Home Archives Traditions Behind Christmas

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‘Tis the season to be Jolly! It is the most wonderful time of the year after all! Is that a Yule Log your Aunt Sue sent you, or a last year’s fruitcake? Have you “decked the halls” and are you “hanging your stockings with care?” I should have written and sent this on November 1st since Santa was already setting up shop downtown! Santa, Yule Logs, mistletoe, and Fruitcake… did you ever wonder where those traditions come from?

Traditions like the 12 days of Christmas, Yule logs, gift giving, parades with floats, caroling, the holiday feasts, and church processions can all be traced back to the early Mesopotamians. That’s a long way back! The Mesopotamians believed in many gods and a king of the gods — Marduk. Each year as winter arrived it was believed that Marduk would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist Marduk in his struggle, the Mesopotamians held a festival for the New Year. This was Zagmuk, the New Year’s festival that lasted for 12 days. In Scandinavia during the winter months, the sun would disappear for many days. After thirty-five days, scouts would hike up to the mountaintops to look for the sun. When the sun was seen, the scouts would head back with the great news. A festival would be held, called the Yuletide, and a special feast would be served around a fire burning with the Yule log. They would celebrate the Yuletide until the Yule log burned out, which sometimes took 12 days! Great bonfires would also be lit to celebrate the return of the sun. In some areas people would tie apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return.

The Christian “Christmas” (Christ’s Mass) celebration was invented to compete against the pagan celebrations of December. The 25th was not only sacred to the Romans, but also the Persians whose religion, Mithraism, was one of Christianity’s main rivals at that time. 

In the first few centuries of the advent of Christianity only Easter was celebrated. In the fourth century church officials thought it was about time to have a celebration of the "birth" of Christ. The Church eventually was successful in taking the merriment, lights, and gifts from the Saturanilia (the Roman holiday) festival and bringing them to the celebration of Christmas. The exact day of Christ’s birth has never been pinpointed. Traditions say that it has been celebrated since the year 98 AD. In 137 AD the Bishop of Rome ordered the birthday of Christ celebrated as a solemn feast. In 350 AD another Bishop of Rome, Julius I (Pope Pious I), choose December 25th as the observance of Christmas. At this point though, Christmas wasn’t Christmas. It was called “the Feast of the Nativity.” 

Now for the most terrifying Christmas tradition of all! A parasite that forces people to make romantic approaches on members of the opposite sex with or without consent –- the mistletoe!

Yes, mistletoe is a parasite. Although capable of growing on its own, it more commonly latches onto trees and leaches off nutrients from the “host.” The berries that grow from mistletoe are poisonous. How romantic! Well, the Norse people thought it was a romantic plant anyway. They started the tradition of kissing under it, after all. According to Norse myth, the mother of all the gods, Frigga, tried to prevent the foretold death of her son, Balder. So, Frigga went to every living and nonliving thing on Earth and asked that every plant, rock, and animal promise not to harm Balder. She succeeded in getting a promise from everyone and everything except, you guessed it, the mistletoe. One day the gods were making a sport of the newly invincible Balder by throwing weapons at him and all sorts of objects. If they through a rock at Balder it would hurtle away from him before getting to close. Loki, the god of mischievous and evil learned of the mistletoe “oops” and fashioned an arrow of the plant. One of the gods shot the arrow at Balder and shore enough — he died. Luckily Balder’s mom was a god and brought him back to life. From that day forth it was decreed that none may battle under the mistletoe and that all must kiss when meeting beneath it. It’s easy at this point to see how it so easily translates to a Christmas tradition.

Would you believe that in the early days Christmas was the Middle Age’s answer to what we consider, today, a Halloween standard — trick or treating! After church, many celebrated Christmas by getting drunk and acting like they were in New Orleans during Mari Gras. During the Christmas season a student or beggar would be made the "Lord of Misrule." Then the crowd of “subjects” would go to the homes of the rich and demand the owner’s best food and drinks. “Tricks” would be played on those who did not offer “treats.” This may be the origin of “Christmas charity.”

It was also in the Middle Ages that a plague would ravage Christianity. No, I am not talking about the Black Death. I am talking about something that would last even to this day (almost literally in some cases) — the fruitcake! 

It was in the 16th century that dried fruits and vegetables first starting arriving in Britain from Portugal and the Mediterranean. Early fruitcakes were made for only very special occasions due to the time and effort that went into them. The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson has this to say:

“Making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned [taking the pits out] if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique…”

Other Christmas foods include the candy cane, which is said to be in either the shape of a shepherd’s crook or the letter “J” for Jesus and may have been invented in 1670 by a German Choir master. The sugarplum was not a plum at all but a soft sugary treat popular from the 17th to 19th Century. 

The Puritans thought Christmas was “too pagan” for them and banned it when they came to the Americas. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681 and anyone showing any Christmas spirit could be fined five shillings! The American War of Independence didn’t help matters. Many American’s wouldn’t celebrate any English traditions — including Christmas. After the Constitution was ratified in 1789 there was even a session of congress on Christmas day. It didn’t become a federal holiday until 1870.

The Romans would “deck their halls” with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles. The Christmas tree tradition really started with the Germans in the 16th century. They would bring evergreen trees into their homes. It’s thought that Martin Luther was the first person to put candles into trees. While walking home he fell in love with the sight of the night sky with the stars shining through the trees. When he got home he wanted to show his family the same beautiful site and tied candles into a tree. Why he didn’t just take them outside instead of inventing the world’s first fire hazard tradition is unknown. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria was drawn in a picture in a London newspaper around a Christmas tree with the other royals that the tradition caught on in 1846.

Washington Irving is actually credited with finally giving Christmas its modern “peace, love, and charity” makeover in 1819. Irving’s “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gentleman” featured a squire name Geoffrey Crayon (no relation to the child’s toy as far as I know) who would invite the lower class into his home where they would mingle without issues. Another famous author, Charles Dickens, would write what would become one of the great Christmas stories of any time — A Christmas Carol. This heartwarming tale would galvanize Christmas as a celebration of goodwill and love.

So, what about Santa Claus?

Yes, Virginia, there really was a Santa Claus. A monk who would become a pope, St. Nicholas was born in Turkey around 280 AD. Very pious and kind, St. Nick was said to have given away all of his property to help the poor. St. Nicholas was very popular in Holland where he was known as Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). This would become “Santa Claus” as Dutch immigrants spread their traditions in the US around the end of the 18th century. The Imagery of Santa differed greatly at this time until the writings of Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. He wrote “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” which would later become “’Twas the night before Christmas.” Cartoonist Thomas Nast used Moore’s story and elaborated on it for a cartoon he did in Harper’s Weekly in 1881. It was from this cartoon that Santa got a Mrs. Claus, a red white-trimmed suit and hat, North Pole location, toy workshop, and elves as helpers.

Santa and Christmas shopping bring the inevitable “Christmas is so commercialized now” comments. Christmas is a state of mind and more importantly a feeling that you hold in your heart. It doesn’t really matter what religion you belong to, the concept is universal. Those that would have Christmas removed from public schools and government buildings are atheists for the most part and not part of an “offended non-Christian religion.” Those are the people that propagate the “commercialized Christmas” myth. They want you to think that Christians are hypocrites for “selling out.” It is a successful campaign however since more and more people are commenting each year that Christmas is commercialized. Yes, there are lots of advertisements on TV and lots of sales in malls, but people are out buying presents for loved ones and the retailers know it. If you owned a department store would you do any different? After all, when was the last time you whittled your kids toys or knitted a sweater for someone? Christmas is what you bring to it. After all, that is what belief is all about, right?

By the way… Xmas is not a non-religious way of writing Christmas. In Greek the word for Christ is Xristos. It was in the 16th century that early Christians used “X” as shorthand for Christ. The X was also a popular symbol of the Cross.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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