A List of Traditions: What you May Not have known about Christmas

Maria D’Antonio

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By the end of October, retail stores are already stocking up for Christmas. The television channel ABC Family will soon start advertising its “25 Days of Christmas” special; Christmas CDs go on sale, and radios get ready to play holiday tunes. After Thanksgiving, the whole country is obsessed with Christmas.

However, it took a while for Christmas to get as popular as it is today, and some of the most beloved Christmas traditions, such as Christmas trees and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” almost never became mainstream. Here are some interesting tidbits about one of the most popular holidays of the year.

The Catholics’ Extended Christmas

Many practicing Catholics are aware of the church’s liturgical calendar. The Roman Catholic Church has its own calendar that marks the passing of the three major seasons within the church— Advent and Christmas, Ordinary Time, and Lent and Easter.

The church’s new year usually begins the first Sunday after Thanksgiving and is called the First Sunday of Advent, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church’s new year will start on Dec. 1, and this is the time when Catholics get ready for Christmas. Advent, a time of solemn preparation and waiting for Jesus’ birth, lasts four Sundays and ends on the sunset before Christmas Day.

But Catholics do not spend four weeks preparing for one day. The church continues to commemorate Christmas until the Feast of the Epiphany, which remembers the Magi bringing baby Jesus gifts. This year, Catholics will celebrate Christmas until Jan. 12, 2014. After that, Ordinary Time will begin.

Jolly, Old St. Nicholas: Fourth Century Bishop

St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century during the very beginnings of Christianity, as it is known today, and the Christian persecutions. As bishop, his chief concerns were to protect the young church from heresy and persecution, as well as to help define exactly what Christianity was, according to Catholic Online. He is widely known for his generosity and has a major miracle attributed to him.

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One of the first stories concerning his charity occurred during his younger years, when a poor man faced the choice of selling his three unmarried daughters into prostitution or tossing them in the street. St. Nicholas heard of the tale, and under the cloak of night, took a bag of gold and tossed it in the man’s open window for the eldest daughter’s dowry. At the appropriate time, he did the same for the other daughters as well. The father was “overcome with gratitude,” according to Catholic Online.

His miracle is also worth mentioning. Three men in his city of Myra were unjustly imprisoned and sentenced to die by Prefect Ablavius and Emperor Constantine. The night before the men’s executions, St. Nicholas appeared in the emperor and the prefect’s dreams. The next morning, the men reviewed their notes and ended up releasing the prisoners after they mentioned St. Nicholas. The Catholics celebrate St.Nicholas’ feast day on Dec. 6.

What is the Paradise Tree?

Evergreen trees around the winter solstice were incredibly unpopular among the early Church Fathers, since the plants were associated with paganism. The church leaders condemned Christians who celebrated the Roman holiday, according to Christianity Today. The evergreen trees did not become popular until the Middle Ages, when missionaries firmly believed in conquering cultures by incorporating local culture into religion.

Even then, evergreens were not solely associated with Christmas. The Nativity story was often linked with the creation story, because the feast of Adam and Eve was celebrated on Christmas Eve. The trees often symbolized the Garden of Eden, thus the name “paradise tree.” It became increasingly popular to decorate the tree with cookie wafers to remember the Eucharist. As the trees found themselves in churches, decorated with candles instead of wafers, the tradition was finally associated with only Christmas.

The Beginning of Holiday Books

According to Victorian scholar, Philip Allingham of Lakehead University, Charles Dickens is the man who invented Christmas. Without Dickens, ideas like the Christmas turkey and families gathered around in warm affection may not have been as popular as they are today. Though Christmas Day is mentioned in some of his works, his most memorable tale is arguably “The Christmas Carol,” which started a Christmas tradition of its own—holiday books.

Dickens’ new ideas could not have come at a better time in history. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was well under way, with other nations following in its wake. With local Christmas customs getting lost as urbanization took place, Dickens’ stories offered a set of new ideas and traditions that was feasible for the hustle and bustle of city life and the rural countryside. Also, the Industrial Revolution meant that not only was it easier to spread ideas, through newspapers and books for instance, but it was also possible to import American turkeys in time for Christmas.

There May Have Been a Christmas without Charlie Brown

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A Christmas without Charlie Brown would have happened, according to an article in Mental Floss, if CBS had their way. When the executives previewed the Christmas special, they had a litany of complaints—there was not enough action, the characters were voiced by actual children, and Linus quoted the Bible. However, reluctantly, the network aired “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to honor their commitment.

The special had over 15 million viewers, ranked second in ratings, and creators Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson won an Emmy for their efforts. Thus, the Peanuts gang became a very popular part of the Christmas tradition.

Thanksgiving Bells

“Jingles Bells” was written in the 19th century by James Pierpont when he was trying to come up with a children’s song for Thanksgiving, according to Mental Floss. He was inspired by sleigh races and wrote a song that was so popular at the time that adults loved it, too. The lyrics were slightly altered for Christmas, and the song was published in 1857. Despite the popularity of the song, Pierpont still died poor, due to unfortunate copyright laws.

Many of the features of Christmas almost never happened. Rather than trying to imagine a Christmas without the Peanuts, turkey, or annoying Christmas tunes, just appreciate the fact that many of these traditions began because some people were in the right place at the right time.

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