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The Origins of Christmas Traditions

A little quiz: 1. T F The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. 2. T F The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in December. 3. T F The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin mother. 4. 5. T T F F The early church began the tradition of the Christmas tree. Saint Nicholas figures prominently in our Christmas celebrations because he was the church leader who made Christmas a Catholic festival day. 6. Which of the following figures does not appear in the Gospels narratives of the birth of Jesus? a. b. c. d. 7. T Shepherds Angels Astrologers A drummer boy F Christmas gets its name because for centuries the Catholic church celebrated a Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve called the Christ Mass. 8. T F In colonial America, the Puritans were well known for celebrating Christmas as a major church holiday. 9. The Romans celebrated which of the following on Dec. 25? Page 1 of 10

a. b. c. 10. T

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The birthday of the Roman deity Mithra, the god of the regenerating sun. The feast of Saturnalia. F The early church set Dec. 25 as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus so that it would occur between the Roman feast of Saturnalia, Dec. 19, and the Roman feast of Kalends, which occurred on January 1.

11. 12.

Christmas Day is a legal holiday in Egypt.

Saint Nicholas was Bishop Nicholas of Myra, in what is modern Turkey, in the early 300s. He is considered the protector of what kinds of persons? a. b. c. d. Virgins Thieves Children Sailors F Part of St. Nicholas is entombed in Flushing, NY.

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When did the first retail-store Santa Claus appear? a. b. c. d. 1800-1850 1851-1900 1901-1950 Since 1950 F The Christmas tree is actually of pagan origin, dating from pre-Christian Germany and adopted and Christianized by Christian missionaries.

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16.

When did the Christmas tree come into widespread usage in the United States? Page 2 of 10

a. b. c. 17.

Before the Revolutionary War Between 1820-1840 The late 1800s.

In Old England, on what day of the year did masters and servants eat the same meal at the same table? a. The monarchs birthday, to signify that they were all alike subjects of the king or queen. b. June 15, the date King John agreed to the terms of the Magna Carta in 1215, to signify that they all alike had their rights as Englishmen confirmed by the sovereign. c. Thanksgiving Day, to signify together their common dependency on a gracious God. d. Christmas Day, in the spirit of humility before Christ's incarnation, the act of divine condescension before which all persons are equal.

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Which US president began the custom of lighting the public White House Christmas tree? a. b. c. d. Abraham Lincoln, who used candles Grover Cleveland, in whose term the White House was wired for electricity Calvin Coolidge, whose home state of Vermont sent him a tree. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who began the custom as a beacon of hope during the Great Depression

19.

Christmas carols were begun by church leaders 800 years ago, notably St. Francis of Assisi, because popular music had become too bawdy and Page 3 of 10

impious. 20. Christmas cards began a. In late Medieval times as a means by which the Pope sent Christmas blessings and instructions for the new year to the bishops in Europe. b. In the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, when generals offered to send soldiers Christmas letters home free of charge. c. During Englands Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, when wages rose enough for ordinary people to afford the penny postage cost and the steam press enabled inexpensive printing of the cards. 21. Not a quiz question, but an interesting item. Many people decry the commercialization of Christmas. The commercial aspect of the holiday began at a low level in the 1820s with the publication of The Night Before Christmas, attributed (later) to Clement Moore. This poem is credited with making Christmas a childrens holiday and starting the practice of giving gifts to children by parents; before then, kids were given sweets and treats. The commercialization of Christmas in the US really got a head of steam when gift-giving was promoted to overcome the depression of 1839-1840. Its never looked back.

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The Origins of Christmas A little quiz: 1. True The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Christians have said from the beginning that this verse, written several hundred years before Jesus was born, prophesied his birth in Bethlehem: Mic 5:2 - But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 2. 3. False The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in December. True The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin mother.

Matthew's Gospel (1:23) says thus: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." However, Matthew is quoting a Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Isa. 7:14, which says (NRSV), Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew word, almah, (young woman, maiden) using the Greek word, parthenos. (virgin). So the answer might be, True, sort of. OTOH, the 70 scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek were no dummies and were all Jews besides, so their interpretation of almah as "virgin" should carry a lot of weight. 4. 5. True The early church began the tradition of the Christmas tree. False False Saint Nicholas figures prominently in our Christmas celebrations because he was the church leader who made Christmas a Catholic festival day. Christmas was celebrated from the early days of the Church in various localities (the nearer to Page 5 of 10

Jerusalem, the more likely the celebration). Several church leaders promoted the day, including Chrysostom and St. Ambrose, and the day appeared on all Western Church calendars no later than the mid-300s and on Eastern Church calendars a couple of decades later. 6. Which of the following figures does not appear in the Gospels narratives of the birth of Jesus? a. b. c. d. 7. Shepherds Angels Astrologers A drummer boy

True Christmas gets its name because for centuries the Catholic church celebrated a Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve called the Christ Mass.

This word dates to 1038's Old English, Cristes Maess. Other languages use different words and word origins. 8. False In colonial America, the Puritans were well known for celebrating Christmas as a major church holiday. Puritans actually outlawed Christmas in Boston during part of the 17th century. English Protestantism generally resisted celebrating Christmas. Puritans also got Christmas outlawed in England during the Interregnum, resulting in pro-Christmas rioting, even in Canterbury. The ban was lifted in 1660 with the Restoration. 9. The Romans celebrated which of the following on Dec. 25? a. b. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The birthday of the Roman deity Mithra, the god of the regenerating sun. Page 6 of 10

c.

The feast of Saturnalia.

Mithra, a deity imported from Persia by the Roman military, became an important member of the Roman pantheon as time went on. By the middle of the third century, Mithraism was the main religion of Rome. 10. True The early church set Dec. 25 as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus so that it would occur between the Roman feast of Saturnalia, Dec. 19, and the Roman feast of Kalends, which occurred on January 1. That Christmas was set to take over or Christianize the feast of Saturnalia is not supported by evidence. Christmas Days closest relationship is with the celebration of Mithra, which became an state-sponsored religion of Rome in the third century. It's possible that Christians feared they would be persecuted if they refused to honor Mithra's birthday on Dec. 25, so they decided to celebrate the Nativity on that date instead. Thus they could give the appearance of complying with Roman religion without actually doing so. Christians were already considered atheists by pagan Romans and were under widespread persecution in the 240s. Under Caesar Decius in 250, this persecution became quite severe. 11. True Christmas Day is a legal holiday in Egypt.

It only became a holiday in 2003. 12. Saint Nicholas was Bishop Nicholas of Myra, in what is modern Turkey, in the early 300s. He is considered the protector of what kinds of persons (include all that apply)? a. b. c. Virgins Thieves Children Page 7 of 10

d.

Sailors

All of the above. The legend of St. Nicholas was spread by martimers and took root in the Netherlands as Holland was becoming a great sea power. St. Nicholas was known in life to have been kind to maidens and children. Not sure how he became a protector of thieves, though! 13. True Part of St. Nicholas is entombed in Flushing, NY.

Relics of the saint, including a piece of his skull, were brought to an Eastern Orthodox church there in 1972. 14. When did the first retail-store Santa Claus appear? a. 1851-1900

He was James Edgar and played the part in Brockton, Mass., in 1890, the same year that Katherine Lee Bates invented Mrs. Claus in Sunshine and Other Verses for Children. This makes St. Nicholas the only married saint, but of course neither the Roman church nor the Eastern church recognize Mrs. Claus. 15. False The Christmas tree is actually of pagan origin, dating from pre-Christian times and adopted and Christianized by Christian missionaries. The oak tree was sacred to pre-Christian Germans, not the evergreen. The Christmas tree as a symbol of new life in Christ supplanted the oak tree in Germany, probably from St. Boniface who evangelized Germany in the early 800s. Legend has it that Boniface stopped the sacrifice of young boy against an oak and then cut the oak down, whereupon a fir tree sprang up in its place. More historically, the fir tree is known to have been used in Christmas plays in Germany in the 1500s to represent the tree of knowledge of good and evil (the Genesis story). Decorating the Christmas tree probably began from the way apples were hung from this dramatic tree to Page 8 of 10

represent the fruit of temptation that Adam and Eve ate. By the 1700s Christmas trees became widespread in German homes during Christmastime. 16. When did the Christmas tree come into widespread usage in the United States? a. 17. The late 1800s.

In Old England, on what day of the year did masters and servants eat the same meal at the same table?

Christmas Day, in the spirit of humility before Christ's incarnation, the act of divine condescension before which all persons are equal. 18. Which US president began the custom of lighting the public White House Christmas tree?

Calvin Coolidge, whose home state of Vermont sent him a tree. 19. True Christmas carols were begun by church leaders 800 years ago, notably St. Francis of Assisi, because popular music had become too bawdy and impious. A carol was a form of circle folk-singing and dancing. Beginning in the 700s, traveling minstrel shows spread the form across most of Europe and, like all pop musicians, had found great success with risque lyrics and movements, which only goes to show how long this sort of thing has been going on. 20. Christmas cards began

During Englands Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, when wages rose enough for ordinary people to afford the penny postage cost and the steam press enabled inexpensive printing of the cards. Also, as far as I can determine, the first British penny was minted in 1840 and the penny price for postage was set then, too.

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21.

Extra credit: What American economic occurrence is credited by historians with jump starting the commercialization of Christmas?

Many people decry the commercialization of Christmas. The commercial aspect of the holiday began at a low level in the 1820s with the publication of The Night Before Christmas, attributed (later) to Clement Moore. This poem is credited with making Christmas a childrens holiday and starting the practice of giving gifts to children by parents; before then, kids were given sweets and treats. But the commercialization of Christmas in the US really got a head of steam when gift-giving was promoted to overcome the depression of 1839-1840. Its never looked back. In England the trend was accelerated by the publication of Dickens, "A Christmas Story."

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