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Christmas. For many of us, no other word evokes more memories of childhood.
Perhaps that's why Christmas traditions are so important to so many families. Christmas decorations, Christmas cards, Santa Claus, and the inevitable mad scramble of last minute gift shopping: they're all part of one of the most enjoyable—and stressful!—holidays of the year. There's a sense of continuity in celebrating in the same special ways year after year.
Christmas Gifts
Most of our important Christmas traditions aren't as old as we often think. Take gift giving for instance. It's hard to imagine Christmas without presents under the tree, but the practice of buying large fancy gifts for Christmas Day didn't really get rolling until the 1860s!

In 1867, Macy's, the major department store in New York City, stayed open until midnight Christmas Eve. Seven years later, in 1874, they were the first to design their window displays around a Christmas theme. That was the start of the gift-giving craze (so if you, like many people, feel that Christmas has become too commercial, now you know who to blame!).

Before Macy's, and their brilliant marketing move, gifts were given, but they weren't as important a part of Christmas as they are now. The tradition goes back all the way to the Three Wise Men, who brought gifts of gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus.
Boxing Day
Christmas traditions also include giving to the poor; the British tradition of Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Churches would open the alms box the day after Christmas and distribute the money to the poor. Boxing Day hasn't escaped the commercial blitz either—now it's best known for department store Boxing Day Sales!

Joyful Traditions

December 25
While some Christmas traditions are Holiday Bellsrelatively recent, some go back thousands of years. Even the date is a tradition, rather than an established fact. When all is said and done, no one knows the precise date of Christ's birth.
December 25 was chosen by the Church around 400 AD, in an attempt to replace the various pagan winter solstice celebrations with a decidedly Christian one.
The use of mistletoe is another hanger-on from pagan times, when it played an important role in both Celtic druidism and the Asgardian myths of Scandinavia. The Church was concerned with the plant's pagan past and substituted holly, making it a symbol of Christ.
The sharp leaves of the holly plant represent Christ's crown of thorns, and the red berries are a symbol of his blood. In spite of this attempt to stamp out mistletoe as a Yuletide symbol, the practice of kissing under the mistletoe has persisted to this day.
Caroling is an old Christmas tradition. It dates all the way back to ancient Greece, and originates in the word choraulien, meaning "to dance to a flute." By the Middle Ages, it meant "to sing and dance together," and over time caroling became associated with Christmas songs.
Christmas Cards
Sending Christmas cards is a recent development. The tradition began in England, and was helped along by the development of the public "Penny Post" and the speed with which the new railroads could deliver mail. At first the cards were almost exclusively religious, but they slowly branched out to include humor and non-religious sentiments.

When two people marry, they must negotiate and compromise which traditions will be kept, and in which order.

She: In my family, we open our gifts Christmas Eve, then empty our stocking on Christmas morning!

He: There's no way we're opening gifts Christmas Eve. It's what Christmas morning is for. That's what my family has always done.z

Family Traditions
Families who celebrate Christmas have developed numerous family-specific traditions over the years. For some families, Christmas means a trip to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Other families battle over the issue of whether Christmas should be spent with "her" side or "his" side of the family this year. Many young families with working parents now opt to stay home.
Another firm tradition is the timing for opening gifts. In some families, late-night Christmas Eve is the preferred time. Families who attend midnight services at church open their gifts when they come home in the wee hours of Christmas morning. In the commercial version of Christmas, small children wake at the crack of dawn to run and check whether Santa has come. Many families open gifts in their robes and slippers on Christmas morning.

clear clear clear clear clear clear

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."  - Charles Dickens

The Christmas Season's
Cultural Icons

Christmas Trees
Father Christmas
Most of the modern day trappings of Christmas originated in the European countries and America. The Christmas tree began to appear in Germany as early as 700 AD. It may have grown out of half-remembered druidic traditions, or possibly out of the annual bringing in of the Yule log. The practice spread across Europe, and by the Victorian Era people were decorating the trees with candles, candy and cakes. In 1880 Woolworth's sold the first manufactured Christmas decorations.
Using Xmas instead of Christmas also dates back a long time—Christ in Greek is Xristos. By the 1500s the term Xmas had passed into standard usage.
Santa Claus
And then, of course, there is Santa Claus. Santa's life is based on the life of St. Nicholas, who lived in Myra, in what is now Turkey, in the 4th century AD. Nicholas was a young bishop who wanted to give money to the poor, but was incredibly shy.
Rather than give the money directly, legend has it that he climbed onto the roof of a peasant's house, and dropped a bag of money down the chimney. The moneybag landed in a sock that a young girl has hung by the fire to dry, and it is from this story that we get the modern Christmas stocking. Santa Claus's red costume is a reminder of the bishop's robes worn by Nicholas.
Santa's Reindeer

Who are the Reindeer?
Pulling the Sleigh (Clement Moore, 1882):
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen
Guiding the Sleigh (1949): Rudolph

We're not altogether sure when Saint Nick's white horse was transformed into eight sleigh-pulling reindeer. The earliest evidence was from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas—the famous poem/story by Clement Moore.
Moore even gave the eight reindeer their names. Although legend has it that Saint Nicholas climbed on rooftops to drop money down the chimney, Moore decided the reindeer could fly to the rooftop. Maybe this was because the Right Jolly Old Elf had short legs and was unlikely to scale walls.
And along with the reindeer and the sleigh came the jingle bells. A silver jingle bell is the treasured gift from Santa in the popular holiday story, The Polar Express.
Who Brings the Gifts?
Canada and the United States: Santa Claus
Christmas StockingBelgium: Saint Nicholas
Brazil: Papai Noel
The Czech Republic: Svaty Mikalas
Denmark: Julemanden
Early Days of the U.S.: Kris Kringle
France and Quebec: Pre Nol
Germany: Der Weinachtsmann / Christkind
Italy: La Befana (female)
Japan: Hoteiosho
Netherlands: Sinterklaas
Nicaragua: The Three Wise Men
Norway: Julebukk
Sweden: The Tomte (Christmas gnome)
Russia: Dedoushka Moroz / Baboushka
Spain: Balthazar (of the Three Wise Men)
United Kingdom: Father Christma

clear clear clear clear clear clear

"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful."  -
Norman Vincent Peale

Outdoor Christmas Decorations and Decorating Ideas

The traditional time for putting up Christmas decorations is the weekend following Thanksgiving. And after all that rich food and football, putting up the decorations is a good way to work in some exercise! (This is also the biggest weekend for holiday gift shopping.)

For some, Christmas decorations are as simple as a decorated Christmas tree inside and a festive wreath on the front door. For others, decorating for Christmas becomes an all out festival of Christmas lights, lawn and rooftop ornaments, and all sorts of other indoor and outdoor Christmas decorations.

Christmas Decorating Ideas for Outdoors

For a festive, but gentle scene, suitable for the approaching "Silent Night, Holy Night," line your drive and walkways with luminaries. These can be made by hand cutting shapes (snowflakes, stars, snowmen, etc) with an X-Acto knife out of colored and waxed lunch bags. But if you're not crafty, commercial luminaries are also lovely. Note: Paper bag luminaries are not recommended for snowy or rainy locales.

Nativity Scene: When decorating your front lawn or entryway with a nativity scene highlight the scene with lights. If possible, light the scene from above to simulate starlight shining down on the Holy Family. And, light the scene with soft lighting from the front to illuminate their faces.

A Gift Giving Christmas: Do something different this year; make your outdoor space a place for gifts...giant gifts. Wrap wood crates (or large cardboard boxes if you live in a dry area or one with early snow and no thaw 'til spring) in large sheets of Christmas paper (foil or waxed is best) and a large bow. Highlight the ribbons and bows with a string of lights. For the best scene use a number of different sizes and shapes of boxes/crates. Pile them up, tip them sideways, get creative, and have fun! Carry the theme to your front and garage doors.

Themed Christmas Decorations: Choose a theme and go with it. Some ideas for themes include: candy canes, snowflakes, snowmen, Christmas trees, angels, candles, bells, reindeer, and of course Santa Clause and his sleigh! Other "non-traditional" options are the Grinch or favorite cartoon characters celebrating the holiday.

Decorating the Neighborhood: Some neighborhoods are known for their decorations and people come from miles around just to tour the neighborhood each Christmas season. Possible neighborhood decorating ideas include enlisting adjoining neighbors to mount a reindeer on each of their roofs while you mount Santa and his sleigh, lighted toy soldiers marching through the neighborhood, and stings of white or colored Christmas lights connecting all homes in the neighborhood.