From old English Cristes maesse (Christ's Mass), older still, Yule, from the Germanic root geol. In some languages:
English: Christmas, Yule, Noel
Italian: Il Natale
Spanish: La Natividad
The traditional Christmas is not a single day but a prolonged period, normally from 24th December to 6th January. This included the New Year, thus increasing the festival value of Christmas.
From old Persian language, a priest of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The Bible gives us the direction, East and the legend states that the wise men were from Persia (Iran) - Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar - thus being priests of Zarathustra religion, the mages. Obviously the pilgrimage had some religious significance for these men, otherwise they would not have taken the trouble and risk of travelling so far. But what was it? An astrological phenomenon, the Star? This is just about all we know about it.
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)
Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. In Catholic countries this fact is brought to mind with miniature replicas of the nativity scene. The manger, animals, miniatures of Jesus, Joseph, Maria, the shepherds and the Three Magi are part of this very popular symbol. It was started (says the legend) by St Franciscus of Assisi. The Pope has his own in Rome but nowadays the custom is followed in Protestant countries, too.
Sacred to ancient druids and a symbol of eternal life the same way as Christmas tree. The Romans valued it as a symbol of peace and this lead eventually its acceptance among Christmas props. Kissing under mistletoe was a Roman custom, too.
Anything goes nowadays. In old times they were simple, wood, paper, straw and often very intricate. Themes follow the general taste of each time but national traditions can be discerned 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 Christia...