Christmas A to Z

You’re content to eat the turkey and open the presents, but how much do you know about Christmas?

Advent means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. It is the beginning of the church year for most churches and the period of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ or Christmas. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Eve. It often begins on the Sunday after the American Thanksgiving.

The tradition of Boxing Day, began in England but is celebrated in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There are two theories of how Boxing Day came about. One is that centuries ago, on the day after Christmas, members of the merchant class gave boxes full of food and fruit, clothing and/or money to trades people and servants. This is much like the bonuses we receive from our employers. The second is that the tradition comes from opening the alms boxes placed in churches over the Christmas season. The contents were then distributed among the poor.

Cards are another tradition that began in England. People used to exchange handwritten greetings, first in person then via post. By 1822 it was a craze in the US and had become a bane for the postal system. The first Christmas card designed for sale was by London artist John Calcott Horsley. Sir Henry Cole, a wealthy businessman, who wanted a card he could send to friends and acquaintances wishing them a Merry Christmas, commissioned the well-respected artist and the Christmas card was born in 1843.

Whether it’s lights, ornaments or Christmas trees, decorations. All around the world, people love to decorate at Christmas; in North and South America and Europe, it is traditional to decorate house exteriors with lights, reindeer, snowman and other Christmas figures.

Probably a movie based tradition, elves are Santa’s famed, small helpers. Mostly known in Canada, the US and the UK, the elves wrap up presents and make toys in a workshop.

Feasting, an ancient practice, carried out by many cultures. In England, it has gone in and out of fashion depending on who sat on the throne. The beginning of Christmas extravagance took place in the 13th century when Henry III had 600 oxen killed and prepared for a single feast. Now, turkey is preferable.

Christmas would not be Christmas without games. There are numerous Christmas games, which are played on Christmas Day. In Cyprus and Greece, people love card games and play on New Year’s for hours.

Holly’s sharply pointed leaves symbolised the thorns of Christ’s crown and the red berries, drops of his blood. Some ancient peoples used holly for protection. By decorating doors and windows with it, they hoped it would warn off evil spirits. Others say that it provides shelter to tree fairies.

Internationally different traditions are observed around Christmas. The French don’t eat until after midnight on Christmas. The Danish dance around the Christmas tree. In Spain, nativity scenes are present in nearly every home. The Portugese set extra places at the table for ‘the souls of the dead’ and even leave crumbs for them. In Italy the main exchange of gifts take place on January 6.

The words and music of Jingle Bells were written by James Pierpont in 1857 for a Thanksgiving programme at his church in Boston. It was so well received that children were asked to repeat it at Christmas. It has remained a favourite ever since.

Staying with songs, We Three Kings Of Orient Are, the Christmas carol written in 1857 by Reverend John Henry Hopkins. Otherwise, the Three Kings, also known as the Three Wise Men, fooled Herodotus, followed the star to where Jesus was born and offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Lights are often one of the first signs that people are celebrating Christmas. Lights on Christmas trees, as well as lampposts, shop windows and on houses. People began putting lights on Christmas trees in the middle of the 17th century. At first they attached candles to the end of the branches but in 1908, Ralph Morris came up with the idea of pulling the lights from an old telephone switchboard and wiring them on a tree, running them from a battery.

Merry Christmas. It was Charles Dickens who invented the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, apparently. Since then, it has been used on Christmas cards, decorations, in songs.

The popularity of the nativity scene originated in Italy. There’s the star, the manger, the shepherds, the angels, baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. St Francis of Assisi asked a man named Giovanni Vellita of the village of Greccio to create a manger scene. The creation of the figures became an entire genre of folk art.

Overeating has almost become a tradition. Although there isn’t any history behind this act, in hundreds of years to come, I’m guessing Greece and Cyprus will be behind this one. ‘Overeating originated in a small island called Cyprus or in a country called Greece…’

For many (mostly younger) people Christmas is all about presents. The tradition started with the three wise men’s gifts to Jesus. However, no one was really in the habit of exchanging gifts until late in the 1800s. The Father Christmas story combined with an amazing retailing phenomenon that has grown since the turn of the century, has made gift giving a central focus of the Christmas tradition.

The Snow Queen, a pantomime favourite. Hans Christian Anderson’s powerful story is all about friendship and the triumph of love over wickedness. A young girl is forced to battle the wicked snow queen in order to save the soul of the man she loves.

Santa has eight reindeers but the most popular one is Rudolph. The story of Rudolph, who guides Santa’s sleigh thanks to his red nose, came out of nowhere in 1939. It was written by a person in the advertising department of Montgomery Ward stores and apparently Rudolph’s original name was Rollo. 

According to a very old tradition, Santa left gold coins in the stockings of three poor young ladies who needed money for their dowry. The stockings were hung to dry. Although it was the custom to put sweets, nuts and fruit in the stockings, this has changed and now stockings host more expensive gifts.

A traditional Christmas dinner wouldn’t be worth a cent if it weren’t for the roast turkey and stuffing. It was customary to eat goose at Christmas until Henry VIII decided to tuck into a turkey, so now 93 per cent of us will be eating turkey.

Under the mistletoe is a popular place at Christmas. This tradition goes back hundreds of years, all the way to the 17th century. The act of kissing under the mistletoe probably drew upon age-old rituals and traditions involving druidism and fertility rites. It became a trend in England and Wales during the 17th century and has since become a tradition.

Particularly in Greece and Cyprus, we get overrun with visitors over the Christmas period. Not only do immediate family members gather at a house for food and drinks, the koumbaroi [in-laws] and neighbours are invited too. Peace is not restored until well into the New Year.

Why does everyone dream of a white Christmas? We have associated this festive season with snow due to movie over-exposure. Obviously, snowmen are very ‘in’ during this time of year and will not be seeing one for a long time (at least those of us who don’t live in the mountains) but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming.

Xmas trees are believed to have originated in Germany in the mid 1700s. The evergreen trees represented life and with the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, trees are decorated and taken into homes.

Yule logs also originated in Great Britain and have now spread throughout Europe. On the Eve of Christmas, the entire family would pull in a large central trunk of a tree into the house. It would then be placed in the fireplace to burn throughout Christmas. It then became superstitious. They said you had to take one match and light it or else your house would have a bad spell. Of course, they are now more popular served as a sweet.

Zzz. After all that eating, playing and reading this article, a nap is just what you need! 🙂

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3 Responses to “Christmas A to Z”

  1. nikita

    I need to know how Christmas in Cypurs is different to Christmas in England

  2. nikita

    I need it for my school project

  3. grhomeboy

    Nikita, the answer is very simple. There are quite a few differences in celebrations in Cyprus as opposed to England. In Cyprus, Greek and Orthodox Christian Church’s traditions and local customs are kept from generation to generation. Read more at our Cyprus and Greece categories.

    However, please note that due to the fact that Cyprus used to be a British colony (The Republic of Cyprus gained its independence from Brits in 1960) many English Christmas traditions are also common for the Cypriots.

    Best Wishes for high marks with your school project!
    Merry Christmas to you!