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Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. As you probably know, Jesus was not born on Dec. 25.  In fact, no one is really sure when he was born — although some say he was definitely born on the 25th of an undetermined month. So why do we celebrate Christmas today?

Why — and how — has this religious holiday created by the Catholic church around 320 A.D. become a season-long secular occasion mixing Christian teachings with distinctly non-Christian symbols, from mistletoe to cookies and ornaments to 8-foot-tall inflatable snowmen?

In a way it is the story of Christianity coming head to head and, ultimately, to some kind of terms with ancient pagan rituals and the more modern secular celebrations, said Pastor Harry Riggs of First Baptist Church in Lincoln.

He views it as a postmodern era of religion — an era where churches need to accept that the mixing of religion and secularism “just is.”

“There are people who say it (secular celebrations) take away from the church,” Riggs said. “I don’t say that.”

Holiday traditions of cookie baking, candy house making and tree decorating are important and meaningful. They are rituals that center us in a world that is changing faster and faster, said Cindy Kaliff, counselor at Career & Life Options.

“It is an anchoring in a family, in a culture,” she said. “It is a way of having stability and an identity.”

If we didn’t have Christmas, we would have to invent it, said the Rev. Wayne Alloway of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.

“There is something deep inside of the human psyche that needs a celebration where we celebrate light that overcomes darkness, where we put aside differences and try very hard to ignore the darker side of human nature — the baser side of who we are — and do good, love one another and be kind to one another.

“We need to be reminded of that on a regular basis — or at least on an annual basis,” Alloway said.

Christmas does that.

And even Alloway admits that aside from his religious celebration of Christ’s birth, one of his most favorite things about the holiday has no religious symbolism at all: filling his children’s stockings and watching their excitement as they wake up to discover what Santa left behind.

“There is nothing wrong with plain old joyful fun that goes with Christmas and has no profound symbolism with anything,” he said.

“It all points to love.”

So today as you gaze at the decorated tree, sip eggnog and dine on turkey, ham or roast goose, consider  the history and folklore surrounding these customs and rituals.

The Christmas tree

The very first Christmas trees were oak.

The evergreen replaced the oak because it remains green throughout the long, cold winter — symbolizing enduring and renewed life.

The very first recorded display of a decorated Christmas tree was in 1510 in Riga, Latvia.

During the 16th century, Germans decorated fir trees both indoors and outdoors with apples, roses, candies and colored paper.

In 1848, Prince Albert, a native of Germany, brought the Christmas tree to his wife, England’s Queen Victoria. An etching of the family gathered around the tree in Windsor Castle soon turned the Christmas tree into a holiday tradition throughout Victorian England.

The Christmas tree’s arrival in the U.S. is a matter of dispute. The National Christmas Tree Association says Hessian mercenaries brought the tradition here during the Revolutionary War. But Christmas researcher Barbara Mikkelson and others say the Pennsylvania German immigrants brought it here in the late 19th century.

President Franklin Pierce brought the first tree into the White House in 1856.

About 50 years later,  President Theodore Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House, saying that cutting down trees harmed the environment. However, legend has it that Roosevelt’s children had a secret tree that they hid in a closet whenever their father was nearby.

Today, 98 percent of real Christmas trees in America come from tree farms, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

The wreath

A circle with no beginning or end, the wreath symbolizes eternity and is often placed upon tombs.

Because of its association with death, not all countries use the wreath at Christmastime.

But the wreath’s symbolism of eternal destiny makes it a fitting part of the Christmas celebration, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Catholic Diocese in Lincoln wrote in The Southern Nebraska Register. The red holly berries and ribbons serve as a reminder of Christ’s blood being shed “to redeem us,” he wrote.

Gift giving

The custom of giving gifts in winter stretches back further than the celebration of Christmas. It is believed the people of ancient Rome and Northern Europe gave gifts on a special day to celebrate the end of the year, according to the World Book.

The Christmas story of Christ’s birth in a manger and the wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh adds to the importance of gift giving. And, of course, Christian faith tells us that Christ was God’s gift to us.

Lights

Jesus is the light of the world, according to Christian faith.

But history credits Protestant reformer Martin Luther with adorning our Christmas trees with light. As the story goes, Luther was walking home on a December night when he was struck by the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir tree. The sight inspired him to place small candles on the fir tree in his home.

Thomas Edison’s employee Edward Johnson was the first person to put actual lights on a Christmas tree. By the early 1900s lights were available to the public, but were expensive. Not until the 1920s when General Electric made them by machine, were most people able to afford them.

Animals

According to legend, farm animals are said to kneel in homage to Christ at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve and are momentarily blessed with the power of speech.

 Other versions of this superstition limit the gift of gab to cats. But it is said one should not overhear their conversation, as eavesdropping is fatal.

Once upon a time it was believed dogs who howled on Christmas Eve were destined to go mad before the end of the year. Many healthy animals were destroyed because of this superstition, Mikkelson said.

Mistletoe

This plant that brings us kisses — and for single women promise of new love — is actually a parasitic plant that sucks the water from the trees its inhabits.

But why muddy the myth with unfavorable facts?

Mistletoe dates back to 200 years before the birth of Christ. Druid priests used it in their winter solstice celebrations.

Ancient Celtics believed mistletoe, which has no roots and remains green throughout winter, had magical healing powers. They used it as an antidote for poison and infertility and to ward off evil spirits.

Mistletoe is also a symbol of peace. According to legend, Roman enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their weapons and embrace.

Scandinavians associated mistletoe with Frigga, the goddess of love, and are credited with creating the custom of kissing under the mistletoe for good luck and happiness in the coming year, according to Mikkelson.

 Other legends say unmarried women would hide pilfered springs of mistletoe in their pillows to bring on dreams of their future husbands. Others would burn the mistletoe to see what it said of their future husbands — steady flames were a good sign, sputtering flames indicated a ill-tempered husband was in their future.

Holly

Ancient Northern Europeans believed holly held magical powers that could ward off the ghosts and demons howling in the winter winds, so they placed it over their doors to drive evil away.

It is said holly sprang from the footsteps of Christ as he walked the earth, the pointed leaves representing the crown of thorns he wore on the cross and the red berries symbolizing his blood.

Superstition says couples must be careful about the type of holly they bring into their home. Prickly holly means the man will reign over the home in the coming year, smooth holly means the woman will have the power.

“Prudent couples take care to bring both kinds in together to assure a balanced, harmonious home,” Mikkelson said.

The poinsettia

The poinsettia is named after Joel R. Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico who brought the plant to the United States in 1829 after seeing it used in Mexican Christmas celebrations.

According to legend, a young Mexican boy was on his way to a village Nativity scene when he realized he did not have a gift to bring to the Christ child. He picked some pretty green branches he found on the way, much to the taunting of other children. But it is said that when the boy laid the branches upon the manager, a beautiful star-shaped flower appeared on each branch.

The plant is often misunderstood and even maligned.

The red petals are not really flowers, but upper leaves of the branch.

And poinsettias are not poisonous to humans.

The poinsettia poison myth started in 1919 when a 2-year-old child died of poisoning and it was incorrectly assumed to be a poinsettia leaf,” Mikkelson writes on her Web site.

But there has never been a verified recorded poinsettia poisoning death, she said. According to the POISONDEX  Information Service, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 1.25 pounds of poinsettia bracts (about 500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses, Mikkelson said.

The American Medical Association states the worst side effects of ingesting the plant is occasional vomiting. Still, we do not recommend your turn your beautiful plant into a salad.

The stockings

The Christmas stocking dates back to the story of three poor sisters who had hung their stockings by the hearth to dry. It is said Saint Nicholas threw three coins down the chimney, with one coin landing in each of the girls’ stockings.

Today, we hang our stockings in hopes of good fortune.

Santa Claus

Jolly old Saint Nick has been around since the fourth century.

“Originally known as Saint Nicholas, the patron of children and sailors, the bishop was immortalized because of his generous and loving nature towards children,” ClassBrain.com states. He was said to bring joy to the poor by throwing gifts through their windows.

There are many stories about how Santa’s image became that of a jolly plump man in a red suit.

One myth credits Coca Cola with its advertising gimmick of the 1930s to promote drinking Coke in the winter.

But it is more likely he evolved over time from Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem “The Night Before Christmas” and Thomas Nast’s 1863 caricature of him for Harper’s Weekly. Mikkelson’s research finds the image is actually the merging of two religious personages: St. Nicholas, the elflike gift bringer, and Christkindlein, the Christ Child.

Rudolph

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer really was born out of an advertising gimmick.

In 1939, Montgomery Ward writer Robert L. May created a Christmas story for the store to hand out during the holiday season.

The store distributed 2.4 million copies of the story that first year. In 1948 the story was made into a nine-minute cartoon.

May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, turned the story into a song. And after many singers turned down the chance to croon the ditty because it conflicted with the more traditional Santa Claus legend, Gene Autry eventually agreed (at the insistence of his wife). Two million copies of the records sold in 1949. It remains the second bestselling Christmas song of all time. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is first.

Caroling

St. Francis of Assisi led songs of praise, which started the Christmas carol custom in the 13th century, according to ClassBrain.com.

Tradition holds that it is bad luck to send carolers away empty handed. It is customary to offer food, drink or even money to carolers.

It is also believed to be bad luck to sing Christmas carols at any other time of the year — so get your singing done quick.

Cookies

Children started leaving cookies for Santa sometime in the 1930s. According to legend, naughty children left cookies as last-minute bribery attempts, and good children left them to say thanks.

Of all the thousand types of Christmas cookies made each year, the Oreo is the most popular and common cookie left out for Santa, according to ClassBrain.com.

Eggnog

Made popular in the 17th century, the original “nog” was a strong ale made from beer, sugar, egg yolks, lemon rinds and cinnamon.

In the 19th century, North Americans took the French version of the drink called “Lait de Poule” made with milk sugar and egg yolks and added either brandy, rum or sherry.

Over the last 150 years, the recipe for eggnog has not changed except for the fact that it is now cooked to prevent the threat of salmonella, according to ClassBrain.com.

Fruitcake

Fruitcake has been popular in Europe since Roman times, when cooks mixed raisins, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds into barley mash, states Mikkelson. In the Middle Ages, honey, dried fruits and spices were added to bread dough for special occasions. At one time, fruitcake was considered semi-sacred — and 18th century European law restricted its making to celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, weddings and the like.

“It's impossible to age a fruitcake too long, say those in the know. If stored in an airtight container and basted occasionally with liquor, it'll keep indefinitely,” Mikkelson writes.

Candy canes

In 1670, the choir master at Cologne Cathedral asked that the white candy sticks be shaped like shepherd’s hooks so he could give them out to his choir children to keep them quiet during Christmas services.

In the 1920s, Bob McCormack made candy canes by hand for his friends and family. Thirty-some years later, his brother-in-law Gregory Keller invented a machine that could make lots of candy canes at the same time. Bob’s Candies Inc. became the largest maker of candy canes in the world.

Some say that the white of the candy cane represents Christ’s purity, the red is the blood he shed, and the candy cane’s three stripes  represent the Holy Trinity.

Our sources:

Customs, folklore and even superstitions surrounding Christmas are centuries old — and sometimes their origination uncertain.

The information we share here comes from a variety of sources: Barbara Mikkelson of www.snopes.com and self-made historian of Urban Legends; The National Christmas Tree Association; World Book; AllThingsChristmas.com; ClassBrain.com; “’Tis The Season Christmas Trivia”; “Quiz the Season: The Book of Christmas Trivia” by Heather Revesz; and the writings of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Catholic Diocese in Lincoln.

Other holidays

Many of us are celebrating Christmas today, but Monday is the start of two other holidays — Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Here are the stories behind both:

Hanukkah

The Jewish holiday commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the Syrians.

In 168 B.C., members of the Jewish family Maccabee led a revolt against the Greek Syrians because Syrian King Antiochus IV attempted to outlaw Judaism and make the Jews worship Greek gods. The Syrians seized the Beit HaMikdash, the holy temple in Jerusalem, converting it to a temple honoring Zeus.

In a three-year battle, Judah Maccabee eventually led the Jews to victory, even though they were greatly outnumbered and had fewer weapons.

They reclaimed their holy temple and, after repairing and cleansing it, they held a dedication ceremony. As part of the ceremony they wanted to light the N’er Tamid, an oil lamp present in Jewish houses of worship that represents eternal light. Once lit, the lamp is never to be extinguished. A search of the temple produced a small vial of undefiled oil — enough for only one day.

Miraculously, the temple lights burned for eight days until a  new supply of oil was brought in. In remembrance of this miracle, one candle of the Menorah,  an eight-branched candelabra, is lit each of the eight days of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah literally means dedication.

Kwanzaa

Celebrated by millions of African Americans around the world, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at California State University in Long Beach.

Kwanzaa is a non-religious African American holiday which celebrates family, community and culture.  Kwanzaa, which means “fruits of the harvest,” is celebrated for seven days from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and involves seven principles called Nguzo Saba:

* Unity (Umoja)

* Self-determination (Kujichagulia)

* Collective work and responsibility (Ujima)

* Cooperative economics (Ujamaa).

* Purpose (Nia)

* Creativity (Kuumba)

* Faith (Imani)

In the Kwanzaa ritual, seven candles called mishumaa saba are placed in a kinara or candleholder, which is then set upon the mikeka, a mat usually made of straw. Three green candles are placed on the left, three red candles on the right and a black candle in the center. Each candle represents one of the seven principles. One candle is lit each day of the celebration, beginning from left to right.

The colors of the candles signify black for the faces of the African people, red for the blood they have shed and green for the hope and color of the motherland.

Sources: History Channel and All Things Christmas.

Reach Erin Andersen at 473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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