In many families it is the highlight of the year when everyone gathers around the elaborately decorated tree and the room is bathed in festive lighting; children’s eyes light up as they admire their gifts and you can simply forget about your everyday worries. Christmas and Advent time exercise an unmistakeable magical charm over people. As the days get shorter and colder and you can feel wintertime approaching, many people console themselves about the last few warm autumn days coming to an end by thinking about the upcoming Christmas.
But why is Christmas so important for most people, especially in the western world? Is it tradition, religion or are there other reasons?
Of course to start with Christmas is a Christian festival. The birth of Christ is celebrated by 2 billion Christians all over the world on 25th December.
But why was precisely this date laid down by the church? An exact date of birth is not mentioned for the Christ child in the bible. The date was probably defined at the end of December for various reasons. The solstice, the day from which the days get longer, has always been celebrated in almost all well-known cultures in the western world, be it Germanic, Celtic, Roman or Persian. The definition of the date might have resulted from this custom. Or even from the natural need of people to live off the hope of salvation through the Christian message of the birth of the Saviour, be it only from ice and snow during the cold and long winter when nothing thrives on the fields and pastures.
However, we must not forget that Christmas is not the most important festival in the church year from a purely Christian perspective. Although it marks the birth of Jesus, the most important festival is Easter, which solemnises the resurrection of the Son of God.
The fact that despite this Christmas is celebrated much more elaborately than Easter in so many families can certainly be explained by tradition. Particularly during the cold and dark season, people have a greater need to come closer together, retreat to their homes and simply enjoy a few quiet days with their family in a peaceful atmosphere with good food.
Even if this explains the date and reason for Christmas, many people still ask though, where do the many symbols that we encounter around Christmas time every year come from.
The Christmas tree
For example, where does the custom of festively decorating a fir tree come from and how did the Christmas tree become the main symbol of Christmas?
This custom also has its roots in non-Christian cultures. For the Germanic people, evergreen fir trees were an important fertility symbol and gave hope that spring will return after winter. In ancient Rome, fir tree branches were brought home to keep away harm and evil spirits.
The tradition of decorations was only established later on in the 17th century. First of all the tree was decorated with anything to hand, Christmas decorations were then finally systematically made and sold in the 19th century with the advent of industrialisation.
Santa Claus and Christ Child
Santa Claus and the Christ Child, who bring the presents at Christmas and make children’s eyes light up, are in the meantime intrinsically linked to Christmas. However, these symbols are not old. The Christ Child character was influenced by Martin Luther in the 16th century. Back then, St. Nicholas still brought the presents on 6th December, there was not any giving out of presents at Christmas. As a protestant, Luther wanted to curtail the veneration of saints, like Saint Nicholas and draw more attention to Christmas and the birth of Jesus and he established Christmas as the time for giving out presents. Over the years the Christ Child developed into the image of a Christ Child in a white robe looking like an angel. However, today children mainly know the Christ Child from stories their parents tell, where the Christ Child places presents under the tree unseen and leaves the festive room again just as secretly.
Santa Claus, on the other hand, developed from the character of Saint Nicholas and his little helper Ruprecht. Initially, he rewarded good children and punished naughty children but the image of the smiling, kind man in a red suit gradually emerged. This image of Santa Claus only established itself in Europe across the board roughly 100 years ago. At this time Santa Claus still did not have a standardised appearance. Sometimes he wore a blue, red or golden coat. It is only through the character created for Coca-Cola’s Christmas advert that the image of Santa Claus was standardised and is known by both the young and old today.