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Christmas, in the Christian church, annual festival, held on December 25, to celebrate the Nativity or birth of Christ. The origin of the festival is unknown. Scholars believe that it is derived in part from rites held by pre-Christian Germanic and Celtic peoples to celebrate the winter solstice. Christmas festivals, generally observed by Christians since the 4th century, incorporate pagan costumes, such as the use of holly, mistletoe, Yule logs, and wassail bowls. The Christmas tree, an evergreen trimmed with lights and other decorations, is derived form the so-called paradise tree, symbolizing Eden, of German mystery plays. The use of a Christmas tree began early in the 17th century, in Strasbourg, France, spreading from there through Germany and then into northern Europe. In 1841 Albert, prince consort of Queen Victoria, introduced the Christmas tree custom to great Britain; from there it accompanied immigrants to the U.S. Meanwhile, Dutch settlers had brought to the New World the custom of celebrating St. Nicholas' Day on December 6, and especially St. Nicholas' Eve, when gifts were given to the children, of whom the saint was patron. British settlers took over the tradition as part of their Christmas eve celebration. Santa Claus, the name of the legendary jolly, redgarbed old man who in the U.S. is said to make and distribute gifts at Christmas, is a corruption of the Dutch Sint Nikolaas.


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