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Christmas Celebrations

By LayStar Magazine
23rd November, 2011

It’s that time of the year when the faith celebrates the birth of Jesus and commerce hopes to celebrate record-breaking sales, while the rest of us are fraught with the stress of organising everything. What is it really all about?

(Illustration by Susan Claremont-Smith)

  We have been celebrating Christmas as a Christian event for hundreds of years. Before then Pagan ceremonies were in abundance at this time of the year.

  The exact date of the birth of Jesus is a much debated topic and it ranges anywhere from September to February, although autumn appears to be the favoured time. The year of Christ’s birth is also unknown. For example, we are told in scriptures that Jesus was born in King Herod’s time. We are also told that King Herod died in 4 BC.

  December 25th was the chosen date, quite possibly to assist with the changeover from Pagan to Christian faiths. It was Pope Julius the First who, in 366 AD, decreed that Christmas should celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. By 529 AD the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day up to the Epiphany on the 6th January, were marked by a public holiday. Although a holy time of the year, people marked the occasion by merry-making and feasting, which were Pagan festivity traditions of the past. The church built on the joyous occasion and used many Pagan symbols, such as a wreath of holly as a crown for the Saviour’s head. Songs that were once sung in praise of the sun were re-written to praise the Son of God.

Pagan Festivals

Leading up to the 25th there was the 7-day Roman festival, Saturnalia on the 17th December. Saturn was the god of agriculture and this time of year was celebrated with the wealthy masters giving gifts, or redistributing wealth, to the poor during the hardest season of year. The servants reversed roles with the masters, and men dressed as women, which could be the pantomime Dame’s origins.

  Winter Solstice is celebrated on the 21st December, which is the longest night. Known as Yule, from the Nordic ‘jol’, it is a fire festival to mark the end of darkness and the return of light through the re-birth of the sun, which strengthens up until the summer solstice. Britain is scattered with ancient monuments in the form of stone circles that have significance to the rising of the sun on either of the solstices. It is celebrated in the northern hemisphere and believed to be of Nordic origin from about 4000 BC. It is said that the god Thor, who later enlisted the help of Odin and Woden, distributed presents with a goat. The burning of a Yule Log was traditional, which would be kept alight for 12 days. 

  The ancient Romans used to celebrate the solstice feast of Mithras on the 25th December. Mithras is the Roman god of light and the 25th is the date of the winter solstice in the Roman Astronomical calendar.

  Finally, New Year’s Eve was the celebration of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looked back and forward. This festival saw torch-lit processions, merry-making and the giving of gifts.

  People would collect greenery to symbolise new life at this festive time of the year. Being evergreen, such plants were a symbol of life carried over from last summer to the next. Holly in particular was hung from the doorways of homes. Holly is a male symbol while Ivey is female, which is why the Holley and the Ivey are rejoiced, even in modern times. Mistletoe, a plant of the Celtic Druids, was said to give fertility to women who were kissed beneath it.   

  There are as many as 20,000 Wiccans or Druids that continue to celebrate the Yule festival in the UK. They are not necessarily anti-Christians. It is more that this time of the year marks a special time that is worthy of celebration, as for Christian beliefs. However, both the Christian and modern Pagan followers do not believe in the commercialism of Christmas time, which appears to be followed by most people, regardless of religion.

Middle Ages

In the middle ages the church banished carol singers to the street. ‘Carol’ from the Greek, charos, and the French, carole, means to sing and dance in a circle, which is what early carol singers did, to the disgust of the orderly church. From the 11th century onwards carol singers went from house to house, as they do to this day, collecting money for the poor and needy.

  William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066. Apparently there were such cheers inside Westminster that the guards stormed the place in a full scale attack.

  The 28th December is a day that medieval England eventually forgot. Not without a lingering reminders though. Coined, ‘Holy Innocence Day’ or ‘Childermass Day’, it is the day that King Herod ordered the killing of all children under the age of two. Children in the middle ages were often beaten on the anniversary as a reminder of Herod’s cruelty.

  Mumming is similar to our modern pantomime and was performed by street actors who dressed up and spread the word of the Christian faith. Often Herod would be acted as a baddie in ‘Mystery’ plays. He’s behind you!

  Boxing Day was a time for the masters to reward the workers. They would give money, not in boxes, but in clay pots with a slot on the top. They had to be broken to get at the money. The pots became known as ‘Piggies’, leading to what we know as the Piggy Bank for storing money.

The Nativity

Saint Francis of Assis is believed to be the first person who in 1223 AD used carved figures outside of his church in Greccio, Italy to symbolise the scene of baby Jesus in a crib surrounded by family and well-wishers in a stable. The tradition soon spread and became popular in mainland Europe.

The Modern Christmas

Over the years puritan Christians endeavoured to bury pagan traditions, such as bringing greenery into the home and merry-making. This was seen as sinful.

  We owe much of our modern symbols and traditions of Christmas time to the Victorians. Queen Victoria adorned her palace with Christmas trees, a tradition brought to England by her husband, Prince Albert and her uncle, both from Germany where it was the norm since the 11th century.

  The Victorians also re-introduced Mistletoe, quite against the puritan views that unmarried couples should not make physical and amorous contact. They also sang songs and feasted in much the way of the celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule. Carol singing was important to spread the word of the Christian faith to those that couldn’t read.

  Christmas cards were from the Victorian era and are thought to be an idea inspired by the earlier tradition of Valentines Day, where cards were sent to loved ones.

  Christmas Crackers are thought to come from a London sweet maker, Thomas Smith in 1846. A bonbon styled sweet was wrapped in a paper that gave off a pleasant scent when it was pulled apart. It also contained a love note. This theme was soon adapted to produce bigger crackers that contained gifts instead of sweets and even paper hats. 

Santa Claus

There are many variations of how Santa Claus came to be. Pagan beliefs could have given rise to Father Christmas from the god, Thor. We also know him as Santa, which could have come from Bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra in about 300 AD. He was said to be kind and generous to children and bestowed gifts upon them in the darkness of night. The name could also have come from Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, who is said to have resurrected three children from their unfortunate murder.

  The image of Santa is the sum of folk legend, poetry and song throughout the ages in Europe and America. An elf-like man, Tomten, gives Swedish children sweets, while the Netherlands still uphold the tradition of St Nick, known to them as Sinterklaas who dresses in a red robe and rides a white horse, handing out presents.

  Charles Clement Moore wrote a poem in 1823 that describes Santa as a chubby, plump, jolly old elf. The American poet also introduced the idea of Santa’s sleigh and named the eight reindeer to pull it: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

  Rudolph was a marketing product thought up by Robert May in 1939. He was immortalised in the song, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, by Gene Autry in 1949.

Christmas Fare

Turkey was the preferred poultry of sailors coming home from sea from the late 1500s onwards. They come from the Americas and sailors could have kept turkeys on their ships throughout the voyage. Prior to turkey other birds would have been eaten, including goose and, with the King’s permission, swan. Also, big game, such as venison, would be the norm, especially for the wealthy. The poor would eat the left-overs of the deer, referred to as ‘umbles’. This would be the heart, liver, brains and would be baked in a pie. The poor would therefore eat ‘umble pie’, the origin of ‘eating humble pie’. The poor could also have cooked or uncooked goose provided by the church for about a day’s wage. Today, turkey is a favourite in most parts of the world at this time of the year, regardless of religion.

  In bygone days vegetables were seasonal and were referred to as ‘herbs’. The wealthy and nobles frowned upon food of the earth and only a few vegetables made it to their tables, mainly for flavouring. The darkest months of the year were the most difficult to harvest crops, and vegetables keep for only a short time before rot sets in. Therefore, root crops such as parsnips, onions, shallots, garlic and carrots, and, from 1570 and onwards in Europe, potatoes and sweet potatoes would be served up. With the advent of the freezer and much better transportation, we now enjoy local and exotic fruits and vegetables stored from every season.

  Mince pies were a symbol of Christ in the crib. They were made from sweetened minced meat, which was a method used to keep the meat over the Christmas period. It is said to be lucky to eat a mince pie each day from a different cook over the twelve days of Christmas. To turn down a mince pie was once said to be unlucky. Watching your weight obviously wasn’t fashionable then!

  Christmas pudding dates back to the 17th century, although the middle agers mixed porridge with fruit to make a stodgy pudding known as Frumenty. Families would each take a turn to stir the ingredients in the mixing bowl in a clock-wise direction while making a wish. Cooks would put one or more coins into the mix to bring good luck to whoever gets it. Many families uphold this tradition today when making their own puddings.

  Christmas cake is said to have been eaten as a celebration of the twelfth and last day of the Yule festivities. Today, the Epiphany in the twelfth day of Christmas, the day that the three wise men visited and bestowed their gifts upon Jesus. It is now more customary to eat Christmas cake throughout the Christmas period.

  The Yule Log, now symbolised by a chocolate cake, was once a real Ash or Oak log set alight to ward off spirits over the 12 days of winter solstice celebrations. The ashes would be scattered to the fields as a blessing and bringer of luck. A part of the log would be used to kindle next year’s log.

  Mulled wine is gaining popularity here in the UK once more, but stemmed from the Romans. ‘Mulled’ means to heat with spices, which is the basic process for preparing mulled wine. The Elizabethans used the terms, ‘mullered’, for someone who had drunk too much mulled wine. To maintain the potency of mulled wine, try to keep the temperature less than 70 degrees. Spirit evaporates at higher temperatures.

  Ale and mead were to our ancestors what lager, stout and bitter are to us now. Things don’t appear to have changed much over the ages; we still consume great quantities of the stuff while merry-making, and wish we hadn’t the following day!

We wish all our readers a very merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year

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