Christmas is celebrated on December 25 each year and is a sacred religious holiday as well as being a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. Christians celebrate Christmas Day as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. But the middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yuletide from December 21, the winter solstice, through to January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year.
The end of December was a perfect time for celebration in most areas of Europe. At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. In fact for many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. As well as that, most wine and beer made during the year was fully fermented and ready for drinking. In Germany, people honoured the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside. In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north, Saturnalia—a holiday in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture—was celebrated. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, this was a time when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, enslaved people were given temporary freedom and treated as equals. Businesses and schools were closed so that everyone could participate in the holiday’s festivities. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honouring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year. However, in the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday and the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Unfortunately, the Bible does not mention a date for his birth, a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring, an argument put forward being why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter. Pope Julius I chose December 25 and it is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432AD and to England by the end of the sixth century. So by holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. However at Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink and if owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorise them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens. It was in the early 17th century a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. But by popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and with him came the return of the popular holiday. The Pilgrims, English separatists who came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston, in fact Ebenezer Scrooge had nothing on the 17th-century Puritans, who actually banned the public celebration of Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for an entire generation and so anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident. It seems though that in America, after the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favour, including Christmas. In fact Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870. So it seems that it wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. There are even those who have said that Americans re-invented Christmas and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centred day of peace and nostalgia. I am not sure I can agree with that! But what was it about the 1800s that piqued American interest in the holiday? There, the early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This encouraged quite a few members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America. In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches featured a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, this showed how the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed ‘ancient customs’ including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended and in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season. Also around this time, English author Charles Dickens created the classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. The story’s message, the importance of charity and good will towards all humankind, struck a powerful chord in England as well as the United States and showed members of Victorian society the benefits of celebrating the holiday. The family was also becoming less disciplined and more sensitive to the emotional needs of children during the early 1800s. Christmas provided families with a day when they could lavish attention and gifts on their children without appearing to ‘spoil’ them. As people began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. They looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated and in time a Christmas tradition was built which included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees and exchanging gifts. But although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, some Americans believed they had re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.
In my research I have found a few questions regarding the legend of Santa Claus, which can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas. Born in Turkey around 280 A.D., St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and travelled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors. The modern character of Santa is based on traditions surrounding St. Nicholas, with Santa generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man, often wearing spectacles, a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots, carrying a bag full of gifts for children. He is commonly portrayed as laughing in a way that sounds like “ho ho ho”. This image became popular in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’, also known as The Night Before Christmas and ’Twas The Night Before Christmas from the first line of a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed its authorship in 1837. The story is that on the night of Christmas Eve, a family is settling down to sleep when the father is disturbed by noises on the lawn outside. Looking out of the window, he sees Saint Nicholas on a sleigh which is pulled by eight reindeer. After landing his sleigh on the roof, Saint Nicholas enters the house down the chimney, carrying a sack of toys. The father watches his visitor fill the stockings which are hanging by the fireplace and laughs to himself. They share a conspiratorial moment before Saint Nicholas bounds up the chimney again. As he flies away, he wishes a “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” So St. Nicholas became known by various names such as Santa Claus, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle or simply ‘Santa’. He is said to bring gifts on Christmas Eve of toys and sweets to well-behaved children and either coal or nothing to naughty children. He is said to accomplish this with the aid of Christmas elves who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, distributing the gifts around the world on his sleigh which is pulled through the air by flying reindeer. Christmas traditions around the world are quite diverse, but they share key traits that often involve themes of light, evergreens and hope. Probably the most celebrated holiday in the world, our modern Christmas is a product of hundreds of years of both secular and religious traditions from around the globe, many of them centred on the winter solstice. Most people in Scandinavian countries honour St. Lucia (also known as St. Lucy) each year on December 13. The celebration of St. Lucia Day began in Sweden, but had spread to Denmark and Finland by the mid-19th century. In these countries, the holiday is considered the start of the Christmas season and is sometimes referred to as “little Yule.” Traditionally, the oldest daughter in each family rises early, dressed in a long, white gown with a red sash, and wearing a crown made of twigs with nine lighted candles. She wakes each of her family members and for the day, she is called “Lussi” or “Lussibruden” (Lucy bride). The family then eats breakfast in a room lighted with candles. Any shooting or fishing done on St. Lucia Day was done by torchlight, and people brightly illuminated their homes. At night, men, women and children would carry burning torches in a parade. The night would end when everyone threw their torches onto a large pile of straw, creating a huge bonfire. In Finland today, one girl is chosen to serve as the national Lucia and she is honoured in a parade in which she is surrounded by torchbearers. Light is a main theme of St. Lucia Day as her name, which is derived from the Latin word lux, means light. Her feast day is celebrated near the shortest day of the year, when the sun’s light again begins to strengthen. Lucia lived in Syracuse during the fourth century when persecution of Christians was common. Unfortunately, most of her story has been lost over the years but according to one common legend, Lucia lost her eyes while being tortured by a Diocletian for her Christian beliefs. Others say she may have plucked her own eyes out to protest at the poor treatment of Christians and it is for that reason St. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind. In Finland, many Finns visit the sauna on Christmas Eve and families gather and listen to the national “Peace of Christmas” radio broadcast. It is also the custom there to visit the gravesites of departed family members. In Norway, the birthplace of the Yule log, I have learned that the ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. “Yule” came from the Norse word ‘hweol’, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and then away from the earth. If you ever wonder why the family fireplace is such a central part of the typical Christmas scene it is because this tradition dates back to the Norse Yule log. It is probably also responsible for the popularity of log-shaped cheese, cakes and desserts during the holidays. But the tradition of decorating Christmas trees comes from Germany and decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition. The first Christmas trees explicitly decorated and named after the Christian holiday appeared in Strasbourg (part of Alsace) in the beginning of the 17th century. After 1750, Christmas trees began showing up in other parts of Germany, and even more so after 1771, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Strasbourg and promptly included a Christmas tree is his novel, The Suffering of Young Werther. But over in Mexico, papier-mâché sculptures called piñatas are filled with sweets and coins and hung from the ceiling. Children then take turns hitting the piñata until it breaks, sending a shower of treats to the floor. Children race to gather as much of the items as they can. In 1828, the American minister to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, brought a red-and-green plant from Mexico to America. As its colouring seemed perfect for the new holiday, the plants, called poinsettias after Poinsett, began appearing in greenhouses as early as 1830. In 1870, New York stores began to sell them at Christmas and by 1900, they were a universal symbol of the holiday. It may come as no surprise that a manger scene is the primary decoration in Central American, South American and most southern European nations, as St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity in 1224 to help explain the birth of Jesus to his followers. Further north, most Canadian Christmas traditions are very similar to those practiced in the United States. In the far north of the country, indigenous Inuits celebrate a winter festival called Sinck Tuck, which features parties with dancing and the exchanging of gifts.
Over in France, Christmas is called Noel. This comes from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news” and refers to the gospel. In southern France, some people burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. This stems from an ancient tradition in which farmers would use part of the log to ensure good luck for the next year’s harvest. Equally, Italians call Christmas ‘il Natale,’ meaning “the birthday” whilst in Greece, many people believe in the ‘kallikantzeri’, goblins that appear and cause mischief during the 12 days of Christmas. Gifts are usually exchanged on January 1, St. Basil’s Day. But down in Australia, the holiday comes in the middle of summer and it’s not unusual for some parts of Australia to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas Day. During the warm and sunny Australian Christmas season, beach time and outdoor barbecues are common. Traditional Christmas Day celebrations include family gatherings, exchanging gifts and either a hot meal with ham, turkey, pork or seafood or barbecues. Here in Britain I have learned that the tradition of exchanging Christmas cards can be traced back to England. An Englishman named John Calcott Horsley helped to popularise the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards when he began producing small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written holiday greeting and this began in the late 1830s. Our Post Office, which dates way back to 1660 when it was established by Charles II and under the guise of the General Post Office (GPO), it soon grew as an important organisation integral within the infrastructure of England during the seventeenth century. Therefore, the exchanging of these cards nearly made them overnight sensations. Celtic and Teutonic peoples had long considered mistletoe to have magic powers and it was said to have the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility. The Celts hung mistletoe in their homes in order to bring themselves good luck and ward off evil spirits and in the Victorian era, during holidays the English would hang sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways. If someone was found standing under the mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, although this was a behaviour that was not usually demonstrated in Victorian society. A favourite food at this time of year is Christmas pudding, also known as ‘figgy pudding’ or plum pudding, an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are “plum,” meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, sliced like cake and topped with cream. Also, ‘Carolling’ began in England, when wandering musicians would travel from town to town visiting castles and homes of the rich. In return for their performance, the musicians hoped to receive a hot meal or money. In most countries nowadays I think children hang stockings on their bedpost or near a fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that it will be filled with treats while they sleep. In Scandinavia, similar-minded children leave their shoes on the hearth. But the best one has to be in the Ukraine, where Ukrainians prepare a traditional twelve-course meal and the family’s youngest child keeps watch through the window for the evening star to appear, a signal that the feast can begin. I do wonder if the older children actually sit and wait…
This week, a Fascinating Fact…
We know the word ‘emphatic’, but there is also ‘phatic’. A phatic expression denotes or relates to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions. Utterances such as “hello, how are you” and “nice morning, isn’t it?“ are phatic expressions.
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