It’s that time of year again, when the dark nights are brightened with fairy lights, our bank accounts get smaller and our waistlines get bigger. The lead up to Christmas can either be a joy-filled experience or the most stressful period of the year, depending on your disposition. Whether or not your “Bah-Humbug” levels are sky high or not, I’m sure that we all partake in the same customs. But why do we give presents at Christmas and what is with the randomly decorated bit of forestry that we all display in our homes?
Let’s find out just why we do some of the Christmas traditions that we do.
To get the ball rolling, let’s start with the obvious question. Why does Christmas Day land on 25 December each year?
Christmas is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe to be the Son of God. The name “Christmas” comes from the “Mass of Christ”. The festival is celebrated by people around the world, whether they are Christian or not.
No one knows the exact year of Jesus’ birth, let alone the precise date but the first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on 25 December was in 336 CE, during the lifetime of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Several years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Christ would, henceforth, be celebrated on 25 December.
It is believed by some, including myself, that 25 December was chosen as the Winter Solstice and the Romans had several midwinter festivals occurring around this time of year. Why change the date of the party when everyone is turning up anyway?
The Winter Solstice, the day when there is the shortest day and longest night, happens on 21 or 22 December and represented that the winter was over, and that spring was on the way. Seems a pretty legit reason to worship the sun for winning over the darkness of winter – get the beers out!!
The Roman Festival of “Saturnalia” took place between 17 and 23 December and honoured the Roman god Saturn. Another festival, “Dies Natalis Solis Invictus” translates to “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” and was held on 25 December (the date that the Romans believed the Winter Solstice to occur) and celebrated the birthday of the Pagan Sun God Mithra. (As a side note, Sunday was the holy day of Mithraism and that is where we get its name from). Christians believe Jesus to be the light of the world, so the early Christians believed that the Winter Solstice would be a good time to celebrate his birthday.
Evergreen fir trees were traditionally used to celebrate pagan winter festivals for thousands of years, with the pagans using branches of the tree to decorate their homes during the Winter Solstice as it represented the spring to come. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples during Saturnalia and Christians believed it symbolised everlasting life with God.
No one is really sure when fir trees were first used as Christmas trees, but it most likely began in northern Europe around 1,000 years ago. Cherry and hawthorn plants were also used and put in pots and taken inside in the hope that they would flower at Christmas time. The first documented use of a tree for Christmas celebrations is contested between the Estonian city of Tallinn and Riga in Latvia. Both claim that they had the first tree: Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510 (I don’t want to step on my Latvian friend’s toes here but…) What is undisputed is that both were erected by the “Brotherhood of Blackheads”, and no, they were not a group of guys with terrible, porous skin, but rather an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners and foreigners.
The first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, in the way that we know today may have been none other than the 16th century German Christian preacher and reformer, Martin Luther. A story is told that, one night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. He found the scene so beautiful that he told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. It is said that he added candle lights to an evergreen tree to remind him of this experience.
In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and apples. Soon after, glass makers began making special ornaments like some of the decorations used today and in 1605 an unknown German wrote:
“At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc.”
Although the tradition of decorating churches and homes with evergreens at Christmas was long established in Britain, the custom of decorating these trees was alien until the personal union with Hanover and George III’s German-born wife introduced one at a party she was hosting for children. The custom did not spread much beyond the royal family, however, until the 1840s when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, set them up in Windsor Castle. An 1848 drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the illustrated London News. After that it was a simple case of ‘Keeping up with the Saxe-Coburg and Gothas’.
If you are like me then you will be thinking of the delicious chocolate dessert at the sight of the words “Yule Log” but it turns out that the original Yule Log was something completely different!
The word “Yule” was the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals of Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe and dates to well before medieval times. The Yule Log was originally an entire tree that was carefully selected and brought into the house with great ceremony. The largest end of the log was placed into the fire hearth whilst the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The Log was slowly fed into the fire throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas.
The custom of the Yule Log spread throughout Europe and different types of wood were used in different countries. Oak is used in England, whilst birch is traditionally used in Scotland and cherry in France.
I think I will stick to the chocolate cake!
Everyone’s favourite pudding (I can hear the collective sigh). As bad as some of us may think Christmas Pudding is, I promise you that it was much worse in the beginning. Going through several changes throughout the years, Christmas Pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. Yum! This would often be more like a soup than a pudding.
By 1595, frumenty had slowly changed into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. This new variation of frumenty became the customary dessert around 1650, but soon after, in 1664, those tyrannical Puritans banned it as a bad custom.
George I re-established it as part of the Christmas meal in 1714, having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding. By Victorian times, Christmas Pudding had morphed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today. The puddings of the wealthy Victorians were often cooked in fancy moulds, often in the shapes of towers or of castles. The poorer folks just had puddings in the shape of balls and if the pudding was a little on the heavy side, they were called cannonballs.
Christmas Crackers are a traditional favourite in the United Kingdom and were first made in the mid-19th century by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He had seen the French ‘bon-bon’ sweets (almonds wrapped in decorative paper) and came back to London and tried to sell something similar, but with a small motto or riddle inside the sweet. Smith’s innovative take on the French sweet did not sell very well in the UK.
The story goes that, one night, whilst he was sitting in front of his log fire, Tom Smith became mesmerised by the sparks and crackles coming from the fire. This was his “Eureka” moment, and he decided it would be a fun and novel idea if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their decorated wrappers were pulled in half.
When Tom Smith died, his three sons took over his expanding cracker business. One of the sons, Walter introduced hats to the crackers and he also travelled the world searching for new ideas for gifts to put into the crackers.
Santa Claus: every child’s favourite jolly, gift bringer. But just why does Santa bring joy and gifts to children each Christmas morning? To discover this, we must first go back and visit the man who Santa is based on: Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop who lived in the ancient city of Myra in what is now Turkey. The son of wealthy parents, Nicholas was orphaned at a young age and legend tells us that he was very kind and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to those who needed it. The most famous story about Saint Nicholas explains why we hang stockings up at Christmas time. There was a man who had three daughters, but unfortunately, he was so poor that he was unable to pay the dowry for any of his daughters to marry. One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney, allowing the man to afford the dowry for his eldest daughter to marry. The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung out to dry by the fire! This act of kindness was, again, repeated and the second daughter could marry. The poor man, determined to discover the identity of his secret benefactor, waited by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas who begged the man not to reveal his identity. However, it did not take long for news to travel and anyone who received a secret gift assumed that it had come from Nicholas. Due to his kindness, Nicholas was made a Saint by the Church.
So, just how did this ancient kindly man become the Santa we all know and love today?
After the reformation in 16th century Europe, the stories and traditions about Saint Nicholas became unpopular. However, someone had to deliver presents to the children at Christmas, so in England he became known as Father Christmas, an old character from stories played out during the middle ages. In the early United States, he was known as Kris Kringle and later Dutch settlers took the stories of Saint Nicholas with them and the two men merged into ‘Sinterklaas’ or as we now know him, Santa Claus. England’s Father Christmas and America’s Santa Claus became more alike as the years passed and now, they are one and the same.
There is a popular story that Coca-Cola made Santa’s suit and hat red to fit their branding. This is NOT true. Long before Coca-Cola had been invented, Saint Nicholas had worn his Bishop’s red robes and during Victorian times, he wore a range of colours (red, green, blue and brown) but it was said that red was his favourite!
After discussing the origins of Santa Claus, we naturally meander into the tradition of gift-giving.
One of the main reasons that we have the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas is to remind us of the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men:
• Frankincense – a perfume used in Jewish worship, and as a gift, showed that the people would worship Jesus Christ.
• Gold – associated with kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the King of Kings.
• Myrrh – another perfume, but this one was put onto dead bodies to make them smell nice and, as a gift, it showed that Jesus would suffer and die (clearly this Wise Man could also predict the future).
Christians believe that Christmas itself is about celebrating one huge present that God gave the world roughly 2,000 years ago: Jesus! One of the most famous Bible verses, John 3:16, tells us that, “God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.”
The Rest is History