History of Christmas Traditions

While many stories are related to the history of Christmas traditions, a family's culture and heritage have a big impact on the types of activities, food and customs associated with the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Universal Christmas Traditions
The commercially universal aspects of Christmas include Santa Claus, Christmas trees, reindeer, stockings and Christmas songs. Each of these symbols of Christmas has a long and interesting history. Santa Claus and stockings evolved from stories of the kind Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas (270 to 310 AD). Christmas trees and evergreen wreaths reflect ancient European beliefs that the pine represented everlasting life because it stayed green in deepest winter. Reindeer always pulled the sleighs of the Norse gods, and were incorporated into Christmas as the people turned to Christianity.

Various traditions revolve around the commercial aspect of Christmas as well as the religious aspect. Traditions involving the story of the birth of Jesus Christ may be seen in Christmas pageants, midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and charitable activities. The commercial aspect is celebrated with company or personal parties, shopping and crafts.

Culture-Specific Christmas Traditions
Other Christmas traditions are widespread throughout homes with a particular ethnic or cultural heritage. Homes of those of German descent may feature a wooden carousel turned by candles, while French-influenced homes may display a detailed crèche (nativity scene) in a prominent and honored location. Those with British ancestry may incorporate English traditions of crackers (prize-filled favors).

Christmas food is as varied as the cultures that celebrate it. While turkey and ham are common main dishes, many regions feature their own cuisine for Christmas. Regions by the sea may incorporate lobster, oysters and fish for Christmas, while agricultural communities serve lots of breads, pastries, potatoes and produce. Areas of the US with a large Hispanic population may serve empanadas, tortillas and tamales. The key to bring family and friends around the table is to serve favorite foods in a celebratory way.

Giving Back
The Christmas season has always inspired giving and charity; therefore, many traditions have emerged that allow Americans to assist the needy. Donation trees appear in stores and businesses with ornaments that outline an item needed by a poor child in the area. Charities hold fundraisers during the holidays to encourage people to donate money or goods. Opportunities to volunteer at soup kitchens, women's shelters and other venues are commonly announced as well.

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