The practice of sending Christmas greeting cards to friends was initiated by Sir Henry Cole in England. The year was 1843 and the first card was designed by J.C.Horsley. It was commercial - 1000 copies were sold in London. An English artist, William Egley, produced a popular card in 1849. From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the Christmas customs worldwide.
The astrological/astronomical phenomenon which triggered the travel of the Magi to give presents to child Jesus. Variously described as a supernova or a conjunction of planets it supposedly happened around the year 7 BC - the most probable true birth year of Christ. Star is often put to the top of the Christmas tree.
The traditional date for the appearance of Santa Claus, obviously from the birthdate of Jesus (the word Christmas is from old English, meaning Christ's mass). This date is near the shortest day of the year, from old times an important agricultural and solar feasting period in Europe. The actual birthday of Jesus is not known and thus the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day as was most convenient.
The best fit seemed to be around the old Roman Saturnalia festival (17 - 21 December), a traditional pagan festivity with tumultuous and unruly celebrations. Moreover, in 273 Emperor Aurelianus had invented a new pagan religion, the cult of Sol Invictus (invincible sun, the same as the Iranian god Mithra), the birthday of this god being 25th December (natalis sol invicti). The Christian priests obviously saw this choice as doubly meritorious: using the old customary and popular feasting date but changing the rough pagan ways into a more civilized commemoration.
The first mention of the birthday of Jesus is from the year 354. Gradually all Christian churches, except Armenians (celebrating 6th January which date is for others the baptismal day of Jesus and the day of the three Magi), accepted the day. In American/English tradition the Christmas Day itself is the day for Santa, in German/Scandinavian tradition the Christmas Eve is reserved for presents.
Candles,fires: Summer, warmth, paradise, end of darkness, Jewish Hanukkah
Tree: Eternal life, Paradise tree, pagan symbol
Apples: Apple of Paradise
Reindeer: A prop
Santa Claus: St Nicholas, pagan deity
Gifts: Customary (Romans, pagans everywhere), Magi
Mistletoe: Peace, kisses
Holly: Christ's crown of thorns
Gnomes: Pagan entirely
Straw: Stable & crib, pagan, handy material for deco
Sock: A prop (as chimney etc) even now.
There are many roots of this custom. There is St.Nicholas the anonymous benefactor, there is the tradition of Magi giving precious gifts to Jesus, there is the Roman custom of giving gifts of good luck to children during Saturnalia.
The day of gift giving varies greatly in different Christian cultures and times:
6th December - in memory of St. Nicholas
24th December - Christmas Eve
25th December - Birthday of Jesus
1st of January - the New year
6th of January - The Epiphany, day of the Three Wise men, the Magi
The giver of the presents are many: Jesus himself, Old Father Christmas, Santa Claus, a Goat, Befana (the female Santa in Italy), the three Magi, Christmas gnomes, various Saints, the Kolyada (in Russia), the Joulupukki (in Finland). The oldest Finnish tradition did not necessarily involve a giver of the presents at all: an unseen person threw the gifts in from the door and quickly disappeared.
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