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History of Christmas
On December 25, people around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Some people celebrate by giving gifts. Children may be thanking Santa Claus for new toys. They may also be going to church with their families. Christmas has so many traditions and symbols associated with it, that it's hard to determine exactly how it came to be the celebration it is today.
By 336 A.D., the Christian church in Rome celebrated the festival of Christmas on December 25. The same day, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). In observance of the "birthday of the unconquered sun," they exchanged gifts and made merry with a festival. On the Roman New Year (January 1), people decorated houses with greenery and gave gifts to children and the poor. Evergreens were a symbol of survival.
Modern-day Christmas borrows many of these traditions. St. Nicholas became a popular figure by the 11th century, known for his great generosity and healing powers. With the rise of the Protestant Church, he was nearly forgotten, except in the Netherlands, where they called him Sinterklaas. Dutch colonists settling in New Amsterdam (now New York City) brought the story of St. Nicholas with them. In English, he became known as Santa Claus. Added to the legend of this kind old man were old Nordic folk tales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The Santa Claus we recognize in the U.S. today, with his red suit, jolly laugh, and long white beard, began to appear in story and song in the 19th century. But every family has their own unique traditions for the holiday as well.
How do your relatives and friends celebrate the holiday? By going to church? Decorating a Christmas tree? Exchanging presents? Singing and dancing? Eating massive amounts of turkey or pie? Alan Wallace of Massachusetts, who was a boy at the end of the 19th century, used to gather seashells from the shore in the summertime to make into Christmas presents. Margaret Davis of Georgia, said her family ate, danced, and went to parties all week long in the 1890s. Some children write letters to Santa at the North Pole asking for things they want. Some leave milk and cookies out for St. Nick the night before. Some families attend morning mass, while others gather around a Christmas tree to open brightly wrapped boxes. The modern legend of Santa Claus says that Santa comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to put presents under the tree and stuff stockings full of treats.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, these strands were strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory. Railroad passengers traveling by the laboratory got their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost forty years for electric Christmas lights to become the tradition that we all know and love.
Before electric Christmas lights, families would use candles to light up their Christmas trees. This practice was often dangerous and led to many home fires. Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edisonís friend and partner in the Edisonís Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with electricity, it also revolved.
However, the world was not quite ready for electrical illumination. There was a great mistrust of electricity and it would take many more years for society to decorate its Christmas trees and homes with electric lights. Some credit President Grover Cleveland with spurring the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights. In 1895, President Cleveland requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs.
On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the countryís celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse located south of the While House. Until 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights, stringed lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. The wiring of electric lights was very expensive and required the hiring of the services of a wireman, our modern-day electrician. According to some, to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights before 1903 would have cost $2000.00 in todayís dollars. Today we expect to see the holiday season become aglow with electric strands of light every where we look.
Content/Photo: Library of Congress
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