How did people celebrate Christmas before the advent of shopping malls and electric lights? What is the history behind the tradition? At its core, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. The holiday's connection to Christ is obvious through its Old English root of "Cristes maesse" or Christ's Mass. For Christians, it is the time to renew one's faith, give generously and consider the past.
But Christmas is also a secular celebration of family--one that many non-practicing Christians and people of other religions are comfortable accepting as their own. The secular nature of Christmas was officially acknowledged in 1870 when the United States Congress made it a federal holiday. Federal and state employees and most private businesses observe Dec. 25 by not working.
Christmas is also a fascinating miscellany of traditions: one that combines pre-Christian pagan rituals with modern traditions. Every family that celebrates Christmas has its own customs--some surprisingly universal, others entirely unique--but all comfortably familiar in their seeming antiquity.
With Americans spending about $8 billion annually on Christmas decorations, it's clear that tinsel, green trimmings and electric lights are an important part of most peoples' holiday [source: ABC]. Evergreen trees and garlands were used as decorative symbols of eternal life by ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews; European pagans sometimes worshiped evergreen trees.
By medieval times, western Germans used fir trees to represent the Tree of Paradise in mystery plays about Adam and Eve. They decorated the trees with apples and later with wafers to symbolize the host. The trees grew increasing popular in Germany and settlers introduced them to North America in the 17th century. Many people also decorate with holly, mistletoe and ivy. Decorators started lighting up their trees with electric bulbs in the 1890s. Since then, lights have become an integral part of Christmas decorating.
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