Christmas wasn't celebrated by the early church until the fourth century. In the fourth century, the church decided to try to redeem a Roman pagan winter solstice festival: the festival of Saturnalia. This December holiday was considered the "birthday of the unconquered sun." Romans danced in the streets with gifts under their arms and greenery atop their heads.
Based on Biblical evidence Jesus of Nazareth was probably born in the fall near the Jewish feast of Tabernacles or in the spring around the time of Passover. Sometime before 336 the Church in Rome, unable to stamp out the pagan festival of Saturnalia, spiritualized it as the "Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness." December 25th was chosen for the celebration of his birth by Pope Julius I. The practice was adopted by the Christian church in Antioch around 374. By 380 it was being observed in Constantinople, and by 430 in Alexandria. (The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 223.)
Germanic tribes of Northern Europe also celebrated mid-winter with feasting, drinking, religious rituals and the lighting of the yule log. During the Middle Ages, Catholic priests sought connections between biblical teachings and pagan traditions - believing that a convergence of customs would lead more individuals to Christianity. The celebration of Jesus' birth was melded into other age-old practices and became known as the "Christ mass." Firelight represented the light of Christ. Gift giving was linked to the presents of the wise men. Trees were decorated with apples associated with the biblical Garden of Eden.
The tradition of decorating trees occurs among many different people. The Celts for example decorated trees with apples and nuts during the winter solstice (around December 21), encouraging the sun to return to bring spring. Other European people had tree decorating rituals.
The first record of the Christmas tree (as we know it) dates back to Riga in Latvia, in 1510. In the last quarter of the 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas Tree with candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night. Decorated trees became very popular during the German Yuletide. In 1841, Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Germany. Albert brought the Christmas tree custom to England and hence, to the English speaking world. Many citizens were eager to embrace the traditions of the English royalty.
In the United States, the Christmas tree was initially not well accepted by the northern half of America. They frowned upon the pagan roots of the tree custom. However, Southerners readily adapted the tradition into their homes, decorating a tree on Christmas Eve and celebrating for 12 days. Today, the popularity of the Christmas tree continues around much of the world. (Holy, Reindeer, and Colored Lights by Edna Barth.)
In the 4th century, a bishop in Turkey named Nicholas was known for good deeds involving children. Because of his holiness, Bishop Nicholas was sanctified by the Catholic Church and came to be known as Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas is illustrated in medieval and renaissance paintings as a tall, dignified and severe man. His feast day on December 6 was celebrated throughout Europe until about the 16th century. Afterwards, he continued to be known in Protestant Holland.
The ancient inhabitants of northern Europe believed a powerful pagan god, cloaked in red fur, galloped across the winter sky. These myths combined with the legends of the real life figure of Bishop Nicholas. Dutch children would put shoes by the fireplace for St. Nicholas or "Sinter Klaas" and leave food out for his horse. He'd gallop on his horse between the rooftops and drop candy down the chimneys into the children's shoes. Meanwhile, his assistant, Black Peter, was the one who popped down the chimneys to leave gifts behind.
Dutch settlers brought the legend of Sinter Klaas to North America -- where we came to know him as Santa Claus. Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History (1809) described Santa Claus as a stern, ascetic personage traditionally clothed in dark robes. It was a character we would scarcely recognize as the Santa Claus we know today, apart from his annual mission of delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus gained much of his popularity after World War II when the economy and the baby boomers blossomed. Children born between 1945 and 1965 greeted this gift-giving Santa with open arms that have refused to let go, even in adulthood.
None of which mattered to John in those seconds just as the ice cracked.
When John fell into the icy water his first thoughts were on his mother, and what she'd do to him if he lived. If he lived was his second thought as he tugged his shoes, sweater and pants off before pushing himself back to the surface. He had about one more minute before hypothermia made it impossible to do anything but regret going so close to the ponds edge.
"Grab Hold!" A woman's voice said in the foggy reaches of John's mind just as a branch touched his hand. She half carried him into her house and it took nearly fifteen minutes before he could hold his second cup of soup in his own hand. He wore just a blanket in front of the fire place and was thankful for that.
The jacket was her daughter's. Her daughter's when she was ten or so, she noted, and while it did fit there was simply no way John would wear it home. Of course he could wait for his mother to get off work she noted, or he could get home before she did and not have to explain why he'd been at the pond.
"You could do something really sneaky?" Ms. Carter said while John agonized over the mile walk through town in a girl's coat.
"What?" John asked.
"Well, if you wore tights and my daughter's old patent strap shoes and a dress just long enough to peek from beneath that coat you most likely would make it all the way home without anyone noticing? Especially with the hood pulled up" Ms. Carter said with a shrug.
"Right!" John said sarcastically giving that little idea about four seconds of his time.
"Thought as much! Anyway, why don't you give me your mother's phone number and I'll at least let her know you're ok." Ms. Carter said.
A months worth of grounding and a spanking perhaps. That's what he faced. That or that dress up idea. Neither was very attractive. It would take him twenty minutes to make it through town to his house. Twenty minutes in girl's clothes or a month sitting in the house.
"What sort of dress?" John asked.
Of course he wouldn't have to wear panties .. No need Ms. Carter said as if he would have he thought. Tights were good enough and while the shoes were just a tad bigger they fit. That, John thought, was a bad sign and thought that again when Ms. Carter handed him the tights and dress before leaving the room.
It was a powder blue "tea length" dress that fell just below his knees. This he noted after sitting on the rocking chair to put himself into those silken girl's tights. Why the dress had to have a slip wasn't clear because any old dress would have been ok. This one had the slip attached and he only thought about it when the dress went on and slid over the tights he now wore.
She strapped on the shoes and spent a few minutes not looking at himself in the mirror. At least he wasn't looking because of the way he looked. At least that's how he justified those few brief turns to and fro that he made.
"Going to need a touch of color!" Ms. Carter said when John finally walked out in her daughter's clothes.
"Why?" John asked fearing the small gold tube of lipstick she was opening to use on him.
"Hide that face a bit. Unless you want to explain to whoever it is that recognizes you why you're wearing those things?" Ms. Carter said.
John puckered his lips and endured the waxy paste that she drew across both. She did it three times humming a poem she once used when she was teaching her daughter how to use makeup:
It's how little girls make a pretty face.
Another for the color, and the last for a kiss,
Three altogether for a pretty little miss.
John could have done without the poem as he sat there blotting his lipstick on the tissue. He could have also done without the blush she circled on his cheeks. Although, when she was done, and as he looked at the image of himself, it was clear no one was going to suspect he was a boy. The rest of that thought came when Ms. Carter opened the door and wished him luck.
He grew more nervous as he reached the edge of town. Trying to walk like a girl was his first thoughts as people came and went although he was sure the icy sidewalk helped. Short steps, arms at your side and smile wistfully Ms. Carter had said. Those boys at the dinner watched and his heart leaped into his throat. They smiled, nodded and took a step back to let him past.
It had taken nearly forty five minutes to make it home and that gave him nearly an hour before his mother would arrive. He was never so happy to open that front door.
"Well hello?" His mother said standing in the hallway as he wiped his feet. There was this sense of disbelief over the scene unfolding in front of John as he stood there. First because of the way he was dressed and second because his mother wasn't suppose to be there.
He wasn't sure what to say and thankfully it was his mother that spoke in that uncomfortable silence: "Ms. Carter called. She got concerned after turning you out dressed the way you were. I would say that she had little to be concerned about? Good heavens, but you make an adorable little girl! Anyway, I'm hungry, and I'll bet you are as well so what's say you leave your coat on while I get mine and we can discuss why you went to that pond after I told you not to over dinner?" John's mother said.
"But mom! I'm dressed as a girl!" John said in a state of shock.
"Yes, and a very pretty one at that. You have a dress on don't you?" His mother asked.
"Yes?" John said.
"Then taking your coat off won't hurt now will it?" His mother said.
"But I won't have the hood then?" John said in dismay.
"Not a problem sweetheart! I'll just add another bit of lipstick and you'll do fine. Besides, I think a bit more time in those things might help remind you that when I tell you to do something you should do it. Now, what do you feel like eating? Something light for your girlish figure?" His mother said with a chuckle as she put on her coat.