Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, although it has never been seriously claimed that December 25 was his true birthday. Before the fourth century, it was celebrated in April or May, which more closely matches the scriptural account.

As Christian festivals were substituted for pagan ones, the winter solstice festivities of light and rebirth seemed a natural time to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Through the centuries, folk customs celebrating the coming of longer days were combined with church observances celebrating the “Sun of Righteousness.” Christmas today is the sum of customs observed for so long that their origins may have been forgotten.

The Roman tradition of giving New Year’s gifts continued well into the Middle Ages, but in the 12th century, the tradition of giving gifts for Christmas began, inspired by the account of the wise men, who brought gifts to Christ Child. In English commonwealth countries, Boxing Day is the first weekday following Christmas. The name comes from the boxed presents given to servants and other helpful folks like the postman and trash collector.

In Sweden, children have their gifts and tree on Christmas Eve. Sometimes gifts are thrown in the front door by mysterious donors who quickly run away. In Norway, gifts may be hidden away in different parts of the house for the children to find. In both of these countries, sheaves of grain are put out on rooftops or hung on poles, so that the birds may also enjoy a Christmas dinner.

The custom of decorating the tree comes from Germany. Although trees may have been part of a pagan festival, many people believe it was Martin Luther who thought of decorating the first Christmas tree.

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In Italy, a little old woman named Befana is believed to come and leave delightful gifts in the stockings of good children while she leaves birch rods or charcoal ashes for those who are bad. In Holland and Belgium, St. Nicholas, dressed in magnificent robes, comes riding on a horse and inquires about the behavior of the children. Children with good reports find their shoes fall of gifts in the morning, while naughty children find birch rods.

The American Santa Claus was adapted from the Dutch Saint Nikolas when they settled in New Amsterdam. Most of the Santa legend, such as his climb down the chimney and his red suit, are of Dutch origin. His reindeer and the North Pole, however, came from Scandinavia.

Take some time this year to discover the meaning of your Christmas traditions and start a new tradition or two. New traditions can deepen our appreciation for the universal nature of holiday observances, especially at this time when the central theme of the season is peace on earth, goodwill toward all men.

There are more ways to celebrate Christmas than you can count. My December holiday ideas are easy and fun and can be used to involve little hands. Pick and choose a few that will enhance your Christmas and put a smile on someone’s face.