Christmas is a magical time of year. It’s a time for advent calendars, Christmas trees and Christingle oranges. But where does this holiday come from? And how has it become a holiday celebrated by billions of people around the world?
Where does Christmas come from?
Christmas has changed a lot over the last 2,000 years. The religious holiday was a special occasion long before Christianity adopted the date. The 25th of December falls right in the middle of winter, a time when the winter solstice arrives, promising longer days, shorter nights and the upcoming arrival of spring. This time was important to early European people as winters could be harsh and food scarce. To celebrate the change in seasons, people would celebrate with great feasts. Scandinavia, in particular, celebrated in style. Their epic feasts called ‘Yule’ could go on for as long as 12 days!
While we can trace the feasting back to Scandinavians, we can trace back another tradition to the early Germans. Early Germanic people honoured the god, Oden, during mid-winter. According to myth, he would fly at night watching over the people, deciding who would prosper and who would perish. This has allusions to our current Santa although he was far less friendly.
Another group of people who honoured gods at this time of year were the Romans. They celebrated a holiday called the Saturnalia. Named after the god of agriculture, Saturn, this festival was filled with food and drink. They didn’t stop there either! Roman social order went topsy turvy for a month: peasants and slaves took command of cities allowing them to let off steam and have a bit of fun; schools and businesses would close to allow everyone to join in the frivolity.
These celebrations go back thousands of years and it wasn’t long before Christians adopted this auspicious date as the birth of Jesus. The decision by Pope Julius I to choose the 25th December made it easier for Christianity to be accepted. Over time this holiday lost all ties with Saturn and become a purely Christian holiday.
Even with Christmas becoming a Christian holiday, it was very different from our holiday today. Our modern Christmas with stockings, roast dinners, Santa and presents are largely inspired by the work of Washington Irvine and Charles Dickens. Both were famous writers and their tales of Christmas became the benchmark for Christmases across the world. Their works marked Christmas out as a day to celebrate family, friends, and kindness rather than the end of long, cold nights.
Books have been hugely influential in creating Christmas as we know it today. If you’re looking for a few festive reads to add to your reading time, or would like to encourage your class to get in the festive spirit, then try our favourite Christmas-themed books for kids.
How do people celebrate Christmas?
People around the world celebrate Christmas in their own special ways. Here are just a few:
On the evening of the 5th December (St. Nicholas Eve), children excitedly watch for St. Nicholas (Svatý Mikuláš) to arrive. Saint Nick is accompanied by angels and devils. He asks children if they’ve been good all year and gives them sweets or coal depending on if they are naughty or nice.
Unlike the UK, the main Christmas celebrations are on Christmas Eve. Some people fast in the hope that they will see a vision of a golden pig appear on the wall before dinner! Those lucky enough to see the golden pig are guaranteed good fortune for the coming year. As for presents, those are delivered by Ježíšek or ‘Little Jesus’ on Christmas Eve with families opening presents right after dinner.
Christmas in Japan is relatively new and only a few decades old. It’s very different from a western Christmas and is seen as something more like Valentine’s Day. Christmas Eve is the main day of celebration with couples taking the day to go on trips, have a romantic meal or go to look at Christmas tree lights. A lot of towns in Japan emulate the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree lighting with celebrations of their own. Christmas in Japan is tied to the USA with fried chicken being the most popular meal choice. Because of this association, people have been known to book tables at KFC in Japan months before the festivities.
Japan celebrates what we could call a traditional Christmas around New Year where families come together for meals and to share greeting cards..
In Zambia, the people enjoy traditional Christmas activities such as Christmas carol singing and putting on nativity plays. In a truly charitable act, instead of receiving gifts for Christmas, children are encouraged to bring a present to church for children less fortunate than themselves. After this, parents celebrate with other parents while the children have their own party.
Check out our handy Festive Topical Teaching Resources for more fascinating facts about Christmas, themed lesson plans, craft ideas and fun activities. It’s also worth having a look at Why Christmas, which provides details on Christmas traditions observed around the world that would be perfect to include in lesson plans.
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