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December 20, 2005 > Christmas

Christmas

by Praveena Raman

Christmas is one of the few holidays that is celebrated in most countries around the world but with differing traditions. The United States has always been known as a "melting pot" where culture and traditions from all over the world blend together to form the American tradition and Christmas is no exception.

Christmas arrived rather late in the United States and was only declared as a national holiday for celebration on June 26, 1870. In the years 1659 to 1681 the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. The Christmas spirit was fined. As an immediate result of the American Revolution, English customs like celebrating Christmas fell out of favor. Though some places like the Jamestown settlement did celebrate Christmas with all the related gaiety, they remained an exception. With the beginning of the nineteenth century, the need for a festival to have some commemorative time, made Americans embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday.

During Christmas many churches and homes display a crˇche, or Nativity scene. These scenes include figurines of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in the stable. They are usually surrounded by the shepherds, angels, the Magi, and animals. Some churches also have a live nativity service. Many Christians attend a midnight Mass on Christmas Eve services at churches which are usually decorated with poinsettias, candles and greenery. These services are often followed by another service on Christmas Day. Christmas has also incorporated some secular traditions including Santa Claus, singing Christmas Carols, sending Christmas cards and giving gifts. Classical stories such as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and the Nutcracker Ballet by Tchaikovsky are very much part of the Christmas season at present times. Here are some stories behind some of the Christmas traditions.

Christmas Trees
Colorfully decorated and brightly lit Christmas trees are a favorite sight that marks the beginning of the Christmas season. In the United States, Christmas trees are decorated by Christians and non-Christians alike. Historically, the origin of the Christmas tree tradition dates back to the Roman celebration, Saturnalia, a winter festival honoring the God of agriculture. In the middle ages an evergreen tree was decorated with apples on December 24th to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve. In the seventeenth century Christmas trees were decorated with paper roses, apples and candies in Germany. Later they were decorated with candles. With the invention of electricity the candles gave way to the modern day Christmas lights.

Ornaments
In the twentieth century, colorful Christmas ball ornaments have been added as decorations on Christmas trees. Historians believe that these balls originated from witch balls. Witch balls are traditionally green hollow glass spheres that are hung in windows to ward off evil spirits. Legend has it that when the evil spirits attracted by the beautiful colors reflected by the glass, touch the ornament they are trapped in the glass strands in the ball and cannot escape. The green balls have given place to hand-blown glass of different colors that evolved into colorful balls made out of different materials. Witch balls can also be hung as ornaments. Ball ornaments, whether they are witch balls or not, were first hung on Christmas trees to ward off evils and for the most part are now hung to add color and beauty to the Christmas tree.

Yule Log
The chocolate Yule log is a popular Christmas treat in the United States. In Twelfth century Europe, a fresh log of wood used to be cut on Christmas Eve and carried with great festivity into the house. After the log was placed on the hearth, oil, salt and mulled wine were sprinkled on it and prayers recited. After prayers, either a young girl in the house or the woman of the house would light the log with splinters from the previous year. It was thought that cinders from the log would protect the house from evil spirits and lightning. As years went by, the great logs in the hearth were replaced by smaller ones decorated with candles and greenery and placed at the center of the table. This has now been replaced in modern times with a chocolate pastry decorated with sugared holly leaves and roses.

Gift Giving
This tradition can be traced to the story of the Three Magi bringing Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to welcome Baby Jesus. Through the centuries, gift giving and giving to charities have always been a part of Christmas. In the 1700s giving and exchanging gifts such as money and food became popular in America. This has evolved into the present day custom of shopping for Christmas which has become the most profitable time for the retailers.

White Elephant Gift Exchange Game
The tradition of gift giving and exchanging has given rise to a popular party game played in the United States during Christmas. This game, also known as the Yankee Swap (New England), Dirty Santa, Grinch Exchange and Thieving Secret Santa, is played at family gatherings and office parties. Each party guest brings an unmarked, wrapped gift, which is not very expensive, to contribute to the game. Before the start of the game, slips of paper with numbers equaling the number of presents are drawn and each player picks one. The player who is #1 picks a present and opens it and displays it for everyone to admire. The player with #2 then can either "steal" the opened present from #1 or open another unwrapped present. If #2 "steals" from #1 then the first player can again choose another gift to open. The game continues with presents being stolen up to three times. Once the present is stolen the third time the present is retired and the owner can keep it. All other presents should be displayed prominently so that the stealer can choose the one they want. The game should be played with a minimum of 6 to 8 players so that players have sufficient opportunities to steal. At the end of the game, each guest walks away with a gift. The term White Elephant is used because in some games guests can bring unwanted gifts or gag gifts to the party. If the rules are stated ahead of time and well moderated, everybody has a good time at the game. Sometimes guests can end up getting interesting gifts that have stories behind them. This year, I was lucky to get a witch ball and learn the story of the origination of the Christmas ball ornaments.

Merry Christmas!

 
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