Probably the most celebrated holiday on the Christian calendar, Christmas means many things to many people. To some, Christmas recalls memories of days-gone-by, with sparkling snows and twinkling tree lights. To others, the most important part of the holiday is the quiet time they spend at church on Christmas Eve. Children, no doubt, not only entertain "visions of sugarplums" but delight in the unwrapped packages carefully arranged under the tree.
Santa Claus is the most important Christmas visitor to the little ones. Depending on what country in which they reside, Santa may have a different name like Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Kerstman, or Pere Noel. Regardless of the language, Santa represents the spirit of giving to all who receive his presents.
To some, the Christmas meal is of utmost importance - be it a feast with turkey and trimmings or a menu that reflects one's ethnic background.
For many, however, Christmas is the time to get in touch with those who are most special, be it through meals shared, parties enjoyed, gifts exchanged, or greeting cards and e-cards sent to those who've lost touch over the course of the year.
For real Christmas fanatics, the holiday starts weeks before its actual arrival. There's shopping to be completed, menus to be planned, greeting cards to be written, and church pageants to be organized. But planning is half the fun of this blessed holiday season and Christians worldwide each have their own special way of celebrating the holiday.
There's more to the history of Christmas than just the birth of Jesus Christ, though that's certainly been the reason for celebrating during the last several centuries. The roots of the winter holiday, however, go back much further than the birth of Christ and many theologians believe that it's likely that Jesus wasn't even born in the winter, but probably in the spring.
For many centuries prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, early Europeans celebrated the winter solstice on or around December 21st. The solstice signified the return of longer periods of daylight. During the same time, the Romans celebrated a similar festival of Saturnalia, though it was a bit more raucous.
Many believe that Christian rulers organized The Feast of the Nativity around the same time as these festivals in order to discourage pagan rituals and other anti-Christian activities. However, it wasn't until 350 AD that Pope Julius I proclaimed December 25th to be Christmas Day.
Centuries later, Christmas had a rocky history in Puritan England when Oliver Cromwell outlawed the holiday in 1645. The trend followed to the New World and the holiday wasn't celebrated in the colonies in the mid to late 1600s and through much of the 18th century. As a matter of fact, Christmas wasn't even declared a national holiday in the U.S. until 1870.
Much of what modern Christmas is all about is attributed to two great authors: Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Because of their books, which represented peaceful, family-oriented Christmas celebrations, individuals began to realize the joys of the holiday. Stressing "peace on earth, good will towards men", Christmas became a time of giving and sharing with family and friends.
Today, each family brings to the holiday their own traditions from the countries of their ancestors. Some families hold tight to those traditions while others form new traditions that will last for years to come.
The holiday is celebrated on December 25th, though some continue the celebration up until 12 days later, on the Feast of the Epiphany. Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada continue the festivities on December 26th with the celebration of Boxing Day.