Christmas Customs and Origins

December 2, 1983

Report Outline
The Christmas Celebration
Religious Roots of the Holiday
Christmas in a Pluralistic Society
Special Focus

The Christmas Celebration

American Christmas: Sacred and Profane

Christmas, with all its familiar sights and sounds, is nearly upon us. Holiday shoppers are thronging the stores, buying presents for families and friends. Christmas trees are stacked up in normally vacant corner lots. Carols are filling the airwaves. Homes and public places are decked with greenery and gaily colored lights. And hundreds of Santas greet us on street corners, in toy departments and from glossy magazine ads.

In this flurry of preparation, it is easy to lose sight of the origins of the holiday, just what it is that most people will celebrate Dec. 25. For Christian believers the day commemorates the birth of a child in Bethlehem who was named Jesus and proclaimed the Messiah, or Christ — a divinely conceived Son of God made human to teach the way to salvation for mankind. That joyous event is observed in churches and homes with carols, lighted candles and retellings of the nativity stories set down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

For many the religious observance is accompanied or supplanted by less sacred but nonetheless cherished customs — the gathering of family and friends, the exchange of gifts under the Christmas tree, the Christmas dinner of traditional holiday food and drink. Each of these individual celebrations is enriched by customs handed down from earlier generations and carried over from other lands. Like the Christmas story itself, most of these celebrations revolve around children and joyfulness. Probably no other holiday celebrated in the United States blends so thoroughly a religious observance with family and folk traditions.

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