December 25 has been celebrated as Christmas Day and a federal holiday in the U.S. since June 26, 1870. The Christians believe it to be the day their spiritual leader- Jesus of Nazareth was born. It has now become a worldwide cultural phenomenon where tradition of exchanging gifts, decorating our homes, waiting for Santa, going to Church, etc are included.
In ancient epochs, Christmas was celebrated at different time with varying reasons. The Europeans celebrated Winter Solstice, a natural phenomenon that occurs around this time, ensuring the arrival of longer days and sunlight after a harsh winter. The Scandinavian called it “Yule” and the celebration began from December 21 till January. The Germans worshipped the Pagan God- Oden while the Romans worshipped Saturn- god of Agriculture.
Due to an interesting turn of events, Easter, which used to be the main holiday of Christianity was replaced by Christmas when Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the date for celebration. However, the traditions and customs were not decided by the Church. It slowly became the festival to treat poor by the rich of the society with good food and hospitality. Still, this vibrant festival faced hostility from other branches of Christianity and was not popular or even celebrated in Europe around the 16th Century. In Boston it was even outlawed.
After the American Revolution, idea of Christmas resurfaced and was reinforced by two literary pieces:
The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon (Washington Irving) which portrayed Christmas as a peaceful celebration bridging gaps among the social classes.
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) which showed Christmas as a time to spend with family and lavish them, especially children, with gifts.
In a way these books reinvented the “traditions” of Christmas which underwent many changes within 100 years.
As the festival gained popularity, it also included myths, stories from all over the world. The most popular and loved being the myth of Santa Claus. It actually celebrated the benevolence of Turkish saint named Nicholas, born around 280 A.D who gave up all his fortune for the betterment of the poor. His affection to children made him famous as their protector.
In Dutch language, “Saint Nicholas” is pronounced as “Sint Nikolaas” and colloquially called as “Sinter Klaas”. From here, the English name “Santa Claus” became known when this Dutch population moved to cities of America with international approach like, New York. St. Nicholas was honoured by the Dutch on his birth anniversary. The story became famous in Clement Moore’s poem An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas depicting Santa Claus as he is believed by almost all of us today- carrying toys in a heavy sack and delivering them on his sleigh pulled by reindeers.
The actual icon or image came with cartoonist Thomas Nast’s drawing in 1881 in which Santa was wearing a white and red costume with a big, flowy beard. Christmas has become a tradition and a kind of a synonym of all Christian festivals. It is a festival which is loved in the entire world and most awaited by the little children.