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In Western culture, the winter season contains many holidays that contain festivals and feasts. The Christmas and holiday season that surrounds the winter solstice is recognized by many religions and cultures around the world. In most places, the Christmas season starts around the beginning of November and ends around January 1st, or New Year's Day. Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday while also serving as a global cultural and commercial and retail tour de force. Christians believe that Christmas Day is the date of the birth of Jesus, their spiritual leader whose traditions form the foundation of the Christian religion. Popular Christmas traditions include gift giving, the decoration of Christmas trees, going to church, sharing a Christmas feast with friends & family and, don't forget waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus. The Christmas Day holiday on December 25th has been a federal holiday in the US since the late 1800's.
Cultures around the world have often held festivals in the middle of winter to break up the dreariness of the season. Many cultures held holidays to mark the winter solstice, when they were already through the worst part of the winter and then started looking forward to longer days and more extended periods of natural sunlight.
Christmas was not really observed in the early years of Christianity. However, in the 400's, church officials installed Jesus' birth as an official church holiday which was eventually named Christmas.You may not have known that the Bible does not actually provide a specific date for Jesus' birth. Most historians believe that the church chose December 25th so that they could adapt the traditions Saturnalia festival, celebrated by pagans. Christmas was originally called the Feast of the Nativity. The holiday spread to Egypt by 432 and reached England by the end of the 700's. By the year 900, the holiday of Christmas got all the way to the northern reaches of Europe in Scandinavia
By observing the Christmas holiday along with traditional December solstice holidays, church leaders improved their chances that Christmas would be a holiday that was embraced by the masses. By the time the Middle Ages arrived, Christianity had almost completely dominated the pagan religion. Christmas eventually was known as the time of year when the upper class could "repay" their "debt" to society by giving back to less those that were less fortunate.
It wasn't until the 1800's when Christmas was really embraced in the States. Americans placed their own unique stamp on the Christmas holiday, and Christmas morphed from a wild carnival holiday into one that was more family-centered and focused on peace and nostalgia. During the early 1800's, the family was becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children. The Christmas holiday gave families a day for them to lavish attention, and gifts, on their children without looking like they were being spoiled.
As Americans transformed Christmas into the quintessential family holiday, old traditions were discovered and adapted. People looked toward recent Catholic and Episcopalian immigrants to learn how the Christmas holiday could be commemorated. While many families believed that they were celebrating the Christmas holiday the way it had been done for centuries by giving gifts, decorating trees, and mailing holiday cards, Americans really had re-created the Christmas holiday to meet the cultural needs of a young and growing country.