Exploring the origins of the traditions and customs of Christmas

Ever wondered why we do what we do in regards to Christmas traditions and customs?

For one thing, who decided that Dec. 25 would be the day to actually celebrate Christmas?

According to R. Brasch in his book Christmas Customs and Traditions, it was not until AD 350 that Pope Julius I designated Dec. 25 as Christmas Day.

“He did so mainly to counteract the effect of the popular feast held in honour of Saturn – Saturnalia – which occurred at the time of the winter solstice.”

The Gospels don’t actually indicate what month Jesus was born. “In fact, to start with, ‘Christ’s Mass’ was celebrated some time in April or May.”

Over the years, many traditions surfaced to mark the occasion. Nativity scenes complete with live animals were started by St. Francis of Assisi. “After receiving permission from the Pope, he erected the first one during the Christmas of 1224 in a cave outside the Italian town of Greccio.

“It was a novel and eye-catching way to celebrate the memory of the child who was born in Bethlehem. When people gathered to view the spectacle, Francis stood in front of the manger and recited the Gospel relating to the scene, then he delivered a sermon.”

A few centuries later, Christmas cards became all the rage thanks to a creative London art dealer.

The Christmas card was invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole came up with the idea of the first cards – “A simple yet attractive token of friendship which, he felt, would further enhance this special day.”

Of course, music plays a critical part of the season as well. Favourite carols, such as Silent Night, are an intrinsic part of church services around the world. This beloved song, now known around the world, had humble beginnings.

“On Christmas Eve 1818, Father Josef Mohr, the priest of the Austrian village of Oberndorf, was preparing his church for the Midnight Mass.” But the organ was out of order thanks to some pesky mice that had chewed on the leather bellows.

Father Mohr knew there had to be some sort of special music that night. He had written a Christmas poem which he took to Franz Gruber, the local schoolmaster who played the guitar.

“Mohr asked him whether he could quickly set this poem to music so that it would be ready that night.” Gruber took on the challenge, and he took only a few hours to compose the tune for Silent Night which was sung for the first time that very night. It’s popularity quickly spread across Austria and beyond.

A famous American crooner also had a part in introducing the lovely song to the masses.

“Almost 100 years later, Bing Crosby gave it world fame.”

As for the famous man in red, the original Santa Claus was St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop of Myra, which was in Asia minor (now part of Turkey).

“All that is known of him is that he was a man of great piety and compassion who had to suffer much persecution.”

The day of his death – Dec. 6 – became his feast day. “One its eve, he was believed to visit homes and leave gifts for those children who put shoes outside the door or hung up stockings to receive them.” Over time, Christmas Eve became the time of his gift-giving journey.

The British also eventually Anglicized his name, creating the modern Santa Claus.