He’s called Santa Claus, Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas, and Père Noël, among other names, but the title of St. Nicholas comes closest to the historical roots of this giver of gifts. Although modern Santa’s appearance and traditions spring largely from the last two centuries of popular story and art, the legends associated with him begin with a real person on the shores of the fourth-century Mediterranean Sea. Over the years, he’s evolved into an engaging combination of reality and myth whose hearty, “Ho, ho, ho!” proves impossible to resist each Christmas season.
The Traditions of Christmas
Many of the best-loved Christmas traditions come from the original stories of the Bible. In fact, the gospels of Luke and Matthew hold the keys to explaining the ways in which many people celebrate the holiday today – from the Christmas star that led the Wise Men to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born to the Nativity displays that recreate the scene inside the stable. While customs have changed over the centuries, many traditions still provide a direct link to the time of Jesus’ birth.
Christkind, the German name for the Christ Child, originally referred directly to the Holy Infant Jesus himself, who was said to bring gifts to children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Pennsylvania Dutch region on Christmas Eve. (Other forms of the name are Christkindl, Christkindli, and Chriskinddlein.)
Later, the name came to stand for the embodiment of the Child’s spirit, in angelic form, that brought the gifts in his place. Veiled in white, with gold wings upon his shoulders, he arrives secretly, often through an open window. When he is through with his work, he rings a bell to notify all that he presents have arrived. Over the years, the name has evolved to Kris Kringle, but contrary to popular belief, the Christkind is not another form of Santa Claus.
For most of the churches that follow Christianity, Christmas is only one day – albeit a very important one – in an entire season that focuses on the birth of Jesus. The season begins approximately four weeks before Christmas Day, and carries on through January and even into February. Each of the special days within the season brings with it an opportunity to reflect on the message of peace, joy, and goodwill.
The Season of Advent
For most western Christian churches, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word advent originates with the Latin word for “coming” and indeed, this season of preparation is a solemn time to make ready for the coming of Christ and Christmas.
As a way to mark the passage of time, churches often use an Advent Wreath or candle arrangement that contains five candles. On the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit; on the second, two candles are lit; and so on. These candles, which can be various colors depending on the church, often represent such ideas as hope, peace, love, and joy. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the fifth candle is lit, representing Christ, the light of the world.
The day before Christmas Day is one of great anticipation, and is marked in many countries and cultures. The most popular Christmas Mass for Roman Catholics is the midnight Mass, a tradition that began in the early 400s. Midnight Mass is traditionally held at midnight, as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, because it’s believed that Jesus was born at midnight. In today’s churches, both Catholic and Protestant, services may be held at midnight or earlier, often incorporating carols and the Nativity.
Of course, the night of Christmas Eve is also when Santa Claus and his many variants are believed to travel the world, leaving behind presents for the children on the well-behaved list. Although in many countries people open presents on Christmas morning, some open them on Christmas Eve – this includes Canada’s Quebec Provence, as well as Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Portugal.
Christmas Eve is a time when families begin to gather to celebrate Christmas Day, often traveling to be with each other, and enjoying a Christmas Eve supper together. Historically, it was also the day when Christmas trees and decorations were set up; however, the festive garlands are now often in place weeks beforehand.
Despite the name, it has nothing to do with prizefighting. In England, it was customary for churches to open their alms boxes to the poor on the first workday after Christmas in an attempt to give some cheer to those who could not afford a very merry Christmas. Out of this custom grew Boxing Day, on which day service people and other workers would collect money or treats from their employers. It was popularized during Queen Victoria’s reign in England, in the mid-nineteenth century, and remains a day off from work in many countries.
The Wise Men’s visit to Jesus is commemorated on Epiphany, also know in some places as the Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Eve. Originally, Epiphany marked the manifestation of God to the world in the form of Jesus, so it included both the birth and the baptism of Jesus. Later, when the Romans bean introducing Christianity to the West, they moved the birth of Jesus to December 25, and represented Epiphany as the day the Wise Men presented their gifts.
Tradition marks this event on January 6, which remains the date of the Eastern Orthodox Christmas in many countries. You’ll note that there are twelve days between December 25 and January 6, which is where our celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne, The Everything Family Christmas Book)