Christmas celebrations in the West today
From November onwards, it is impossible to forget that Christmas is coming. Colored lights decorate many town centers and shops, along with shiny decorations, and artificial snow painted on shop windows.In streets and shops, "Christmas trees" (real or plastic evergreen "conifer" trees) will also be decorated with lights and Christmas ornaments.
Shopping centers become busier as December approaches and often stay open till late. Shopping center speaker systems will play Christmas "carols" - the traditional Christmas Christian songs, and groups of people will often sing carols on the streets to raise money for charity. Most places of work will hold a short Christmas party about a week before Christmas. Although traditional Christmas foods may be eaten, drink (and plenty of it) means that little work will be done after the party!
By mid-December, most homes will also be decorated with Christmas trees, colored lights and paper or plastic decorations around the rooms. These days, many more people also decorate garden trees or house walls with colored electric lights, a habit which has long been popular in USA.
In many countries, most people post Christmas greeting cards to their friends and family, and these cards will be hung on the walls of their homes. InUK this year, the British Post Office expects to handle over100 million cards EACH DAY, in the three weeks before Christmas.
The custom of sending Christmas cards started in Britain in1840 when the first "Penny Post" public postal deliveries began. (Helped by the new railway system, the public postal service was the 19th century"s communication revolution, just as email is for us today.). As printing methods improved, Christmas cards were produced in large numbers from about 1860. They became even more popular in Britain when a card could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one half-penny - half the price of an ordinary letter.
Traditionally, Christmas cards showed religious pictures - Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or other parts of the Christmas story. Today, pictures are often jokes, winter pictures, Father Christmas, or romantic scenes of life in past times.
The old man with the sack
"Father Christmas" (or "Santa Claus") has become the human face of Christmas. Pictures will be seen everywhere of the old man with long white beard, red coat, and bag of toys. Children are taught that he brings them presents the night before Christmas (or in some countries on December 6th - St. Nicholas" Day), and many children up to the age of7 or8 really believe this is true. In most countries, it is said that he lives near the North Pole, and arrives through the sky on a sledge (snow-cart) pulled by reindeer. He comes into houses down the chimney at midnight and places presents for the children in socks or bags by their beds or in front of the family Christmas tree.
In shops or at children"s parties, someone will dress up as Father Christmas and give small presents to children, or ask them what gifts they want for Christmas. Christmas can be a time of magic and excitement for children.
Who was he?
Father Christmas is based on a real person,St. Nicholas, which explains his other name "Santa Claus" which comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas". Nicholas was a Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD. He was very shy, and wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing about it. It is said that one day, he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking which a girl had put to dry by the fire! This may explain the belief that Father Christmas comes down the chimney and places gifts in children"s stockings.
In English-speaking countries, the day following Christmas Day is called "Boxing Day". This word comes from the custom which started in the Middle Ages around 800 years ago: churches would open their "alms boxe" (boxes in which people had placed gifts of money) and distribute the contents to poor people in the neighborhood on the day after Christmas. The tradition continues today - small gifts are often given to delivery workers such as postal staff and children who deliver newspapers.
Making sense of Christmas
Today in the West, not many people consider the religious meaning to Christmas. Most people in UK or Europe will not go to a religious church meeting, even at Christmas. It has become a busy race to spend money on presents, and get ready for the Day. In UK, our shops stay open till late Christmas Eve and often open again on Boxing Day with the cut-price "sales". (Not much holiday for the poor shop workers!). A visitor from another world would think that Christmas was a festival to the gods of money and shopping.
What do you want from Christmas?
Many people do hope for more than presents at Christmas. We want to somehow return to a time in our childhood (or some other good time in the past), when life was simpler and made more sense, before the troubles of adult life arrived. We feel sure that behind all the fun and decorations, there must somehow be a message, something more, some key to life,hope and happiness.