HRISTMAS is a joyful holiday that is celebrated by most people in the United States. Even though its origins are Christian, it has become a holiday season that is celebrated in various ways by people of many faiths. The Christmas story comes from the Bible. In the story an angel appeared to shepherds and told them that a savior had been born to Mary and Joseph in a stable in Bethlehem.
Three Wise Men from the East (the Magi) followed a wondrous star, which led them to the baby Jesus.
The Wise Men paid homage to the new child, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Christmas has been associated with gift giving since the Wise Men brought these gifts to welcome the newborn baby.
On Christmas Eve, December 24, many people attend evening church services, often at midnight.
Attention is focused on the nativity scene, the story of the birth of Jesus, and on the spirit of Christmas. Christmas Eve services often include the singing of Christmas carols. On Christmas morning some families also attend church services, but many families spend the morning at home, opening gifts and sharing a special meal. Some people visit friends and neighbors on Christmas Day.
Because many American families are spread out throughout the country, the Christmas season brings a lot of travel. Going home for
Christmas is a most cherished tradition so the days before Christmas are some of the busiest times of the year at airports, train stations, and bus depots with people on their way to spend the holidays with their loved ones. Houses may be full of cousins, aunts, and uncles who might not see each other at other times during the year. Family members help in the preparation of the festivities, including of course, making a lot of food! The Christmas dinner table looks much like a Thanksgiving feast, with turkey or ham, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pie. No Christmas is complete without lots of desserts, like spicy fruitcake and cookies hot from the oven. A popular drink during the holiday parties and gatherings is eggnog, a beverage made of beaten eggs, cream, milk, sugar, spices, and maybe brandy or rum. Plenty of eggnog and hot chocolate are often on hand for family and visitors alike.
honors the life and legacy of one of the visionary leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace.
At a young age Martin Luther King, Jr. showed strong promise, skipping the 9 th and 12th grades and entering Morehouse College at the age of 15. His beliefs in equality and brotherly love developed early as he listened to the sermons of his father and grandfather, both ministers.
In late 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. received his doctorate degree in theology, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, with his wife, Coretta Scott King, to preach at a Baptist church.
There, as in many southern states, he witnessed the indignities suffered by African Americans as a result of racism, discrimination, and unjust laws. One law required all black passengers to ride in the back of public buses and to give up their seats to white passengers when the front of the bus was full. Dr. King knew that this law violated the rights of every African-American.
On December 1, 1955, a courageous black passenger, Rosa Parks, was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. In response to the arrest, black leaders organized a boycott of the public buses in the city of Montgom
ery. Dr. King was asked to lead the protest. Thousands of people, black and white, refused to ride the bus; instead they formed carpools and they walked. Dr. King urged people to demonstrate peacefully and not resort to violence. Nonetheless, the demonstrators and their supporters were constantly threatened and attacked by those who did not want the system of inequality to change. Many of the demonstrators were arrested and jailed. Dr. King’s home was bombed, but fortunately, his wife and children were not injured.
Despite the violence, the boycott continued, and the bus company suffered great financial loss. Finally after 381 days the boycott of the Montgomery bus system was successful. The Supreme Court declared the state of Alabama’s segregation law unconstitutional. Rosa Parks, the woman whose small act of protest inspired the bus boycott, was later named the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
The segregation of buses was just one of the many forms of injustice to African Americans. Schools were also segregated throughout the south, and black citizens were denied equal housing, equal pay, job opportunities, and fair voting rights. Service in many hotels and restaurants was also denied.
The bus boycott brought international attention to these inequities and to the leadership of Dr. King. The continuing struggle for
justice ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was at the forefront of this movement, and became seen worldwide as a symbol and voice for the cause of African Americans.
In 1957, Dr. King and other ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to advance the non-violent struggle against racism. In the years that followed, Dr. King led many non-violent demonstrations. He had studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and believed strongly in the power of non-violent protest. Some black leaders and other citizens vehemently disagreed with this philosophy. But King continued to remind his followers that their fight would be victorious if they did not resort to bloodshed. During the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King was jailed many times. From a jail in Birmingham,
Alabama, he wrote the famous words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
One of the key events of the Civil Rights Movement was the March on Washington on August 23, 1963. A crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D. C. and, led by Dr. King they marched to the Capitol Building to support the passing of laws that guaranteed equal civil rights to every American citizen. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, Dr. King delivered one of his most powerful and eloquent speeches, entitled “I Have a Dream.” The March on Washington was one of the largest gatherings of people that the nation’s capital had ever seen…and no violence occurred. The following year, in 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading nonviolent demonstrations.
(The following is an excerpt from the speech entitled "I Have a Dream," delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 23, 1963.)
l say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning "My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride from every mountainside, let freedom ring."
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and mole-hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!"
That same year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, calling for equal opportunity in employment and education. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others now knew that they had not struggled in vain. Yet there was still much work ahead to ensure that new laws were enforced, and other inequities abolished.
In the years that followed, Dr. King helped champion many legislative reforms, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed black citizens the right to safely register and vote. That year a record number of black voters went to the polls.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while supporting a workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee.
He was just 39 years old. All people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were shocked and angry. The world grieved the loss of this great man of peace. Martin Luther King’s death did not slow the Civil Rights Movement. In 1969 Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change.
She passed away in January of 2006, after working throughout her life to keep her husband’s dream alive. Today people continue to work for social justice.
In preparation for Christmas, many people decorate their houses with colored lights and hang a wreath of evergreen branches, or other Christmas decorations on the door. Inside the house people often decorate with bright red poinsettia plants. Most families also put up Christmas trees. In some parts of the USA there are Christmas tree farms where people can cut down their own trees. Most people,
however, buy trees that have already been cut and are sold from Christmas tree lots on street corners or in shopping areas. The trees are brought home, set up in the living room, and decorated with lights, ornaments, tinsel, and a star or angel at the top. Under this tree, family members and “Santa” will leave gifts.
Santa Claus’ origin goes back to Norse and preChristian mythological characters who were also associated with gift giving. The Norse God, Odin, rode on a magical flying horse across the sky in the winter to reward people with gifts. In Scandinavian and other European countries, Father Christmas, or Saint Nicholas, comes into houses in the night and leaves gifts for the children, to bring happiness in the coldest months of the year. The legend of Saint Nicholas may have developed from stories of a real Saint Nicholas, a priest who lived in the 300s AD, and reportedly gave money to a poor family. Saint Nicholas became a symbol for gift giving among Christians. Later, Saint Nicholas was substituted with a non-religious figure, Father Christmas, who was represented as a kindly man with a red cloak and long white beard. Immigrants brought the idea of Father Christmas to the United States. His name was eventually changed to Santa Claus, from the Dutch “Sinter Claas,” which means Father Christmas. Santa Claus took shape in the United States, and Americans made him a cheery old gentleman with red cheeks and a twinkle in his eye. American children believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole with his wife, Mrs. Claus, and his helpers, the elves. All year he keeps a list of the names of children in the world, and notes whether they have been good or bad. He decides what presents to give to the good children. He oversees the manufacturing and wrapping of the presents by his helpers.
Santa Claus supposedly gets his ideas for the toys from the millions of children who write to him at the North Pole, explaining what they would like for Christmas. Children also find Santa Claus at shopping malls across the country. They sit on his lap and tell him what they want. Of course, their parents are probably nearby listening in as well.
On December 24, Christmas Eve, Santa hitches his eight reindeer to a sleigh, and loads it with pres
ents. The reindeer pull him and his sleigh through the sky to deliver presents to children all around the world, that is, if they have been good all year. On Christmas morning, children can’t wait to open their eyes and see what Santa left for them under the Christmas tree. In many families, on Christmas Eve children prepare a glass of milk and cookies as a snack for Santa. Of course, in the morning the snack is gone, and they know that Santa was there. Santa Claus exists only in our imaginations. But he, Saint Nicholas, and Father Christmas all represent the spirit of giving.
t was 1866, and the United States was recovering from the long and bloody Civil War between the North (Union) and the South (Confederate). Surviving soldiers came home, some with missing limbs, and all with stories to tell. Henry Welles, a drugstore owner in Waterloo, New York, heard the stories and had an idea. He suggested that all the shops in town close for one day to honor the soldiers who were buried in the Waterloo cemetery. On the morning of May 5, the townspeople placed flowers, wreaths, and crosses on the graves of the northern soldiers in the cemetery.
In the South, women’s organizations were also honoring the war dead, decorating the graves of southern soldiers who had died in the war. In many towns and cities there was a growing movement to honor the war dead with a special day. So in 1868, General Jonathan Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, established May 30 as the official day of observance to honor all those who had given their lives in service of their country. The day was called Decoration Day.
In General Logan’s proclamation of Decoration Day, he declared:
The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves
of comrades who died in defense of their country and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
The day was to be a memorial, and was intended also to be a day of reconciliation, as flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.
In a typical Decoration Day ceremony in the North, veterans would march through the town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades’ graves with flags. They took photographs of soldiers next to American flags. Rifles were shot in the air as a salute to the northern soldiers who had given their lives to keep the United States together. Children read poems and sang civil war songs and hymns. Veterans came to the schools wearing their medals and uniforms to tell students about the Civil War.
In 1882, the name was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, to honor soldiers who had died in all previous wars—not only the Civil War. In the northern States, it was designated a legal holiday. The southern states honored their
war dead on other days until the end of World War I.
After World War I, Memorial Day was also called Poppy Day because of Moina Michael’s idea to wear red poppies on the day, in honor of those who had died in the war. She was inspired by John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields,” which speaks of the bright red poppies that grow among the graves on former battlefields in Belgium. Her sale of poppies on Memorial Day benefited military men in need. The tradition eventually spread to other countries, where real or artificial poppies were sold to benefit war orphans.
Since 1922, the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) organization in the United States has sold paper poppies, made by disabled veterans, on Memorial Day.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a national holiday, to be observed on the last Monday in May. Cities all around the United States hold their own ceremonies on this day to pay respect to the men and women who have died in wars or in the service of their country.
Today, Memorial Day is also a day for personal remembrance. Families and individuals honor the memory of their loved ones who have died. Church services, visits to the cemetery, flowers on graves, or even silent tributes mark the day with dignity and solemnity. It is a day of reflection. Memorial Day often coincides with the end of the school year, so to many Americans the day also signals the beginning of summer—with a three- day weekend to spend at the beach, in the mountains, or at home relaxing.
Giving gifts is a major Christmas tradition. Gifts are bought or made for all people. Often school children will make gifts in their classrooms for their parents or grandparents. The gifts are wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree to be opened on Christmas morning. Some children are so excited on Christmas Day that they wake up at the crack of dawn to peek into the living room. It is hard for them to wait until after breakfast before opening the gifts.
Nowadays people often complain that Christmas has become too “commercialized,” especially in large cities. Shop owners begin advertising and decorating for Christmas as early as October in hopes of selling more goods. Children demand more from Santa Claus because manufacturers and retailers saturate the media with advertising. Children’s toys have become more complex and expensive. Many kids ask for pricey electronic or sports equipment, while the trend for adults is also for larger, more expensive gifts. Some people believe that the origin and spirit of Christmas has been lost.
Every year human-interest stories appear in the media reminding readers of the origin of Christmas. Shelters for the homeless and hungry appeal for money or gifts for those who are in need. Members of organizations like the Salvation Army dress up as Santa Claus and stand on the sidewalks collecting money for their soup kitchens. City police and other groups supervise a “Toys for Tots” drive, in which people donate new toys for needy children. Company employees may take up a collection for a special charity or a family in need. All of these efforts are meant to
emphasize the importance of giving—rather than receiving—during this holiday season.