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A few days from now hundreds of millions of people will celebrate Christmas, perhaps the most ubiquitous holiday in the United States. But despite being so widely celebrated today, the origins of this holiday remain less well known.

The traditional origin story for Christmas is that it celebrates the birth of a man called Jesus of Nazareth, who Christians believe to be the son of God. After Jesus’ death, his followers took to calling him Christ, which comes from the Greek Christos, meaning anointed one. The connection between Jesus and Christmas is hard to miss — the holiday is known as Christ-Mass after all — but upon closer examination the story becomes more complex.

Far from being known to the day, the birth of Jesus Christ is generally believed to have occurred anywhere between 4 and 6 B.C. The date of Dec. 25 was most likely chosen by the Roman Catholic Church because it coincided with celebrations of the winter solstice and Saturnalia, a festival held in honor of the Roman god Saturn.

The tradition of Christmas trees began in Germany, where Christians would keep what they called “paradise trees” to symbolize the Garden of Eden. Martin Luther allegedly was the first person to put lighted candles on Christmas trees in the 16th century. Eventually German immigrants popularized the tradition of Christmas trees in other countries. In Great Britain, the tradition became popular after Queen Victoria and her family were illustrated in front of their Christmas tree in 1848.

In the United States, people were originally wary of Christmas celebrations, with the government of the Massachusetts Bay colony actually outlawing the celebration of Christmas for a time, stating that “festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries” were a “great dishonor of God and offense of others.” The penalty for feasting or failing to work on Christmas Day was 5 shillings, the equivalent of about $50 today.

By the 1820s Christmas began to gain popularity in the United States, and Christmas trees were commonplace by the 1870s.

Another famous association with Christmas is the legend of Santa Claus. This stems from Saint Nicholas, an ethnically Greek Christian bishop who lived in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) from 270 to 343 A.D. Nicholas was known for his generosity, often giving gifts to children, which led, after his death, to the creation of Saint Nichols Day, a holiday celebrated on Dec. 6 when children would be given gifts in his memory. This tradition was brought to the United States by Dutch immigrants, and ultimately became mixed with Christmas.

The poem “’Twas the night before Christmas,” written in 1823, was the first depiction of Saint Nicholas as he is known today, a fat jolly man with a snow white beard. This same image was cemented by the illustrations of Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, which were published in 1863, and by Coca Cola advertisements that ran from 1931 onward.

Ultimately beneath the Christian sheen of Christmas lies a deep and rich history of cultural evolution and pagan rituals. From Saturalis to the Turkish Bishop Saint Nicholas, many of our most beloved Christmas rituals are not what they may seem. Today 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas, though many of them celebrate the holiday secularly. To those of you who do celebrate, I wish you a merry Christmas.

Thank you to LiveScience.com, Britannica, Mass.gov and Gallup for providing information for this column.

Notices

Friends of Haystack Mountain has  successfully raised $150,000 of its $450,000 goal. The group has met its annual goal this year. Friends of Haystack Mountain will also be putting up a new story on their Haystack Mountain storywalk, “Fox vs. Winter,” for the season.

Nomination forms for the 2023 Alumni Recognition Award are due at the Mount View High School office no later than Jan. 6, 2023. The personal and professional accomplishments of previous graduates will encourage present-day students to reach for the stars! Anyone may make a nomination. For more information, requirements and the application form, please email mvalumni@rsu3.org or leave a message at 568-4640 to receive a hard copy.