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History of Christmas

The roots of our modern Christmas festivities and traditions can be traced back to pre-Christian celebrations of the Winter solstice. The winter solstice celebrations have their roots in many cultures, particularly the Celtic tradition, where druids – the priestly class in ancient Celtic society - would cut the mistletoe that grew on oak trees and offer it as a blessing.

Christmas was originally called Yule in England, which meant mid-winter in old Saxon. When the Saxons were converted to Christianity the word Yule came to mean the birthday of Jesus. For most of history Christmas was just one of many festivals celebrated throughout the year. Until the Victorian era Christmas was not particularly important in England.

The ancient Roman festival called Saturnalia was held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded through to 23 December. Saturnalia celebrated the god Saturn and may have influenced some of the customs associated with the later celebrations in western Europe occurring in midwinter, particularly Christmas. A quiz questions which we've seen once or twice, is "What Roman holiday held from December 17th to the 23rd had a large influence on how Christmas was celebrated?" - now you know the answer (smile)!

Christmas History Timeline

Year History
c.280 The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to the monk, St. Nicholas, who was born in Turkey. St. Nicholas gave away all of his wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor, he became known as the protector of children and sailors.
336 The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in Rome, during the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. December 25 was also the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar.
354 25 December is made the official birthday of Jesus by Pope Julius I, who was bishop of Rome.
800 The popularity of the holiday was helped by the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas.
1038 The first recorded use of the word "Christmas" when a book from Saxon England used the words “Cristes Maesse” in it.
1066 King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day.
1223 St. Francis of Assisi is credited with staging the first nativity scene. Permission was given from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals, an ox and an ass, in a cave in the village of Grecio. Italy. Villagers were invited to view the scene while he preached about "the babe of Bethlehem".
1426 The first Christmas carols in English appeared in a 1426 work of a Shropshire chaplain called John Awdlay. Awdlay listed twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", possibly sung by groups of 'wassailers', who went from house to house.
1647 Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647. The Puritans considering Christmas a Catholic invention and the "trappings of popery" or the "rags of the Beast".
1660 The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban. Many Protestant clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration.
1800 The first Christmas Tree in the UK was set up at the Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of King George III.
1818 The popular Christmas carol, "Silent Night", was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria.
1819 The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. is a collection of essays, sketches and tales by Washington Irving. Irving reinvents Christmas with a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. This deliberately nostalgic picture helped spark a renewed American interest in the festival of Christmas.
1823 The poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas", more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas" and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" from its first line, was first published anonymously. Clement Clarke Moore claimed authorship in 1837. It is responsible for some of the conceptions of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today and had a big effect on the history of Christmas gift-giving.
1834 Christmas Day became a bank holiday in the UK. Boxing Day was added in 1871.
1843 Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to design the first Christmas cards. The cards featured the Cole family around their Christmas feast raising wine glasses to toast the health of the recipient. Cole had been instrumental in the establishment of the 'penny post' just three years ealier, working as an assistant to its main instigator Rowland Hill.
1843 The novella A Christmas Carol was published. Written by Charles Dickens, the book did much to encourage the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday.
1847 Christmas crackers were invented by London confectioner Tom Smith. While in Paris he saw the sale of sugar almonds wrapped in tissue paper which gave him the idea. In 1860 the basic shape of the cracker evolved to pretty much as we see it today and the 'bang' was also introduced.
1862 The modern Santa Claus or Father Christmas was invented in 1862 by a German-American artist called Thomas Nast.
1870 Christmas Day became a federal holiday in the United States.
1932 King George V delivered the first ever Royal Christmas Message via a radio broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Empire Service. It was written by Rudyard Kipling, and touched on the advance of technology that permitted the King to deliver an intimate message to all parts of the world.
1939 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May and published by Montgomery Ward, the department store. The retailer had been giving away colouring books each Christmas and it was decided that creating their own booklet would be cheaper.
1952 "Here in My Heart" by Al Martino became the first first number one and first Christmas number one on the UK Singles Chart,

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