Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. No one knows the exact date of Christ's birth, but most Christians observe Christmas on Dec. 25. Some people celebrate by giving gifts. They may also be going to church with their families. Christmas has so many traditions and symbols associated with it, that it's hard to determine exactly how it came to be the celebration it is today.
The story of Christmas comes chiefly from the Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew in the New Testament. According to Luke, an angel appeared to shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem and told them of Jesus' birth. Matthew tells how the wise men, called Magi, followed a bright star that led them to Jesus.
By 336 A.D., the Christian church in Rome celebrated the festival of Christmas on December 25. This celebration was probably influenced by pagan (non-Christian) festivals held at that time. The same day, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). In observance of the "birthday of the unconquered sun," they exchanged gifts and made merry with a festival. On the Roman New Year (January 1), people decorated houses with greenery and gave gifts to children and the poor. Evergreens were a symbol of survival.
In the late 300's Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. By 1100 Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe, and St. Nicholas was a symbol of gift giving in many European countries, known for his great generosity and healing powers. With the rise of the Protestant Church, he was nearly forgotten, except in the Netherlands, where they called him Sinterklaas.
Dutch colonists settling in New Amsterdam (now New York City) brought the story of St. Nicholas with them. In English, he became known as Santa Claus. Added to the legend of this kind old man were old Nordic folk tales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The Santa Claus we recognize in the U.S. today, with his red suit, jolly laugh, and long white beard, began to appear in story and song in the 19th century. The celebration of Christmas became increasingly important to many kinds of businesses during the 1900s.
Every family has their own unique traditions for the holiday as well. Alan Wallace of Massachusetts, who was a boy at the end of the 19th century, used to gather seashells from the shore in the summertime to make into Christmas presents. Margaret Davis of Georgia, said her family ate, danced, and went to parties all week long in the 1890s. Some children write letters to Santa at the North Pole asking for things they want. Some leave milk and cookies out for St. Nick the night before. Some families attend morning mass, while others gather around a Christmas tree to open brightly wrapped boxes.