23 Dec

Map of the Week: The Geography of Christmas

By: Abigail Vandenberg

Merry Christmas to our AGS readers!

The Christmas holiday is filled with traditions and folk stories from diverse geographic backgrounds. Many of the familiar Christmas traditions celebrated today were borrowed and adapted from other cultures. The captions on the map above lend some insight into how countries around the world celebrate. For example, the longest holiday season can be observed in the Philippines where Christmas carols can be heard from early September through mid-January. In the DR Congo, nativity plays are known to go on past midnight to be timed as closely as possible to the birth of Jesus.

In the United States, most of our common traditions originated from Victorian England. Christmas was designated as the birth of Jesus in the fourth century CE. Christianity was just beginning to define itself during this time period, and Christian feast days were being introduced within other popular pagan traditions to ease this transition.

Other Christmas symbols such as Santa Claus and the Christmas tree also come from very different geographic locations. The legend of Santa Claus began with a Greek Bishop in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey); one story says that Bishop Nicholas stopped the sale of three women into enslavement by providing enough gold to complete a marriage dowry for each of them. It is said that Nicholas tossed the gold through the window and it landed in a stocking drying by a fireplace. Soon after, children began hanging stockings by the fireplace in hopes of a visit from the good-fortuned Nicholas.

The Bishop was canonized as a saint shortly after his death in 343 CE. Dutch settlers in North America pronounced the name of the new saint as Sinter Klaas. This was later anglicized and changed to Santa Claus, the name familiar to us today. Who knew that the history of Santa covered such a vast geographical area?

The tradition of the evergreen Christmas tree began in Germany. In pre-Christian times, pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice with pine branches decorated with apples and nuts. Widespread diffusion of the Christmas tree outside of Germany began only after Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Germany. Prince Albert brought his German holiday traditions with him to England, and a famous illustration of the royal family in front of their Christmas tree in 1848 popularized this tradition, eventually spreading to the United States.

These are just a few examples of the geographical origins of some Christmas elements. Throughout the world today, this festive holiday is still celebrated and adopted in different ways.The geographical aspects of Christmas are endless. The variety of celebrations make this holiday so exciting, and when we pause to remember why we have these festivities, we have geography to thank for it!