Christmas traditions include a variety of customs, religious practices, rituals, and folklore associated with the celebration of Christmas. Many of these traditions vary by country or region, while others are practiced in a virtually identical manner across the world.
Traditions associated with the Christmas holiday are diverse in their origins and nature, with some having an exclusively Christian character with origins from within the religion, while others have been described as more cultural or secular in nature and have originated from outside the realm of Christian influence. Christmas traditions have also changed and evolved significantly in the centuries since Christmas was first instituted as a holiday, with celebrations often taking on an entirely different quality or atmosphere depending on the time period and geographical region.
Christmas Day (inclusive of its vigil, Christmas Eve), is a Festival in the Lutheran Church, a Solemnity in the Roman Catholic Church, and a Principal Feast of the Anglican Communion. Other Christian denominations do not rank their feast days but nevertheless place importance on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, as with other Christian feasts like Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. As such, for Christians, attending a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day church service plays an important part in the recognition of the Christmas season. Christmas, along with Easter, is the period of highest annual church attendance. A 2010 survey by Lifeway Christian Resources found that six in ten Americans attend church services during this time. In the United Kingdom, the Church of England reported an estimated attendance of 2.5 million people at Christmas services in 2015.
The practice of putting up special decorations at Christmas has a long history. In the 15th century, it was recorded that in London it was the custom at Christmas for every house and all the parish churches to be "decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green". The heart-shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolize the coming to earth of Jesus, while holly was seen as protection against pagans and witches, its thorns and red berries held to represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion and the blood he shed.
Nativity scenes are known from 10th-century Rome. They were popularised by Saint Francis of Assisi from 1223, quickly spreading across Europe. Different types of decorations developed across the Christian world, dependent on local tradition and available resources, and can vary from simple representations of the crib to far more elaborate sets – renowned manger scene traditions include the colourful Kraków szopka in Poland, which imitate Kraków's historical buildings as settings, the elaborate Italian presepi (Neapolitan, Genoese and Bolognese), or the Provençal crèches in southern France, using hand-painted terracotta figurines called santons. In certain parts of the world, notably Sicily, living nativity scenes following the tradition of Saint Francis are a popular alternative to static crèches. The first commercially produced decorations appeared in Germany in the 1860s, inspired by paper chains made by children. In countries where a representation of the Nativity scene is very popular, people are encouraged to compete and create the most original or realistic ones. Within some families, the pieces used to make the representation are considered a valuable family heirloom.
The traditional colors of Christmas decorations are red, green, and gold. Red symbolizes the blood of Jesus, which was shed in his crucifixion, while green symbolizes eternal life, and in particular the evergreen tree, which does not lose its leaves in the winter, and gold is the first color associated with Christmas, as one of the three gifts of the Magi, symbolizing royalty.
The Christmas tree was first used by German Lutherans in the 16th century, with records indicating that a Christmas tree was placed in the Cathedral of Strassburg in 1539, under the leadership of the Protestant Reformer, Martin Bucer. In the United States, these "German Lutherans brought the decorated Christmas tree with them; the Moravians put lighted candles on those trees." When decorating the Christmas tree, many individuals place a star at the top of the tree symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, a fact recorded by The School Journal in 1897. Professor David Albert Jones of Oxford University writes that in the 19th century, it became popular for people to also use an angel to top the Christmas tree in order to symbolize the angels mentioned in the accounts of the Nativity of Jesus. The Christmas tree is considered by some as Christianisation of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship; according to eighth-century biographer Æddi Stephanus, Saint Boniface (634–709), who was a missionary in Germany, took an axe to an oak tree dedicated to Thor and pointed out a fir tree, which he stated was a more fitting object of reverence because it pointed to heaven and it had a triangular shape, which he said was symbolic of the Trinity. The English language phrase "Christmas tree" is first recorded in 1835 and represents an importation from the German language.
From Germany the custom was introduced to Britain, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. By 1841 the Christmas tree had become even more widespread throughout Britain. By the 1870s, people in the United States had adopted the custom of putting up a Christmas tree. Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments.
Since the 16th century, the poinsettia, a native plant from Mexico, has been associated with Christmas carrying the Christian symbolism of the Star of Bethlehem; in that country it is known in Spanish as the Flower of the Holy Night. Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage. The display of Christmas villages has also become a tradition in many homes during this season. The outside of houses may be decorated with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Mistletoe features prominently in European myth and folklore (for example the legend of Baldr), it is an evergreen parasitic plant which grows on trees, especially apple and poplar, and turns golden when it is dried. It is customary to hang a sprig of mistletoe in the house at Christmas, and anyone standing underneath it may be kissed. Mistletoe has sticky white berries, one of which was traditionally removed whenever someone was kissed under it. This is probably a fertility ritual. The mistletoe berry juice resembles semen.
Other traditional decorations include bells, candles, candy canes, stockings, wreaths, and angels. Both the displaying of wreaths and candles in each window are a more traditional Christmas display. The concentric assortment of leaves, usually from an evergreen, make up Christmas wreaths and are designed to prepare Christians for the Advent season. Candles in each window are meant to demonstrate the fact that Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the ultimate light of the world.
Christmas lights and banners may be hung along streets, music played from speakers, and Christmas trees placed in prominent places. It is common in many parts of the world for town squares and consumer shopping areas to sponsor and display decorations. Rolls of brightly colored paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts. In some countries, Christmas decorations are traditionally taken down on Twelfth Night.
For the Christian celebration of Christmas, the viewing of the Nativity play is one of the oldest Christmastime traditions, with the first reenactment of the Nativity of Jesus taking place in A.D. 1223. In that year, Francis of Assisi assembled a Nativity scene outside of his church in Italy and children sang Christmas carols celebrating the birth of Jesus. Each year, this grew larger and people travelled from afar to see Francis' depiction of the Nativity of Jesus that came to feature drama and music. Nativity plays eventually spread throughout all of Europe, where they remain popular. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church services often came to feature Nativity plays, as did schools and theatres. In France, Germany, Mexico and Spain, Nativity plays are often reenacted outdoors in the streets.
Music and carols
The earliest extant specifically Christmas hymns appear in fourth-century Rome. Latin hymns such as "Veni redemptor gentium", written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, were austere statements of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism. "Corde natus ex Parentis" ("Of the Father's love begotten") by the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 413) is still sung in some churches today. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Christmas "Sequence" or "Prose" was introduced in North European monasteries, developing under Bernard of Clairvaux into a sequence of rhymed stanzas. In the 12th century the Parisian monk Adam of St. Victor began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something closer to the traditional Christmas carol.
By the 13th century, in France, Germany, and particularly, Italy, under the influence of Francis of Assisi, a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native language developed. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty-five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house.
The songs now known specifically as carols were originally communal folk songs sung during celebrations such as "harvest tide" as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church. Traditionally, carols have often been based on medieval chord patterns, and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols like "Personent hodie", "Good King Wenceslas", and "The Holly and the Ivy" can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages. They are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung. "Adeste Fideles" (O Come all ye faithful) appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the 13th century.
Singing of carols initially suffered a decline in popularity after the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe, although some Reformers, like Martin Luther, wrote carols and encouraged their use in worship. Carols largely survived in rural communities until the revival of interest in popular songs in the 19th century. The 18th-century English reformer Charles Wesley understood the importance of music to worship. In addition to setting many psalms to melodies, which were influential in the Great Awakening in the United States, he wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols. The best known was originally entitled "Hark! How All the Welkin Rings", later renamed "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing".
Felix Mendelssohn wrote a melody adapted to fit Wesley's words. In Austria in 1818 Mohr and Gruber made a major addition to the genre when they composed "Silent Night" for the St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf. William Sandys' Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833) contained the first appearance in print of many now-classic English carols, and contributed to the mid-Victorian revival of the festival.
Completely secular Christmas seasonal songs emerged in the late 18th century. "Deck the Halls" dates from 1784, and the American "Jingle Bells" was copyrighted in 1857. In the 19th and 20th century, African American spirituals and songs about Christmas, based in their tradition of spirituals, became more widely known. An increasing number of seasonal holidays songs were commercially produced in the 20th century, including jazz and blues variations. In addition, there was a revival of interest in early music, from groups singing folk music, such as The Revels, to performers of early medieval and classical music. John Rutter has composed many carols including "All Bells in Paradise", "Angels' Carol", "Candlelight Carol", "Donkey Carol", "Jesus Child", "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" and "Star Carol".
A special Christmas family meal is traditionally an important part of the holiday's celebration, and the food that is served varies greatly from country to country. Some regions have special meals for Christmas Eve, such as Sicily, where 12 kinds of fish are served. In the United Kingdom and countries influenced by its traditions, a standard Christmas meal includes turkey, goose or other large bird, gravy, potatoes, vegetables, sometimes bread and cider. Special desserts are also prepared, such as Christmas pudding, mince pies, fruit cake and Yule log cake.
In Poland and other parts of eastern Europe and Scandinavia, fish often is used for the traditional main course, but richer meat such as lamb is increasingly served. In Sweden it is common with a special variety of smörgåsbord, where ham, meatballs and herring play a prominent role. In Germany, France, and Austria, goose and pork are favored. Beef, ham, and chicken in various recipes are popular throughout the world. The Maltese traditionally serve Imbuljuta tal-Qastan, a chocolate and chestnuts beverage, after Midnight Mass and throughout the Christmas season. Slovenes prepare the traditional Christmas bread potica, bûche de Noël in France, panettone in Italy, and elaborate tarts and cakes. The eating of sweets and chocolates has become popular worldwide, and sweeter Christmas delicacies include the German stollen, marzipan cake or candy, and Jamaican rum fruit cake. As one of the few fruits traditionally available to northern countries in winter, oranges have been long associated with special Christmas foods. Eggnog is a sweetened dairy-based beverage traditionally made with milk, cream, sugar, and whipped eggs (which gives it a frothy texture). Spirits such as brandy, rum or bourbon are often added. The finished serving is often garnished with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon or nutmeg.
Christmas cards are illustrated messages of greeting exchanged between friends and family members during the weeks preceding Christmas Day. The traditional greeting reads "wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year", much like that of the first commercial Christmas card, produced by Sir Henry Cole in London in 1843. The custom of sending them has become popular among a wide cross-section of people with the emergence of the modern trend towards exchanging E-cards.
Christmas cards are purchased in considerable quantities, and feature artwork, commercially designed and relevant to the season. The content of the design might relate directly to the Christmas narrative, with depictions of the Nativity of Jesus, or Christian symbols such as the Star of Bethlehem, or a white dove, which can represent both the Holy Spirit and Peace on Earth. Other Christmas cards are more secular and can depict Christmas traditions, mythical figures such as Santa Claus, objects directly associated with Christmas such as candles, holly and baubles, or a variety of images associated with the season, such as Christmastide activities, snow scenes and the wildlife of the northern winter. There are even humorous cards and genres depicting nostalgic scenes of the past such as crinolined shoppers in idealized 19th-century streetscapes.
Some prefer cards with a poem, prayer, or Biblical verse; while others distance themselves from religion with an all-inclusive "Season's greetings".
A number of nations have issued commemorative stamps at Christmastide. Postal customers will often use these stamps to mail Christmas cards, and they are popular with philatelists. These stamps are regular postage stamps, unlike Christmas seals, and are valid for postage year-round. They usually go on sale some time between early October and early December, and are printed in considerable quantities.
The exchanging of gifts is one of the core aspects of the modern Christmas celebration, making it the most profitable time of year for retailers and businesses throughout the world. On Christmas, people exchange gifts based on the Christian tradition associated with Saint Nicholas, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were given to the baby Jesus by the Magi. The practice of gift giving in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia may have influenced Christian Christmas customs, but on the other hand the Christian "core dogma of the Incarnation, however, solidly established the giving and receiving of gifts as the structural principle of that recurrent yet unique event", because it was the Biblical Magi, "together with all their fellow men, who received the gift of God through man's renewed participation in the divine life."
A number of figures are associated with Christmas and the seasonal giving of gifts. Among these are Father Christmas, also known as Santa Claus (derived from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas), Père Noël, and the Weihnachtsmann; Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas; the Christkind; Kris Kringle; Joulupukki; tomte/nisse; Babbo Natale; Saint Basil; and Ded Moroz. The Scandinavian tomte (also called nisse) is sometimes depicted as a gnome instead of Santa Claus.
The best known of these figures today is red-dressed Santa Claus, of diverse origins. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek bishop of Myra, a city in the Roman province of Lycia, whose ruins are 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) from modern Demre in southwest Turkey. Among other saintly attributes, he was noted for the care of children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. His feast day, December 6, came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts.
Saint Nicholas traditionally appeared in bishop's attire, accompanied by helpers, inquiring about the behaviour of children during the past year before deciding whether they deserved a gift or not. By the 13th century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of central and southern Europe. During the Reformation in 16th–17th-century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, and the date of giving gifts changed from December 6 to Christmas Eve.
The modern popular image of Santa Claus, however, was created in the United States, and in particular in New York. The transformation was accomplished with the aid of notable contributors including Washington Irving and the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902). Following the American Revolutionary War, some of the inhabitants of New York City sought out symbols of the city's non-English past. New York had originally been established as the Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam and the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition was reinvented as Saint Nicholas.
In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Sancte Claus the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam, the Dutch name for New York City. At his first American appearance in 1810, Santa Claus was drawn in bishops' robes. However, as new artists took over, Santa Claus developed more secular attire. Nast drew a new image of "Santa Claus" annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the modern vision of the figure, perhaps based on the English figure of Father Christmas. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s and continues through the present day.
Father Christmas, a jolly, stout, bearded man who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, predates the Santa Claus character. He is first recorded in early 17th century England, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness rather than the bringing of gifts. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image. In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In other versions, elves make the toys. His wife is referred to as Mrs. Claus.
There has been some opposition to the narrative of the American evolution of Saint Nicholas into the modern Santa. It has been claimed that the Saint Nicholas Society was not founded until 1835, almost half a century after the end of the American War of Independence. Moreover, a study of the "children's books, periodicals and journals" of New Amsterdam by Charles Jones revealed no references to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. However, not all scholars agree with Jones's findings, which he reiterated in a book-length study in 1978; Howard G. Hageman, of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, maintains that the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas in New York was alive and well from the early settlement of the Hudson Valley on.
Current tradition in several Latin American countries (such as Venezuela and Colombia) holds that while Santa makes the toys, he then gives them to the Baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children's homes, a reconciliation between traditional religious beliefs and the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.
In South Tyrol (Italy), Austria, Czech Republic, Southern Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Slovakia, and Switzerland, the Christkind (Ježíšek in Czech, Jézuska in Hungarian and Ježiško in Slovak) brings the presents. Greek children get their presents from Saint Basil on New Year's Eve, the eve of that saint's liturgical feast. The German St. Nikolaus is not identical with the Weihnachtsmann (who is the German version of Santa Claus / Father Christmas). St. Nikolaus wears a bishop's dress and still brings small gifts (usually candies, nuts, and fruits) on December 6 and is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht. Although many parents around the world routinely teach their children about Santa Claus and other gift bringers, some have come to reject this practice, considering it deceptive.
Multiple gift-giver figures exist in Poland, varying between regions and individual families. St Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) dominates Central and North-East areas, the Starman (Gwiazdor) is most common in Greater Poland, Baby Jesus (Dzieciątko) is unique to Upper Silesia, with the Little Star (Gwiazdka) and the Little Angel (Aniołek) being common in the South and the South-East. Grandfather Frost (Dziadek Mróz) is less commonly accepted in some areas of Eastern Poland. It is worth noting that across all of Poland, St Nicholas is the gift giver on the Saint Nicholas Day on December 6.
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The Christmas tree as we know it seemed to emerge in Lutheran lands in Germany in the sixteenth century. Although no specific city or town has been identified as the first to have a Christmas tree, records for the Cathedral of Strassburg indicate that a Christmas tree was set up in that church in 1539 during Martin Bucer's superintendency.
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The Christmas tree became a widespread custom among German Lutherans by the eighteenth century.
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German Lutherans brought the decorated Christmas tree with them; the Moravians put lighted candles on those trees.
- Blainey, Geoffrey (October 24, 2013). A Short History of Christianity. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 418. ISBN 9781442225909.
Many Lutherans continued to set up a small fir tree as their Christmas tree, and it must have been a seasonal sight in Bach's Leipzig at a time when it was virtually unknown in England, and little known in those farmlands of North America where Lutheran immigrants congregated.
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The eight-pointed star became a popular manufactured Christmas ornament around the 1840s and many people place a star on the top of their Christmas tree to represent the Star of Bethlehem.
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Christmas is the occasional of family reunions. Grandmother always has the place of honor. As the time approaches for enjoying the tree, she gathers her grandchildren about her, to tell them the story of the Christ child, with the meaning of the Christ child, with the meaning of the Christmas tree; how the evergreen is meant to represent the life everlasting, the candle lights to recall the light of the world, and the star at the top of the tree is to remind them of the star of Bethlehem.
- Jones, David Albert (October 27, 2011). Angels. Oxford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 9780191614910.
The same ambiguity is seen in that most familiar of angels, the angel on top of the Christmas tree. This decoration, popularized in the nineteenth century, recalls the place of the angels in the Christmas story (Luke 2.9–18).
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His biographer, Eddius Stephanus, relates that while Boniface was serving as a missionary near Geismar, Germany, he had enough of the locals' reverence for the old gods. Taking an axe to an oak tree dedicated to Norse god Thor, Boniface chopped the tree down and dared Thor to zap him for it. When nothing happened, Boniface pointed out a young fir tree amid the roots of the oak and explained how this tree was a more fitting object of reverence as it pointed towards the Christian heaven and its triangular shape was reminiscent of the Christian trinity.
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It is said to resemble the star of Bethlehem. The Mexicans call it the flower of the Holy Night, but usually it is called poinsettia after the man who introduced it to America, Dr Joel Poinsett.
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The legend of St. Nicholas, who became the bishop of Myra in the beginning of the fourth century, is the next link in the Christmas-gift chain. Legend has it that during his life the priest rode across Asia Minor bestowing gifts upon poor children.
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This exchange network of ceremonial welcome was mirrored in a second reciprocity allowing early Christians to imagine their own magi: the phenomenon of giving gifts.
- Collins, Ace (April 20, 2010). Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. Zondervan. p. 17. ISBN 9780310873884. Retrieved April 10, 2012.
Most people today trace the practice of giving gifts on Christmas Day to the three gifts that the Magi gave to Jesus.
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For the Enlightenment educationalist, gift-giving turned out to be a relic of a pagan custom, namely, the Roman Saturnalia. After the introduction of the Julian calendar in Rome, the 25th of December became the day of Sol invictus when people greeted the winter solstice. It was the day of the Sun's rebirth, and it was the day of the Christmas festivities – although it was only in the year 336 AD that it appears to have become established as the day of Jesus's birth (see Pannenberg 1989: 57). The Eastern Church adopted this date even later, towards the end of the 4th century, having previously regarded the 6th of January as the day of gift-giving, as it still is in the Italian community of Befana. The winter solstice was a time of festivity in every traditional culture, and the Christian Christmas probably took its place within this mythical context of the solar cult. Its core dogma of the Incarnation, however, solidly established the giving and receiving of gifts as the structural principle of that recurrent yet unique event. 'Children were given presents as the Jesus child received gifts from the magi or kings who came from afar to adore him. But in reality it was they, together with all their fellow men, who received the gift of God through man's renewed participation in the divine life' (ibid.: 61).
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Until quite recently, the celebrations focused solely on Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas (SIN-ter-klahs), as the Dutch call him. ... Interestingly, the American Santa Claus was born out of the Dutch Sinterklaas.
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Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra) replaced Sabino as the patron saint of the city... A Greek from what is now Turkey, he lived in the early fourth century.
- Collins, Ace (2009). Stories Behind Men of Faith. Zondervan. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-310-56456-0. Retrieved June 20, 2015.
Nicholas was born in the Greek city of Patara around 270 AD. The son of a businessman named Theophanes and his wife, Nonna, the child's earliest years were spent in Myra... As a port on the Mediterranean Sea, in the middle of the sea lanes that linked Egypt, Greece and Rome, Myra was a destination for traders, fishermen, and merchant sailors. Spawned by the spirit of both the city's Greek heritage and the ruling Roman government, cultural endeavours such as art, drama, and music were mainstays of everyday life.
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