Christmas might be one of the holidays that you might think of when someone mentions the holiday season. It tends to be one of the more popular holidays due to the fact that it belongs to the biggest religion – Christianity – in addition to it being celebrated quite heavily in global superpowers such as the United States, the U.K./Europe, and in a number of other places around the world.
Christmas is the holiday that Christians celebrate as Jesus’ birthday. Being the Son of God, the birthday of Jesus is a very important day in the Christian faith. While different sects of Christian faith view Mary, the Mother of Jesus, differently – some see her as the Virgin Mary while others might see her as having relations with Joseph, the man to whom she was engaged – many do believe that she was Jesus’ Mother, regardless of how Jesus was conceived.
I only mention this because it tends to be an important part of the story of Jesus’ birth – Mary and Joseph were engaged to be wed, and an angel of God visited Mary and told her that she would carry and give birth to the Son of God. Joseph, upon hearing that she was pregnant and he was not the father, was ready to break off the engagement before an angel visited him and reassured him and let him know what was really going on – that Mary was really carrying the Messiah. After the Roman Emperor decreed that a census would be taken, Joseph and Mary had to travel back to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem.
However, when they arrived in Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay, and even the town’s inn had no rooms for them; this resulted in Mary and Joseph spending the night in the inn’s barn, which was the only place where they could find somewhere to sleep. During the night of their stay, Mary gave birth to the Baby Jesus and placed him in a manger since there were no cribs in the barn and filled the manger with hay to keep him warm. An angel of God appeared above the barn as a star while other angels went and told shepherds and the Magi (and others) to tell them the good news of Jesus’ birth. With Christians seeing Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, his birthday and the holiday celebrating it is a very important religious event celebrating life, new beginnings, and new hope.
People celebrate the holiday in many different ways around the world. Americans typically celebrate the holiday by putting up Christmas trees with festive lights, ornaments, beads, and tinsel as well as putting decorations on the outsides of their houses or apartments (if they can). The holiday is celebrated with lots of heavy, cake-like foods, festive parties, Christmas-themed movies, television shows, and movies. Christian churches hold Christmas-themed masses celebrating the birth of their Savior and holding Christmas pageants and live nativity scenes for people to see. Presents are wrapped and given as a sign of love and gratitude between families, friends, significant others, and coworkers.
The tradition of Santa Claus coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leaving presents for the children is celebrated in most households. The story that’s told with this tradition is that Santa Claus lives with Mrs. Claus and friendly. Helpful elves in the North Pole year-round to make presents under the Christmas tree for all of the children that have been good all year. He’s seen as a jolly old man with a white beard, a round belly, and a red suit trimmed with white lining, and the children who are waiting for him usually leave milk and cookies out by the Christmas tree or fireplace for him as a thank you for dropping off the presents.
Most of the time, the parents will either ask the children to leave a list for Santa telling him what presents they want so that he knows what to presents to leave, or the parents will take the children to go see Santa in person; sometimes, families will even do both – tell Santa their list in person and leave their list by the fireplace with the milk and cookies on Christmas Eve.
Countries in Europe generally do similar Christmas celebrations and traditions, with slight variations here and there. The U.K. knows Santa Claus as Father Christmas and says “Happy Christmas!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” The presents left by Father Christmas for the children are left in stockings hanging by the fireplace or in a pile at the foot of the child’s bed instead of the American way of presents left in stockings and underneath the tree. Instead of simply leaving a list of what the children would like for Christmas by the fireplace, the children burn the list so that the smoke can carry it out of the chimney. That way,Santa/Father Christmas has an easier time reading it and knowing it before he stops by.
Those living in the U.K. also tend to leave mince pies and brandy for Father Christmas instead of milk and cookies. In Germany, advent calendars are also used to help people prepare for the holiday (the calendars are also used in the U.S. and the U.K., but they aren’t used by everyone). The calendars are meant to have a corresponding candle that is lit every week as well as a corresponding color and story or theme for each week to help people remember what the holiday is about – love, family, religion, and spirituality instead of capitalism and commercialism.
German Christmas Villages are quite popular, and typically sell Christmas foods and decorations. Children living in Germany seal their Christmas lists in an envelope with glitter and leave them on a windowsill during the first week of Advent. In addition to having a Father Christmas/Santa Claus, Germany has a ‘das Christkind’ (translated as ‘a Christ child’) who is a young girl with Christ-like qualities and is dressed in a white and gold dress with a tiara and blonde curly hair. It varies from family to family and region to region who brings the presents on Christmas – Father Christmas, Santa Claus, or das Christkind.
In some regions of Germany, families celebrate Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th by leaving shoes outside of their doors for Saint Nicholas to leave small presents in. (For those who don’t know, Saint Nicholas was the original Santa Claus, and the legend of Santa Claus/Father Christmas stems from Saint Nicholas; in some stories, Saint Nicholas was given the gift of immortality by God so that he could become Santa Claus and deliver presents to children all around the globe).
In Japan, the holiday tends to be more about spreading happiness rather than celebrating religious overtones. The holiday is seen as more of a romantic holiday for couples to spend time together and exchange gifts rather than celebrate the holiday like its European and American counterparts. The Japanese New Year tends to be when families get together and exchange gifts. While Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, most schools are closed because of the Emperor’s birthday falling on December 23rd. In China, Christmas tends to only be celebrated in major cities, and most families go without a Christmas tree in their homes. Apples are given as presents because Christmas is known as “Ping Gua” (meaning peaceful or quiet evening), and the word for apple is similar in sound to the word for peace.
However, Christmas is usually celebrated in a very similar way around the globe, regardless of what country a person might be from. Although I despise not being able to cover more non-European Christmas traditions, I’m including a link to a wonderful website where you can learn more about the traditions that are celebrated from around the world. While it hardly covers the injustice of not including more non-Western/non-European Christmas traditions, I assure you that I will give my best efforts to do better in the future.
(link to where the feature image for this post was found (all credit goes to them for the picture): http://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-electric-christmas-tree-lights)
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As an recent college graduate who studied media studies and anthropology in college, Briana Maddox enjoys learning about different cultures, traditions, holidays, historical figures, experiences, and opinions. With a vested interest in sharing such learning experiences, Briana created Life & Anthropology in the hopes of helping other people gain a better understanding and working knowledge of such topics.