footnote, the Bible never mentions THREE wisemen, only that they brought "Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh", three gifts. In addition, they did not arrive until weeks after the birth of Jesus. Epiphany is the date set aside by many churches as a time to recognize the arrival of the three wise men to the manger.
Mince Pies
Mince Pies, like Christmas Pudding, were originally filled with meat such as lamb rather than a dried fruit mix as they are today. They were also first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes. Now they are normally made in a round shape and are eaten hot or cold. I like mine hot with some ice cream!

On Christmas Eve, children in the U.K. often leave out mince pies with brandy or some similar drink for Father Christmas, and a carrot for the reindeer.

Mistletoe dates back to the dark ages in Norse Tradition. For Scandinavians, the goddess of love (Frigga) is strongly associated with mistletoe. This link to romance may be where our tradition of kissing under mistletoe comes from. Because of it's pegan roots, Mistletoe was forbidden by the church, suggesting holly instead, the thorns symbolizing the crown of thorns placed on Jesus head at crusifiction. The ban remained in effect through the middle ages, and even into the 20th century in some churches in England. How Stuff Works

Christmas OrnamentSacred to ancient druids and a symbol of eternal life the same way as Christmas tree. The Romans valued it as a symbol of peace and this lead eventually its acceptance among Christmas props. Kissing under mistletoe was a Roman custom, too.

Christmas Ornament Mistletoe is an aerial parasite that has no roots of its own and lives off the tree that it attaches itself to. Without that tree it would die. Mistletoe was thought to be sacred by ancient Europeans. Druid priests employed it in their sacrifices to the gods while Celtic people felt it possessed miraculous healing powers. In fact, in the Celtic language mistletoe means "all-heal." It not only cured diseases, but could also render poisons harmless, make humans and animals prolific, keep one safe from witchcraft, protect the house from ghosts and even make them speak. With all of this, it was thought to bring good luck to anyone privileged to have it.

Norsemen offer us a beautiful symbolic myth about mistletoe. The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.

What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death? Its medicinal properties, whether real or imaginary, make it a just emblematic of that Tree of Life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations thus paralleling it to the Virgin Birth of Christ.

Later, the eighteenth-century English credited mistletoe not with miraculous healing powers, but with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations.

See Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

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Nativity Scenes
Biblical origins. The Nativity brings together Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, the Shepherds, the Angels and, on Epiphany, the Wise Men. Representations of the birth of Christ proliferated from the IVth century, particularly in books like Psalters which were used during the liturgy. There are two traditions of iconographic representation of the Nativity. The Western tradition sees the conception and birth of Jesus as divine events: Mary is virginal and because she was not subject to the curse of the daughters of Eve, did not suffer during labour. This is why she is depicted seated, holding the Infant Jesus on her lap. At the end of the XIVth century, under the influence of Italian artists, the Virgin is represented on her knees in a posture of adoration. The Eastern tradition, on the other hand, emphasizes the reality of the incarnation of Jesus and his human birth: Mary, having just given birth, is pictured lying down. See Also Christmas crèche.
Nativity Plays
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is traditional in the U.K. for Primary schools to put on a Nativity Play for the parents and local people associated to the school. The Nativity Play recreates the scene of Jesus’ Birth, in the stable and tells of how Mary and Joseph were visited by the Shepherds and Wise Men. The parts of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men are played by the children. If the school is attached to a Church, the play often takes place in the Church. Sunday Schools in Churches also sometimes put on Nativity Plays.

In the past live animals, including an ox and donkey and other farm animals (but not pigs) were used in the plays. Sometimes they still are, but it is now more common for children to dress up as the animals in costumes or to have animal props.

The first Nativity Play was not performed by Children in the UK, but in a cave by Monks in Italy! St. Francis of Assisi and his followers acted in the first play in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them, as he was born into a poor family like theirs and not a rich family.

St. Francis told the part of each character in the story himself using wooden figures in the play. After a couple of years, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story. Songs were sung by the people taking part and they became what we call carols today!

Now cribs are used in Churches all over the world and even in some homes (we have a wooden one in my house!) to remind people of the story. Sometimes religious pictures and statues are called icons. Some catholic people have icon of Mary and the baby Jesus in their homes.

North Pole
How is it possible that in the predominantly Mediterranean / Near East tradition of Christianity something arises like Santa Claus of today? What force has generated the dominance of North in the directional map of popular Christmas tradition? Why not East as in the original traditions of St.Nicholas and the Magi? I can only offer some educated guesses.

The North Pole Christmas was originally in pagan times the festival of End of Darkness, the shortest day of the year, after which comes Spring and and then Summer . We say in Finland "Talven selkä taittuu" meaning that the back of Winter is broken. The more northern the country the more pronounced is the contrast between winter and summer solstices. The length of December day in Helsinki is about 5 hours, the longest June day is 19 hours. The temperature in Winter might be -30 degrees Celsius, the temperature in Summer +30. These extremes set the span of the year in the North.

Thus,in minds of Northern men Christmas is associated with Winter ways: snow, cold, darkness illuminated by candles, sleighs drawn by horses, fur coats. Christmas things are in contrast with summer things. If this applies to the folk of the North the more it will interest Southern peoples who do not have such pronounced climatic changes but who find the traditions of Northern Christmas delightfully odd and alluring. Furthermore, to preserve a myth one generally likes to place it as far as possible from the everyday experience: in North Pole, Lapland. I think that in Northern Europe in intensity of Christmas feeling is greatest because of the contrasts of Midwinter. The custom tends to accelerate towards greatest intensity. In this case, the Northern Christmas, with its peculiar romance and idyll.

Literally, Mount Ear, in county Savukoski, Lapland. The height is about half a kilometer, so it is a big hill, really. It has three summits and the Finnish-Russian border divides them. The traditional dwelling place of the Finnish Father Christmas, "Joulupukki". This region belongs to the reindeer country proper, thus the place is lots better for Santa to live than the North Pole (with no reindeers at all - its only stiff water there!).

Korvatunturi is situated within the border region which is strictly off-limits for ordinary tourists - maybe this has added to the myth and mystery of the place. Actually this tradition is very young one. In 1927 the Finnish radio personality Uncle Marcus invented the whole thing telling his young listeners that Father Christmas lived in (on?) Korvatunturi and used the ears of the mountain to listen to the wishes of children. This stuck and the story goes that after the war, when Finland was compelled to make concessions to Russia, they demanded the whole mountain, but relented when they were told about the significance of Korvatunturi for Finnish

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Christmas Tree Ornaments
Christmas OrnamentMartin Luther, 16th Century. 1880 first manufactured ornaments, Woolworths, USA. Decorations on the Christmas trees draw their root in traditional values. How Stuff Works

The crystal balls symbolizes the fruit of redemption, the electric light or the candles are ancient symbols that stand for the triumph of spring over the darkness of winter. The light also symbolizes the light that Jesus Christ cast upon the lives of the people. The Holy, when it flies down to earth, is believed to take the shape of a dove. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, while the bell symbolizes the joys of life.

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Peace on EarthThe Lion and the Lamb, and the dove, symbols of Peace
In Finland and Sweden an old tradition prevails, where the twelve days of Christmas are declared to be time of civil peace by law. A person committing crimes during this time wold be liable to more stiff sentence than normally (this does not apply anymore). In Finland the declaration (text from Middle Ages) is read by an official of the city of Turku at noon in Christmas Eve. This tradition has been followed without breaks for 500 years by now.
Plum Pudding
Christmas (or Plum) Pudding is the the traditional end to the British Christmas dinner. But what we think of as Christmas Pudding now, is not what it was originally like.

Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. This would often be more like soup and was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas festivities.

By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. It became the customary Christmas dessert around 1650, but in 1664 the Puritans banned it as a bad custom.

In 1714, King George I re-established it as part of the Christmas meal, having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding. By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had changed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today.

Over the years, many superstitions have surrounded Christmas Puddings. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and His Disciples and that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men.

Poinsettias, the Legend of
Mexico. Poinsettia is a much-loved flower in the United States with its stunning red star-shape. It is called the" Flower of the Holy Night " or the "Flame Leaf" in Central America. The botanical name, Euphorbia Pulcherrima, was assigned to the poinsettia by the German botanist, Wilenow. Dazzled by its color, he gave it this name meaning "very beautiful." The legend of the poinsettia comes from Mexico. It tells of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo. Poinsetta WreathThey were very poor but always looked forward to the Christmas festival. Each year a large manger scene was set up in the village church, and the days before Christmas were filled with parades and parties. The two children loved Christmas but were always disappointed because they had no money to buy gifts. They especially wished that they could present something to the church for the Baby Jesus. But they had nothing.

One Christmas Eve, Maria and Pablo set out for church to attend the service. Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet and deciding to take them as their gift to the Baby Jesus in the manger scene. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. Of course other children teased them when they arrived with their gift, but they said nothing for they knew they had given what they could. Maria and Pablo began placing the green plants around the manger and miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and soon the manger was surrounded by beautiful star-like flowers, all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, then the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, imported the plant from Mexico. What appear to be petals are actually coloured leaflike bracts that surround a central cluster of tiny yellow flowers. A milky latex in the stems and leaves can be irritating to persons or animals sensitive to it, but the claim that poinsettias are deadly poisonous is greatly exaggerated. How Stuff Works

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Ordinary (Rangifer tarandus) and flying ones. The biological reindeer lives in arctic and subarctic regions (predominantly in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia). The people tending reindeer are the Lapps who, curiously enough, do not have any apparent role in Santa Claus story. The cult of flying reindeers (eight of them) was probably originated by Moore in early 19th century.

The biological reindeer is used as meat and skin producing animal (the horn or poronsarvi is desired by the Japanese for aphrodisiac). It used to be draft animal (and can be - for tourists - such a one even today). The reindeers are not wholly domesticated. The most part of the year reindeers are free to roam and search for food . They are collected for counting and slaughter in the so-called poroerotus (division of reindeers). This is a truly exciting happening with thousands of animals, their owners selling and buying and dragging the obstinate beasts. One can see true Northern reindeerboys (if there exists such a term) there with lassoes (suopunki). See Also Santa and his Reindeer Christmas Rose

Rose (The Christmas Rose)
Christmas Rose is a celebrated English plant that is regarded as a true Christmas flower. It is sometimes called the Snow or Winter Rose. It blooms in the depths of winter in the mountains of Central Europe. Legend links it with the birth of Christ and a modest shepherd maiden named Madelon. As Madelon tended her sheep one cold and wintry night, wise men and other shepherds passed by the snow-covered field where she was with their gifts for the Christ Child. The wise men carried the rich gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense and the shepherds, fruits, honey and doves. Poor Madelon began to weep at the thought of having nothing to offer, not even a simple flower for the Newborn King, as she was very poor indeed. And as she stood there weeping, an angel passing saw her sorrow, and stooping he brushed aside the snow at her feet revealing a most beautiful white flower tipped with pink - the Christmas rose.

Also in northern and central Europe it is a tradition to break off a branch of a cherry tree at the beginning of the Advent and keep it in water in a warm room; the flowers should burst into bloom at Christmas time.

Rosemary is yet another Christmas green. Though now it is used to mainly season foods, during the Middle Ages it was spread on the floor at Christmas. As people walked on it, the fragrant smell arose filling the house. The story associated with the shrub is that Mary laid the garments of the Christ Child on its branches and caused it to have such a wonderful aroma. It is also said that rosemary is extremely offensive to evil spirits, thus, being well suited to the advent of their Conqueror. The name rosemary is given, too, an association to the Virgin Mary's name, making it all the more fitting for the Christmas season.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
The whole story of Rudolf appeared, out of nowhere, in 1939. Santas at Montgomery Ward stores gave away 2.4 million copies of a booklet entitled "Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer." The story was written by a person in the advertising department named Robert May, and the booklet was illustrated by Denver Gillen. The original name of the reindeer was not Rudolf, The original name was Rollo, but executives did not like that name, nor Reginald. The name Rudolf came from the author's young daughter! In 1949, Gene Autry sang a musical version of the poem and it was a run-away best-seller. The Rudolf song is second only to "White Christmas" in popularity. How Stuff Works

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Saint Nicholas Sinterklaas
According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport city of Patara, and, when young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt. He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He 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 he was buried in his church at Myra, and by the sixth century his shrine there had become well known. In 1087, Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly increased the saint's popularity in Europe, and Bari became one of the most crowded of all pilgrimage centres. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola, Bari. How Stuff Works See Also Santa and the Reindeer and Santa Giving Gifts

After the Reformation, Nicholas' cult disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas. Dutch colonists took this tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 17th century. The country's English-speaking majority adopted Sinterklaas under the name of Santa Claus.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas arrives in the country at the end of November from Spain. He rides a white horse and is accompanied by his faithful Moorish servant, Zwarte Piet. Saint Nicholas Day itself is celebrated with a special "pakjesavond" (present night). For this event, family members give one another elaborately wrapped presents and funny anonymous poems. It is the perfect occasion to tell everybody the truth or simply to share love and affection. Sinterklaas -

Saint Nicholas Day
In Ukraine, St. Nicholas is a special saint, for it was Prince Vladimir who brought back tales of the saint after he went to Constantinople to be baptized. The Ukrainian prince Vsevolod Yaroslavych introduced the feast of St. Nicholas during the time of Pope Urban II (1088-99 AD). St Nicholas Day CelebrationSt. Nicholas' Day was a time of great fun in Ukraine. On this day, people would invite guests in and sleighs would be ridden around the village to see if the snow was slippery [icy]. This was the holiday for young children, for they would receive gifts from St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. "St. Nicholas" was often accompanied by "angels" and might have quizzed the children on their catechism. St. Nicholas Day, not Christmas, is the usual gift-giving day in much of Europe including Ukraine, although for Christmas it was the custom of all members in the family to get a new article of clothing.
Saint Nicolas gift giving
Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was reputed to have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution, and he restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a brine tub. In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, Switz., and Moscow. Thousands of European churches were dedicated to him, one as early as the sixth century, built by the Roman emperor Justinian I, at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Nicholas' miracles were a favourite subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays, and his traditional feast day was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread European custom in which a boy was elected bishop and reigned until Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).

After the Reformation, 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. How Stuff Works

Santa Claus Santa Claus
Father Christmas is based on a real person, St. Nicholas, which explains his other name 'Santa Claus' which comes from the Dutch 'Sinterklaas'. Nicholas was a Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD. He was very shy, and wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing about it. It is said that one day, he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking which a girl had put to dry by the fire! This may explain the belief that Father Christmas comes down the chimney and places gifts in children's stockings.

From Bishop to Kindly old gift giver at Christmas, the tradition of Santa Claus was brought to America by the Dutch who settle in New Amsterdam, now known as New York. Detail from First Celebration of the Festival of St. Nicholas by The New-York Historical Society, Broadside by Alexander Anderson, December 6, 1810, commissioned by John Pintard, SY 1864-21, negative number 28883. After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony's nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical Knickerbocker's History of New York, which made numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.

The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better known as "The Night Before Christmas."

His looks are changing, but it is still Saint Nicholas Period Postcard

Santa Claus He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes ... how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .

Santa in an early Coca-Cola advertisement Other artists and writers continued the change to an elf-like St. Nicholas, "Sancte Claus," or "Santa Claus," unlike the stately European bishop. In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper's Weekly which were based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving's work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with changes in appearance, the saint's name changed to Santa Claus as a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas. St Nicholas

Santa and the Reindeer
It is amazing but true that the common, popular view of Santa that we all have today, along with all the crazy things around Santa like the sleigh, the reindeer and the chimney, all came largely from two publishing events that occurred in the 1800s and one advertising campaign in this century. Clement Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas" in 1822 for his family. It was picked up by a newspaper, then reprinted in magazines and it spread like wildfire. Moore admitted authorship in 1838. Nearly everyone in America has been able to recognize or recite this poem since the 1830s.

Then, between 1863 and 1886, Harper's Weekly (a popular magazine of the time) ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images come the concepts of Santa's workshop, Santa reading letters, Santa checking his list and so on. Coca-Cola also played a role in the Santa image by running a set of paintings by Haddon Sundblom in its ads between 1931 to 1964.

The red and white suit came, actually, from the original Saint Nicholas. Those colors were the colors of the traditional bishop's robes. How Stuff Works See Also Reindeer

Shopping and Sales
Late 1800s, America. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are, by far, the biggest retail sales weeks of the year. The survival of most retail stores depends on the Christmas buying season. Therefore, retailers do whatever they can to whip people into a Christmas buying spirit and to attract them to their stores. Festive decorations, big ads, Santa's Villages and all the rest are a part of that process. How Stuff Works
Silent Night (Stille Nacht)
Germany, The original lyrics for the song in German, "Stille Nacht", was written by Joseph Mohr and the melody was composed by Franz X. Gruber.German lyrics 180 years ago the carol "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht" was heard for the first time in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria. The congregation at that Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church listened as the voices of the assistant pastor, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Fr. Mohr's guitar. On each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part Sleigh Ride
Snow on Christmas
Even Floridians dream of a "White Christmas".

Why is that. Was Jesus born in a snow storm? Actually the popularity of having snow for Christmas has it origins in the many postcards (including Currier and Ives) at the end of the 19th century, and the popularity of the song, "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin, and sung by Bing Crosby in 1942. How Stuff Works See Also White Christmas

Snow, Ice and Christmas often go together, although why it should is a bit strange! There is no snow or ice in the Christmas story told in the Bible. However, snow does fall in Israel. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are on a range of hills that go north to south between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan valley. The top of these hills are about 1600 ft (500 m) tall. The hills often have very cold weather from November to April and snow can often fall. So, although the Bible story may not have snow in it, Jesus may well have seen some snow in his life!

The reason that we think of Snow and Ice at Christmas is portably down to the Victorians! Although Christmas was taken over from the Pagan winter solstice festivals in Europe, It was the Victorians who gave us our ‘traditional’ Christmas in Europe and the U.S.A. At the start of the Victorian era, (1837) Britain was in a mini ice age that was from about 1550 to 1850. During this time, in London, a winter fair was held on the frozen River Thames!

One of the main reasons that the Victorians put Snow and Christmas together was the book ‘A Christmas Carol’ written in 1843 by Charles Dickens.

It tells the story of a mean old business man called Ebeneezer Scrooge who hates Christmas During the night of Christmas Eve, he is visited by three ghosts, one of Christmas Past, one of Christmas Present and one of Christmas yet to come. They show him how mean he really is. He realises that making friends is more important than making money. When he wakes up on Christmas Day, he is a changed man and give lots of money and presents away. (If you don’t know the story, I recommend that you read the book or see a film of the story! A very famous film of it was made in 1951 [4 years after Britain had some of its heaviest snow of the 1900’s], but my favourite is the Muppet’s Christmas Carol!!!!)

When Charles Dickens was a child, Britain had very heavy snow falls around Christmas, so when he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ he put lots of snow and ice in it! He also put snow at Christmas in some of his other books like ‘The Pickwick Papers’. Charles Dickens’ books were very popular (and still are!) so when the Victorians read the books, they thought of snow and Christmas together!

One of the other reasons that Snow and Ice became popular in Victorians time is because Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, came from Germany where it was colder and he was used to lots of snow and ice being around at Christmas He brought the idea of have Christmas Trees to the U.K. as well as lots of other Christmas traditions. Christmas Cards also started in Victorian times with pictures of snow scenes becoming very popular.

The Star
The star symbolizes the star that appeared quite miraculously in the eastern sky on the birth of Jesus Christ. The star is believed to have guided the magi, who were the three wise men from the East to find the newborn king.

One wonders whether the star that shined that fateful night is any different from those of today. Astronomers continue to be at loss to explain the star that shone on the night of the birth of Jesus. It could not have been a meteor, for it lasted for only a few seconds, nor was it a comet because astronomers fond out that there were no comets visible to humans around the time of Christ’s birth.

The magi from the east were also astrologers of their time. They had studied the Jewish rabbis and were well aware of the triangle shape that had already appeared before the birth of Moses. This was perhaps the reason why it was interpreted that a great man was to be born on the Jewish land. The star was indeed a strange star and people continue to believe that a miracle had occurred around the time of the birth of Christ.

The Christmas star continues to adorn the churches and houses as part of the traditional Christmas celebrations. The star stands for high hopes and ideals, a hope for a good fortune and to reach above oneself.

The astrological/astronomical phenomenon which triggered the travel of the Magi to give presents to child Jesus. Variously described as a supernova or a conjunction of planets it supposedly happened around the year 7 BC - the most probable true birth year of Christ. Star is often put to the top of the Christmas tree.

The stars that appear in the sky today are the same ones that were there two thousand years ago. Was there a nova at the time of Jesus' birth? The exact time of His birth is not known, but astronomers cannot place a new star appearance anywhere near the possible time. Could it have been a shooting star? Again, the astronomers say it was not likely. A meteor lasts only a few seconds or mintues at best. The wise men followed the star for weeks looking for Jesus. We can rule out comets as well. They can be seen by the naked eye for a week or months. But modern astronomers know which comets were close enough to earth hundreds and thousands of years ago and there was no comet visible to humans around the time of Christ's birth.

Some star gazers suggest that if we move the birth of Jesus to the springtime of 6 B.C., we can attribute the star to the time the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were close together in the heavens. They formed a triangle in the group of stars known as Pisces. The wise men, themselves, were astrologers and studied the stars and planets and knew, according to Jewish Rabbis, of the triangle and that it had appeared before the birth of Moses. Perhaps they interpreted it as a sign of a great event in the land of the Jewish people. This may have been the star of Bethlehem. Pisces became the special constellation of the Hebrew people. Still, many people prefer to believe that the strange star did appear, and that it was simply a miracle and throughout the world today, the Christian holiday has usually begun with the appearance of the first star of Christmas Eve.

Stockings over the Chimney
According to a very old tradition, 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. Up until lately, it was traditional to receive small items like fruit, nuts and candy in your stocking, but these have been replaced in the last half-century by more expensive gifts in many homes. How Stuff Works
In Finland straw was customarily spread on the floor for Christmas day. This symbolized the stable and manger where Jesus lay after being born. But it was also a pagan custom to ensure the crop of next summer, known also in Slavic countries. Thus here we see the Christian rationalizing again when accepting the old and difficult-to-remove folk customs. Many Christmas decorations were (and are) made from straw, too. Most notably the so-called himmeli (an intricate straw mobile hung from the ceiling) and straw goats big and small. Straw sheafs were prepared for cattle and birds.

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Train Gardens
See Christmas Gardens
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Words originated around 1780 in England and the music much earlier from France. The song's gifts had hidden meanings to the teachings of the Catholic faith. The "true love" mentioned in the song doesn't refer to an earthly suitor, but it refers to God Himself. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person. i.e. the church. The partridge in a pear tree is Christ Jesus, the Son of God. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge in memory of the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."The song was merely a child's game with no religious significance. The 12 days of Christmas are the 12 days that separate Christmas day on December 25 from Epiphany, which is celebrated January 6. Depending on the church, January 6 may mark Christ's baptism (the Catholic tradition), or it may mark the day that the wise men visited the baby Jesus with their gifts. In the past, there was a tradition of giving gifts throughout the 12 days, rather than stacking them all up on the morning of December 25. That tradition, as you might imagine, has never really caught on in America! We just aren't that patient. How Stuff Works
Here are the twelve symbols and their meaning:
1 Partridge in a pear tree = The One true God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ
2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch" which contain the law condemning us of our sins.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

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Bing Crosby - White Christmas
Wassailing and Mumming
Wassailing is a very ancient custom that is rarely done today. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’. Originally, the wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. Jesus College, in Oxford University, has a Wassail bowl that could hold 10 gallons of drink and was covered in silver! Wassailing was traditionally done on New Years Eve and Twelfth Night, but some rich people had Wassail on all the 12 days of Christmas! The Wassail drink mixture was sometimes called ‘Lamb’s Wool’, because of the pulp of the roasted apples looked all frothy and a bit like Lambs Wool!!! You can get a recipe for wassail by clicking here.

One legend about how Wassailing was created, says that a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words ‘waes hael’. Over the centuries, a great deal of ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl was carried into a room with a great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink was sung, and finally, the steaming hot beverage was served.

White Christmas, the song
1942. The song "(I'm Dreaming of a) White Christmas," written by Irving Berlin for the movie "Holiday Inn" (1942) and sung by Bing Crosby, is one of the best-selling songs of all time. How Stuff Works See also Snow
White House Christmas Tree
Began with Calvin Coolidge in 1932 How Stuff Works
Advent WreathIn anchient Rome, decorative wreaths were used as a sign of victory. In Pre-Christian Germany, people would make wreaths and build fires during the cold of winter, as a sign of hope for the light of Spring. German Christians kept these traditions alive, and by the 1500s, the meaning had shifted to a sign of hope in Christ, the everlasting light.

The Christmas Wreath, (or more formally, the Advent Wreath) is traditionally made up of four candles with the circle of evergreens, with a fifth candle in the middle. This wreath would lay flat, and each Sunday preceding Christmas an additional candle was lit. In some traditions, each candle represents 1,000 years since Adam and Eve, til Christ was born. In other traditions the candles represent the Patriarchs, the Profets, John the Baptist and Mary respectively. In the Episcopal Church, the four candles represent 1) The Candle of Prophecy/Hope, 2) The Candle of the Way 3) The Candle of Joy 4) The Candle of Peace.
Wrapping Paper
It was not unitl the Hy-Sill Manufacturing company (Eli Hyman and Morris Silverman), began printing cololorful patterns on thick paper in 1903, that the tradition of wrapping gifts at Christmas took off. Before then, wrapped gifts was simply not part of the Christmas tradition. Hallmark (Hall Brother's in 1917) offered colored tissue paper (along with white), and at their Kansas City store, the colors of green, red, and white were selling out around Christmas time. Within a year, Hall had patterns added to the paper, which again, quickly sold out. Soon an industry was born. Tape, however, wasn't invented yet, so wrappers had to be clever, generally using strings, ribbons or cealing wax, to secure the wrapping paper. By 1932, Scotch tape, made gift wrapping much easier.

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According to the book Did you ever Wonder... by Jeff Rovin, the word for Christ in Greek is Xristos. The use of the shortened form "Xmas" became popular in Europe in the 1500s.

The word Xmas is so common in advertising most likely because "Xmas" and "sale" have the same number of letters, and "Xmas" is significantly shorter than Christmas. How Stuff Works

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Yule" can be traced back to the Middle English "Yollen" (cry aloud) and is thought to date from early Anglo-Saxon revels in celebration of the discovery (after the winter solstice) that nights were becoming shorter. How Stuff Work
Yule Log
Bringing the Yule log is was until the late 19th century as part of Christmas as decorating the tree is today. The use of the yule log gives rise to the term "Yuletide". 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, wood block. They placed it into the floor of their hearth. It glowed throughout the year under the flames of household fires. Gradually it became ash. How Stuff Work

In Provence (in France), it is traditional that the whole family helps to cut the log down and that a little bit is burnt each night. If any of the log is left after 12th night, it is kept safe in the house until the next Christmas to protect against lightning! In some parts of Holland, this was also done, but the log had to be stored under a bed! In some Easter European countries, the log was cut down on Christmas Eve morning and lit that evening.

In Cornwall (in the U.K.), the log is called ‘The Mock’. The log is dried out and then the bark is taken off it before it comes into the house to be burnt. Also in the UK, barrel makers (or Coopers as barrel makers were traditionally called) gave their customers old logs that they could not use for making barrels for Yule logs. (My surname is Cooper, but I don’t make barrels! but my Great Granddad did own a walking stick factory!)

The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe and different kids of wood are used in different countries. In England, Oak is traditional; in Scotland, it is Birch; while in France, it is Cherry. Also, in France, the log is sprinkled with wine, before it is burnt, so that it smells nice when it is lit.

In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people have a very large bunch of Ash twigs instead of the log. This comes from a local legend that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were very cold when the shepherds found them on Christmas Night. So the shepherds got some bunches of twigs to burn to keep them warm.

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Advent Calendars
Advent House
Advent Wreath
Angel Hair
The Bible Story
Boxing Day
Candy Canes
"Christmas" origin
Christmas Cards
Christmas Carols
Christmas Eve
Christmas Gardens
Christmas Trees
Christmas Crèche
December 25th
Electric Lights
Father Christmas
Figgy Pudding
Frosty the Snowman
Gift Giving
Gingerbread Houses
Glastonbury Thorn, the
Jesse Tree
Jingle Bells
Nativity Scenes
North Pole
Peace on Earth
Rose, the
Saint Nicholas
St Nicholas Day
St Nicholas Gift Giving
Santa Claus
Santa and the Reindeer
Shopping and Sales
Silent Night
Star, the
Train Gardens
12 Days of Christmas
"White Christmas"
White House Tree, the
Wrapping Paper
Yule Log

Plum Pudding
Nativity Plays

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- Christian Origin or Not? -

So what did you learn. Of the Christmas traditions above, which ones have their roots in Christianity, and which ones have their roots in peganism or crass commercialism? Here is a list below. Check the traditions that you think have their roots in Christian tradition.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
Santa Claus
The Christmas Tree
December 25 as Christmas Day
Christmas Carols
Christmas Gifts
Stocking on the Fire Place
Yule Log
The Star on the Christmas Tree
Christmas Cards
White Christmas
The Nativity
Christmas Gardens
Jingle Bells
Christmas Ornaments
Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men

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- Christmas Links -

Here are some websites with even more information about Christmas and it's Traditions: