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Dive Into History

December 3, 2023

Dr. Paul Cannings

Christmas is a special time for Christ worldwide:

  •     During the early days of Christianity, different parts of the world celebrated Christmas on different dates. If you traveled widely in the Roman world, you could conceivably enjoy six different Christmases in a single year. In the mid-fourth century, Pope Julius I appointed a monk named Dionysius to set up a calendar standardizing a universal date, which came to be December 25.
  •     Christmas was outlawed in England by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), who thought of it as a “heathen celebration.” It was illegal to celebrate the holiday until the British monarchy was restored in 1660.
  •     The Puritans of New England also outlawed Christmas. The following law was passed in Massachusetts in 1659: “Whoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting or any other way, shall pay for any such offense five shillings as a fine to the country.” The law remained on  the books for 22 years, and Christmas was not a legal holiday in Massachusetts until just before the Civil War.
  •     In Spain, Christmas gifts are not exchanged until January 6—for a very good reason. That is the date commemorating the visit of the Magi, who were the first to offer Christmas gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. On that night, children set their shoes outside on the doorstep, filling them with straw for the camels. They believe the wise men will use the straw to feed their camels and, in return, fill the shoes with gifts and candy.
  •     The custom of sending Christmas cards began in 1843 when a wealthy Englishman, Sir Henry Cole, ran out of time to write personal letters to his friends at Christmas. He commissioned an artist, John Calcott Horsley, to design a card instead. Horsley drew a picture of a group of merry-wishers  raising their glasses in a toast. Underneath were the words, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The card created much controversy, as critics complained it encouraged holiday drinking. But the custom of sending cards at Christmas caught on, nonetheless.
  •     The Poinsettia is a Christmas tradition harkening from Mexico. According to legend, a boy named Pablo was headed to his village church to see its nativity scene. Realizing he had no gift for the Christ child, he hurriedly gathered some branches and weeds from the roadside. When he laid them before the manger, the other children laughed at him. But suddenly, on each branch appeared the brilliant, star-shaped flower of the Poinsettia.
  •     Candy canes were reportedly developed by a Christian candy maker in Indiana who built the story of Christmas into each piece. The hardness of the candy represents the solid rock of the Christian faith. The white represents the sinlessness of Christ, and the red stripes symbolize the bloody wounds caused by his flogging. The shape of the candy is that of a shepherd’s staff, representing Christ as our Good Shepherd. Turned upside down, it forms the letter “J”—for Jesus.
  •     Our word Christmas comes from the English observance of the birth of Christ called Christes masse (Christ’s mass) because a special mass was celebrated on that day. In France, it’s known as Noel; in Spain, Navidad; and in Italy, Natale—all those words meaning simply birthday. The Germans use the word Weihnachten, meaning holy nights.
  •     The word Yule comes from the Teutonic tribes of northern Europe. Because their winters were so long and harsh and their days so short, they always celebrated the winter solstice on December 22, the shortest day of the year. It was a time of great joy for them. From that point, each year, the days began to lengthen. They called the month Yule, or Jol, from which we get our English word jolly.
  • The day after Christmas is commonly called “Boxing Day” in England because of the custom of giving Christmas boxes containing gifts and money to the servants. (Morgan, Robert J.: Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes. electronic ed. Nashville : Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, S. 110)