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Just the Facts: Christmas in North America

Christmas is a celebration with a long and varied history. Along with Easter, Christmas is the central holiday for a majority of Christians.

Christmas has been celebrated according to various customs that are often influenced by local tradition.

Information sourced from the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore

History and tradition:

  • Traditionally Christmas is the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ by Christians.
  • In Christian theology, the nativity is the beginning of humanity’s salvation and when divinity took human form.
  • The date of Christ’s birth is not explicitly recorded in scripture. Several dates were debated by the early church.
  • The first documented celebration of Christmas on December 25th is in a Roman calendar in 354 AD
  • The Early Christian church celebrated it on January 6th (Eastern Orthodox Christians still celebrate January 6th  as the epiphany and the 7th as Christmas)
  • The origin of Santa Claus can be traced to the Christian Saint Nicholas who was a Greek Bishop in the third century. His feast day is the 19th of December.

Celebration in England:

  • The word “Christmas”, a portmanteau of “Christ’s mass” first appeared in the English language record in an Old English chronicle in 1101 AD
  • Before this the festive season was referenced to  as “Yule”
  • Christmas as we know it today was “reinvented” in the second half of the 19th century by the Victorians
  • Writers like Charles Dickens and Washington Irving helped popularize certain elements of the holiday
  • Washington Irving (who also created the headless horseman) was the first to popularize the image of Santa flying on a sleigh with reindeer
  • Native English elements like the Yule log, carolling, holly and mistletoe were combined with imports or inventions.
  • Gift-giving was a German custom that first appeared in the English written record in an 1821 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine
  • Christmas lights originated in upper-class German homes in the 18th century and were later adopted in the UK

Arrival in North America and popular culture:

  • Originally Americans rejected the tradition of Santa Claus but it was again reintroduced by Dutch settlers
  • Santa Claus was originally called “Father Christmas” in England, it was the Americans who changed the name to “Santa Claus” as to avoid being too English
  • Many of the famous Christmas characters popular today were created in American popular culture
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was invented by American author Robert L. May in his book “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939 to advertise for Montgomery Ward a mail order and department store, originally Rudolph didn’t have a red nose because this was associated with alcoholism
  • Frosty the Snowman originated in the popular song written by Walter “Jack” Rollins in 1950.

Some Canadian facts and numbers:

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