Sunday, December 21, 2014

10 Things You Might Not Know About Christmas

1- No One Really Knows When Jesus Was Born

Well, not entirely true. Many scholars estimate that he was likely born some time between 7 and 2 BCE. However, the exact day and month are pretty much impossible to determine for certain. December 25th was chosen by ancient Western Christians because it coincided with pre-existing pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. In many Eastern Churches, the date of January 7th is chosen as the day for celebrating Jesus' birth.

2- St Nicholas' and His Anonymous Giving

St Nicholas, one of the historic influences for Santa Claus, was a bishop who lived in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He was a Greek bishop who attended Roman Emperor Constantine's famous Council of Nicaea which helped establish Christian tradition and doctrine. Various legends and tales surround him. Some of the most well known fables recount how he would give anonymously to people in need, dropping purses of gold or money through open windows. Some tales describe him dropping money into stockings hung up to dry or placing coins into shoes left outside people's homes. He did this out of fear of being seen in public and accused of being prideful.

4- In the Middle Ages Christmas Was a Big Kegger

In Medieval Europe, Christmas was not really the family friendly holiday many of us know today. It bore more of a resemblance to today's Madi Gra or St Patrick's Day in the US. According to Medieval accounts, much of the holiday was spent indulging in activities usually maligned for most of the year by the Church. This included drinking obscene amounts of  ale, gambling, dancing and having promiscuous relations. It was during this age that the tradition of Christmas caroling popped up though the caroling troops included female dancers who would add to the frivolity and 'misrule'.

5- Protestant Radicals Banned Christmas in England

In the mid 1600s civil war broke out in England between the King Charles I and the English parliament. Eventually, Parliament won the war and brought radical Protestants, called Puritans, to power. Along with having the King executed and persecuting Catholics, England's Puritan leadership decided to ban Christmas believing it to be a corrupt Catholic tradition that promoted debauchery. This caused several riots to break out in English cities and Christmas was eventually restored after the return of the British monarchy. 

6- Christmas Was a Maligned Holiday in post-Revolutionary War America

Across the Atlantic in New England, Puritan migrants (aka Pilgrims) maintained a ban on Christmas between 1659 and 1681. Other colonies celebrated the holiday more openly but following the American Revolution in 1776 Christmas fell out of favor as it was considered a backward English custom. For many years after independence the holiday was not an official day off in many states, with the US Congress meeting as usual on December 25th.

7- Where the Christmas Tree Came From

Much like Jesus' date of birth, we don't have a precise answer for the origin of the Christmas tree. Throughout central Europe many pre-Christian winter solstice festivals used trees and evergreens prior to the arrival of Christianity. One story, recounts that during the conversion of German peoples to Christianity St Boniface cut down the sacred Oak tree of the god Odin. He replaced it with a triangular fir tree. According to this tale, the shape of the fir tree with it's three corners represented the trinity. Whatever the ultimate origins, the Christmas tree was first popularized in German countries in the 1600s. It was then spread to other parts of the Western world thanks to German immigrants and marriages between members of German nobility and other high-class people in Europe in the 1800s.

8- No Red Christmas in the Soviet Union

When the Communists rose to power in Russia in 1918, one of their greatest desires was to distance themselves from the old Imperial Russia. This included stamping out the celebration of Christmas and other Christian holidays as part of the state's Atheist creed. One group, The League of Militant Godlessness, created an anti-religious holiday on the 31st of December as a replacement and a new custom of having children spitting of crucifixes on Christmas Day took shape in Moscow.  However, certain Christmas traditions were, after 1935, incorporated into New Year Celebrations. Spruces, topped with a red  Communist star and decorated with Soviet themed ornaments (airplanes, rockets and cosmonauts) became part of the secular holiday.

9- 'White Christmas' 'Let it Snow' 'Silver Bells' and Other Christmas Songs Written by Jews

Along with the three previously mentioned classics we can add 'Santa Baby' 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire' and 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' to the list of Holiday jingles composed by Jewish American songwriters in the early 20th century. So why did they write so many songs for a traditionally Christian holiday? There are a few reasons. First, anti-Semitism was not as common in the American music industry as it was in the rest of American society. That meant Jews had an easier time getting a foot in the door. Second, by the 1920s and 30s Christmas in the US was already becoming a more secular national holiday. Jewish songwriters such as Irving Berlin felt that they could write non-religious themed songs. This helped make the holiday more inclusive for all Americans, especially non-Christians.

10- The Economics of Christmas

Christmas is the peak spending season in most Western countries. Alternatively, Christmas Day itself is often the least economically productive day of the year as most people stay home. In America, the US Census Bureau estimates that in 2011, sales in December accounted for 14.3% of  all sales for department stores throughout the year. Additionally, between January and September of 2012, the US imported $1.03 billion worth of Christmas ornaments from China. China is also the world's leading producer of all Christmas related products. According to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, over 60% of the world's Christmas trinkets that were produced last year originated from a Chinese city called Yiwu. Located in Zhejiang province, it has been given the nickname 'Christmas Village'. 

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