For thousands of years European pagans celebrated mid winter with festivals and feasts. December 25th was the day to honour the harvest god, Saturn, and Mithras, the god of light as far back as 336 AD. Four thousand years ago, Egyptians (3110- 30BC) celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of the year and their festival lasted 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in the sun's calendar. Evergreens were cherished because they symbolised the season to come. Using palms with 12 shoots to symbolise a complete year they decorated their houses with greenery in a similar way to what we do now.
Special food was prepared for the feasts that followed and singing and gift giving during the winter solstice became an established practice. Babylonians (1750- 529 BC) too celebrated the year's renewal and these festivities were later adopted by the Persians (529BC - 637AD) which was eventually absorbed into ancient Roman culture in the festival of Saturn. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, many of the pagan celebrations were incorporated into the Christian calendar. In the Old Celtic Calendar, New Year was held on the 1st November and the Celts believed from Halloween to Hogmanay the spirits of the dead and those not yet born walked freely among the living. Samhain (or the Feast of the Dead) was an unreal time or twilight zone when one year turned into another and darkness (night) prevailed over the light (day). Believers were convinced as the seasons changed the Sun God, Lugh was defeated by his dark side to become the Lord of Misrule. The Persian Festival of Saturn upheld a subversion of social order during celebrations where slave and master would exchange places. Grudges and quarrels were also forgotten and wars were interrupted or temporarily set aside as merriment of all kinds prevailed. This same reversal of social status was common in medieval festivals such as The Festival of Fools and the participant often were naked or later wore masks. On Christmas Day. Queen Victoria’s family served their servants, food and drink.
During the Festival Light (mid Samhain) good folk needed the comfort of their own kin and protection from the evil forces of the darkness. Many rituals and superstitions from that time still prevail and are incorporated into modern Christmas customs. Lighting candles and lamps brought light and warmth to our ancestors who thought it also chased away the spirits of darkness. A remnant of this is seen in the lights on the Christmas tree. After German saint, St Boniface (8th century AD) was converted to Christianity he came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree. In anger he cut it down and when fir tree sprung up from the roots this was taken as a sign. By the 16th century fir trees were taken into the home and it is reputed Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the first person to decorate the Christmas fir with candles.
The first Christmas Day celebrations were thought to date to AD 521, and were celebrated by King Arthur. Christmas became the most important religious festival in Europe by the 12th century and whilst merriment and religious devotion were at odds, ultimately these were incorporated due to political pressures. Systematically Christian medieval culture merged pagan festivals with Christian doctrine primarily to encourage acceptance by the populus. So in hindsight it is very difficult to separate occult beliefs and the sacred doctrine since they have become complexly intertwined.
In the Scriptures, Mathew described the peripheral events of the birth which have been systematically embellished by the faithful. According to Mathew 2:1
‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men (Magi) from the east of Jerusalem.’
In the New Testament, there is no mention of three wise men, albeit Mathew 2:11 did say three gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh were received. Neither is there mention in the Scriptures of the Wise Men being Kings; nor are the Wise Men named. Details were left to wide interpretation which was possibly done for the best ‘political’ reason as the Gospels were spread. For instance if the Wise Men were Kings then this would obviously unite the populous from various geographical locations i.e. Balthazar was the king of Arabia; Gaspar (or Casper) the king of India; and Melchior was the king of Persia. There is no confirmation of the way the Wise Men travelled to Jerusalem albeit Mathew wrote they had navigated by following a star.
Chinese Christians believe at least one of the Magi came from China and cite anecdotal evidence about Liu Shang, the chief astrologer during the Han dynasty. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese called the "king star" - which became associated with the birth of a new king. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese called the "king star" - which became associated with the birth of a new king. According to contemporary reports the astrologer was absent from the China’s imperial court for almost two years shortly after he discovered the star. Some Chinese Christians believe it is possible Liu Shang traveled the Silk Road to Bethlehem. Unlike the modern interpretation of the Christmas Nativity, it appears only shepherds were present immediately after the birth and the Magi did not arrived until the Twelfth Day. Dedicated followers of the Scriptures commemorated this event with the exchange of gifts on the 6th January.
To promote universal celebration of the Saviour’s birth the main churches eventually agreed to accept Twelve Days of Christmas. In the Western Church this runs from Christmas Day until Epiphany, January 6th. Some believers consider the first day of the Twelve Days of Christmas to begin on the eve of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different religious calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7th. They observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th. In the Western church, Epiphany (Three Kings Day) is usually celebrated as the day the Wise Men (or Magi) arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). In Spain this is known as la Fiesta de Reyes, el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos and in Holland, Driekoningendag. Traditionally at the end of the Twelve Days a feast was held and gifts were given.
People ate cake (King Cake) and drank alcohol on Twelfth Night. King cake is still used as part of the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Once December 25th became acknowledged as the main festival day, then exchanging gifts became part of the celebration. As the Twelfth Day marked the end of the Christmas celebrations then all Christmas decorations required to be removed from the house otherwise misfortune would follow. Holy Innocents Day (December 28th) was the day dedicated to the first born children, massacred by Herod (Matthew 2: 1-18). Early Christians considered this a dismal day which was considered unlucky. Known as a "cross day," no new projects were started in fear they would be never completed or go disastrously wrong. Fishermen refuse to fish and washing clothes was considered bad luck on Holy Innocents Day.
In 1644 the English Puritans forbade any merriment in religious services by an Act of Parliament based on the grounds this was a heathen practice. According to the Act, Christmas was to be kept as a fast. Cavalier King Charles II revived the feast but the Scots dogmatically adhered to the Puritan view there was no reference to celebration of Christmas in the New Testament and hence stubbornly refused to embrace Christmas celebration for several centuries. The Scottish tea planters in the Far East enjoyed dining on turkey and plum pudding long before their relatives at home, recognised Christmas Day. Only after the Scots accepted idea of the English Victorians to condense the feast days into two days for family celebration i.e. Christmas Day and Boxing Day, did they reciprocate.
The first official Christmas celebrated in Australia was Dec 25, 1788 at Sydney Cove. No Christmas cheer was shown to the prisoners on that day with the exception of Michael Dennison who had been sentenced to 200 lashes. In the spirit of the season the prisoner was given 150, instead. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved Christmas as it was celebrated in Germany and were instrumental in making modern Christmas fashionable in the UK. Queen Victoria spent long holidays with her German relatives and always enjoyed the decorated tree. Later she and Prince Albert decorated their Christmas tree for the children and the fashion caught on with their loyal subjects who mirrored the custom. Christmas trees were sometimes decorated with flags of the Empire but later when Woolworth's offered coloured lights, these were used instead. German settlers are thought to have taken the decorated trees to North America. The first lit Christmas tree was erected outside a church in the early 1880s and many parishioners protested because they felt the action was pagan. By the late 19th century Christmas trees had gained general acceptance and when electricity was introduced more and more trees were safely lit up. Soon every town community council had civic displays and, as today, competition was fierce.
What we now recognise as a modern Christmas with Santa was actually invented in Victorian Times. Many of the ancient beliefs were ironically caught in the sentiments of Christmas cards which became popular at this time. Charms and rituals became an extension of this celebration. It is bad luck to send carol singers off the premises without giving them something. Singing carols other than at Christmas is bad luck.
It is thought on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, animals can talk as so it was bad luck to eaves drop on the night before Christmas. The Yule log was originally a Norse custom and burning it was a celebration of the sun during the winter months. The Yule log took on major symbolic significance at Christmas time and was generally thought to bring good luck. It was considered bad luck to buy the Christmas Yule log which would be given either as a gift or home grown. It was a bad omen for the year ahead if the Yule could not be lit when starting the fire. Old Yule embers were kept by members of the household as lucky talisman for the year ahead, and then used the following year as kindling to start the Christmas fire. The embers of the Yule log were thought to have medicinal properties and many people kept them under the bed to get rid of chilblains. Once lit the Yule log was kept alight throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was considered a bad omen if the Christmas Yuletide log was touched by the bare feet of a woman or the feet of a squint eyed man.
Christmas crackers were an attempt to make a log shaped novelty similar to the Yule log. At first sugar almonds and love messages were placed on the table then when the 'snap' was invented, the now familiar cracker was introduced. Instantly these became popular with families and were used in all manner of celebrations. Laterally they became exclusive to Christmas.
Originally horns and bells were used to decorate trees, the purpose of which was to frighten away evil spirits. Later these ornaments took on a Christian message i.e. heralding the birth of Christ. Originally in some parts of Europe fairy like figures were used on the trees, but later these became angels. The origins of tinsel relate to the time when Europeans kept their animals into the house because Jesus was born in a stable. However spiders were not generally welcome. But as compensation to one of god’s creatures a symbolic spider in the form of tinsel was allowed to go to the Christmas tree on the night before Christmas. By morning his web had turned to silver with the rising sun. A spider's web on the Christmas tree is thought to be a sign of good luck.
Evergreens represent endurance and the berries, renewed life. Holly and Ivy remained the main stay of Christmas decorations for church since the 15th and 16th centuries. It was considered unlucky at Christmas not to have holly in the house. If the holly is smooth the wife will be master and if it is prickly the husband is the master. Prudent couples take care to bring both kinds in together to assure balanced and harmonious home. Holly was thought to protect against witches and thunder. Holly leaves was either sown into night clothing or kept under the pillow of unmarried girls. Provided they had scratched in the initials of their close admirers then they would dream of their future husband. Sometime a borrowed wedding ring was worn on the third finger left hand. Holly is regarded a masculine plant and ivy a feminine one, these are linked for the season. Too much ivy is considered bad luck. An old custom was to leave a leaf of ivy in a bowl of water on Hogmanay (New Years Eve) until the eve of Twelfth Night (Little Christmas) 6th January. If the ivy leaf remains fresh and green a good year is expected. Ill health ahead if the sprig has black spots.
Mistletoe (Celtic All Heal) was in widespread use by the nineteenth century and was associated with fertility from the time of the druids. During the Feast of the Dead (Hogmanay), Druid priests cut down mistletoe which grew in sacred oaks with golden sickles. These were used medicinally and helped infertility. That is why, to this day, we kiss under a sprig of mistletoe. In the proper tradition the man must present a mistletoe berry for each kiss, once the berries are gone so to be the kissing. Luck comes to those who kiss under the mistletoe but it is unlucky to avoid doing this. Unlike holly and ivy it is bad luck to take Christmas mistletoe down and it should be left only to be replaced the following Christmas. In the past young unmarried girls illicitly took sprigs of mistletoe from church decorations then hid them under their pillows in the hope it would bring them dreams of their future husbands. Burning of old mistletoe was also eagerly observed by the parish spinsters. Steady flames were a good sign but spluttering ones was a warning their husbands would be bad tempered and cross. Other greenery used included rosemary, bay and laurel.
Most homes were decorated on Christmas Eve, to do otherwise, might anger capricious forces. No lights were put on before the first star appeared. To the very superstitious the tree can only come into the house on the 24th December. Trees are decorated once the children go to bed and in Germany a pickle shaped ornament should be the last to grace the tree. On Christmas morning the child who finds the Christmas pickle is entitled to a special present. Traditionally the doors of the home were thrown open at midnight on Christmas Eve to let the trapped evil spirits out.
The Christmas candle was left burning in a window all night to guarantee the household’s good luck for the coming year. The first up would shout into the street "Welcome Old Father Christmas" and sweeping the threshold was thought to clear out trouble. Male visitors were preferred, a good head of hair and dark rather then red. These first foots or lucky birds, lucky bods or first comers should bring evergreens or coal. First foots could kiss all the women of the house. Males were given a drink and a bit to eat. Children needed to be given a coin (lucky coin).
The Twelfth day of Christmas has become the day Christmas decorations come down but Candlemas Day (2 Feb) was the traditional time to remove midwinter greenery. It was very bad luck to leave the greenery for longer. Traditionally (11th century) burning was done but more recently burning was less popular (19th century). It is important however to remove all remnants of greenery right down to the last pine needle. Children were charged with the responsibility of gathering the Yule-tide decorations with good luck to those who found a holly bush loaded with berries. Lighting candles and lamps helped return the light and warmth as well as chasing away the spirits of darkness.
On Christmas Day children from the poorer families got an orange, a new penny, a piece of shortbread and a toffee in their stockings. The significance of an orange relates to the celebration of generosity and caring for others without thinking about a gift in return. It is meant to symbolize a gold ball and as a reminder to care for those in need. The new penny if for luck and the shortbread and toffee the wish to have enough to eat in the coming year.
Traditional Christmas Dinner consisted of chicken broth followed by potatoes, roasted in the garden or street bonfire. In the early times it was the custom to get everyone to help make the Christmas cake. More recently from Victorian Times this took the format of stirring the cake mix (3 times), seeing the bottom of the pot each time and then making a wish. What we wished for Santa would bring. Into the mix went silver charms, the coin (usually a lucky sixpence) for luck; a thimble for prosperity; a ring for marriage and a bachelor's button. Never refuse a mince pudding. In the 19th century Christmas cake was eaten on Christmas Eve but it was important to keep a piece for the following day. The more Christmas pies eaten in others homes the better but they should not be eaten before Christmas Eve and after Twelfth Night. Must never cut the Christmas pie as these cuts your luck. The dumb cake was made at midnight on Christmas Eve and prepared in complete silence. Whoever made it left their initials on the upper surface of the cake. Provided the silence was unbroken the future partner will present and leave their initials on the cake. A common custom was to walk backwards to bed after eating dumb cake, there to dream about a future spouse. Three sips of salted water before Christmas dinner brings good luck. Good idea to eat an apple on Christmas Eve.
During medieval times shoes were only worn by the affluent and the idea of going barefoot was unthinkable. Many pilgrims however did choose to go barefoot as a mark of humility or act of penance but the church hierarchy dressed sumptuously (something the present Pope is only now working on changing). Lowly clerics were by Papal Law, prevented for wearing anything other than clerical sandals (or Monks, a type of buckled mule). By the Middle Ages giving charitable gifts to the less fortunate became a seasonal preoccupation. A common medieval phrase was “If you do not give a new pair of shoes to a poor person at least once in your lifetime, you will go barefoot in the next world." Ironically receiving shoes as a gift was considered bad luck and the reason most probably relates to the tradition of following in your father’s footsteps i.e. shoes were expensive and frequently bequeathed to the nearest and dearest. Hence receiving shoes as a gift would imply a death in the family and wearing new shoes on Christmas Day would be unlucky. This may help explain a common wives tale of never giving a friend a new pair of shoes for Christmas otherwise they were sure to walk away from you. In the early 18th century a life-size print of the Duchess of York's shoe was printed and polite society embraced the idea of giving miniature porcelain shoes as good luck gifts. These became known as 'fancies in faience' as many were made in Faenza (Italy). A common ploy was to fill the shoes with sugar almonds or jewellery. The shoes were meant for luck and their contents underpinned friendship. The fashion for faience grew throughout the 18th century and porcelain makers like Delftware catered accordingly. Delft was based in the Netherlands and produced distinctive style of glazed earthenware (usually blue and white). The company produced wonderful miniatures much admired because of their painted designs, often including people in everyday events. The Rococo slipper immortalised by the fairy tale Cinderella (written by Charles Perrault -1697) was copied endlessly. Later sentimental Victorians exchanged miniature shoes in leather, pottery, alabaster, silver and brass. Wooden snuffboxes in the shape of shoes were also popular. Shoes became the symbol of contentment and prosperity. Gin flasks were often crafted in the shape of women's boots and paper knifes in the shape of high heeled shoes and was commonly found in mens' possession. The nineteenth century custom of giving china and pottery miniatures of shoes and boots as good luck charms to friends and relations was often to mark important family occasions such as christenings, anniversaries and birthdays. Miniature footwear also took on an erotic nature as polite gifts of shoes were often exchanged between lovers in the hope and expectation the ultimate prize would soon be within grasp. Around the same time slippers became a popular adult gift at Christmas. Slippers then, were shoes of the boudoir and considered most intimate of apparel.
In Sweden it was believed evil trolls roamed the countryside between cockcrow and daybreak on Christmas day. Children born on Christmas Eve or Christmas day were feared to be Kallikantzaroi (evil demons) and would cause chaos throughout the twelve days of Christmas. A tradition in Greece was to burn old shoes to stop the Kallikantzaroi form playing tricks on the unsuspecting and bring luck in the coming year. The common belief was shoes held the spirit of the previous wearer and burning them may have unleashed a supernatural power. Alternatively at the time of Luther it was generally believed the Devil and other demons hated human smells and were repelled by the stench of burning shoes. The ancient Egyptians inhaled the fumes from their burning sandals for medicinal purposes to cure headaches. This might not have been such a strange custom since footwear at that was made from vegetable materials containing natural salicylates. In some countries children born within the Christmas festival had their hair bound in braids of garlic or straw and their toenails singed. Christmas children in Poland were feared to be werewolves.
Although Santa Claus is a familiar figure, in one form or another, to people all over the world, the weight advantaged, red suited, old man is of comparative recent origin. Santa is a mixture of many historical and cultural traditions which are completely secular. The most ancient Santa was St Nicholas of Myria. Born about 280 AD in Patara (now Turkey) and patron saint of sailors, merchants, wrongly accused, endangered travelers and farmers. One of his gracious deeds was to give gold to a poor man with three daughters. This meant the girls could have dowries and marry well. Because St Nicholas wanted to remain anonymous in the English version he threw three bags of gold down the chimney. The gifts landed in the girl’s stockings and so began the English tradition of hanging up Christmas Stocking on Christmas Eve.
Modern Santa probably came from North America (via Holland) and is likely to be only 200 hundred years old. He first appeared in literature about 1822 in the famous children's poem "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all throughout the house, No a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...." Written by Clement Clarke Moore for his children. The poem introduced many Americans to the fictitious character, Sintaklass who was a Dutch mythical character with a friendly disposition. Many historians believe Santa came from a mispronunciation of Sintaklass. After pictures of Santa appeared in Harper's Weekly selling Coca Cola about the 1860s and the rest, as they say, is history. Worship of Mithras (The God of Light) took place in churches called grottos and may have given origin to Santa's Grotto.
In France, children lay out their shoes (traditionally sabots which were clogs) in the anticipation Père Noël (Father Christmas) who will fill them with lollies. In France this is known as Sabots de Noel. Once upon a time on Christmas Eve, or so the story goes, a little French girl put her sabots (clogs) in front of the fire, hoping Father Christmas would leave her something. When she woke up on Christmas morning she could not find her wooden clogs but instead, where the clogs were, she found a pair of clay fired, shoes, filled with confectionery. Her grandmother explained the strange transformation. Santa Clause was chilled to the marrow and forced to light a fire to keep warm. When he ran out of firewood he used the little girl's clogs to feed the fire. By means of thanks and so as not disappoint the child, Father Christmas ventured outside into the cold to find some clay. With incredible skill he forged a pair of porcelain shoes and left them, filled with nuts, apples and spiced buns. In Belgium children get their presents on the 6th December, St Nicholas Day and only small gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day.
In Spain, Christmas is traditionally a religious festival and the Spanish still do not recognise Santa. Children do however look forward to gifts during the season. One Spanish tradition is to leave their shoes on the windowsill full of straw, carrots, and barley to feed the horses and donkeys of the Wise Men. Balthazar is a welcome visitor for it is he who is the Spanish Santa and by morning the children's shoes are filled with gifts. A similar ritual is observed in Portugal with the added tradition of setting a place at the table for the souls of the dead (Celtic tradition).
In the North of Italy it is Pere Noel (or Babbo Natale) and in Southern Italian, Santa is a woman called La Befana. She is like Babouschka in Russia and depicts an old lady who did not give food and help to the wise men on their journey to the Baby Jesus. Both women to make amends search in vain with gifts for the Wise Men. They settle instead for well behaved children but naughty children get ashes in their stockings. In some countries Santa is helped by the baby Jesus.
The famous elves which help Santa make and deliver toys are good elves but there are some bad little people. In Denmark, Julnissers cause havoc at Christmas. They normally live outside but come indoors during the festivities. Julnissers wear woollen clothes with red caps, and long red stockings and wooden clogs, but they are not easy to spot. Sometimes only the family cat can see them. Julnissers become practical jokers at Christmas and do mischievous things like hide shoes, or blow out candles. To avoid their malicious attention it is important to leave out a bowl of rice pudding. This will keep them happy and I return the children of the house will find the occasional treat or lost coin.