According to historians, it's a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there's nothing left to be done in the fields.
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Despite the spread of Christianity, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas for hundreds of years. The Bible gives no reference to when Jesus was born , which wasn't a problem for early Christians, Nissenbaum said. With no Biblical directive to do so and no mention in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn't until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday. At this time, Nissenbaum said, many people had turned to a belief the Church found heretical: That Jesus had never existed as a man, but as a sort of spiritual entity.
Midwinter festivals, with their pagan roots, were already widely celebrated, Nissenbaum said. And the date had a pleasing philosophical fit with festivals celebrating the lengthening days after the winter solstice which fell on Dec.
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But if the Catholic Church gradually came to embrace Christmas, the Protestant Reformation gave the holiday a good knock on the chin. In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism, Nissenbaum said. This likely had something to do with the "raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion" in which Christmas was celebrated, he added.
In England under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas and other saints' days were banned, and in New England it was illegal to celebrate Christmas for about 25 years in the s, Nissenbaum said.
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Forget people saying, "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," he said. While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year's Day. It wasn't until the Victorian era of the s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria's children got Christmas Eve gifts in , including a sword and armor. In , Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in , she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
All of this gift-giving, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups steamed, Nissenbaum said. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ's birth.
The modern-day image of Santa has been evolving for centuries. Modeled after Saint Nicholas who had a reputation for secret gift-giving, Santa was eventually shaped into the sleigh-riding, chimney-climbing man we know today, through the work of people like Washington Irving and illustrator Thomas Nast. In that image, Santa appears in the classic red and white suit with a big belly to boot. This is one of those traditions that we're not too sure about.
One story goes that a German choirmaster in was worried about children being disruptive during long church services, so he went to a candy maker for sticks of white sugar to keep them quiet. To give the candy an educational slant, the choirmaster asked the candy maker to make the sticks in the shape of a cane so that the kids would remember the story of the shepherds who came to visit baby Jesus.
However, all the references to this story are anecdotal and there are no real records to prove it's actually true.
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What we do know is that in , Bob McCormack started making candy canes in Georgia and eventually became one of the world's leading candy cane producers. Since manually shaping candy canes into their traditional 'J' shape was inefficient and labor-intensive, McCormack's brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller, invented the Keller Machine to automate the process of shaping straight candy sticks into today's J-shaped candy canes.
Most culinary historians agree that eggnog stems from a medieval British drink called "posset," a thick, boozy, ale-like concoction seasoned with whatever spices were on hand. As the milk, eggs and sherry used to make posset were foods of the rich, the drink was used in toasts to prosperity and good health. Eggnog became a holiday tradition when it was brought over to the American colonies, where cows, chickens and rum were much more accessible.
As for the name? The term "nog" referred to a certain type of strong, English beer, while a "noggin" was a small cup intended for brewing nog. There are a few different stories behind the origin of the modern-day Christmas tree, although not all are rooted in fact. Evergreen trees were actually used by pagans in winter festivals for thousands of years. During the winter solstice, evergreens signified the coming of spring.
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As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the trees began to be used as a symbol for Christmas. In mystery plays in Germany, they were often used as props, garnished with apples to represent the Garden of Eden. One legend credits 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther for bringing the Christmas tree into homes.
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Luther was supposedly walking through the forest on the night before Christmas when he looked up to see stars shining through the tree branches. He was so dazzled by the sight that he told his children it reminded him of Jesus and then erected a tree in his own home. But it wasn't until the midth century that the Christmas tree as we now know it became custom.
England's Queen Victoria encouraged her husband Prince Albert to decorate a tree as he had back at home in what is now Germany. When a drawing of the royal family with their exquisite Christmas tree appeared in a London newspaper, the tradition became popular throughout the UK and US. In ancient Rome, people would exchange evergreen branches during New Year's celebrations to wish each other good health.
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The Romans eventually began bending these branches into a ring and displaying them on doorways, which symbolized both victory and eternal life.