Sunday, December 13, 2015

Christmas Factoids

Xmas is not a convenient abbreviation for Christmas card designers but relates instead to the translation of "CH" from Greek. The Holy scriptures were originally translated into Greek, then Latin and then English. The word Christ is Greek and means anointed. In Greek, the "CH" is written as an "X", and pronounced with a silent "h". When translated into English this is pronounced with a harsh sounding "K" i.e. K-mas or the mass of Christ. These are sentiments similar to the cheer promoted in the greeting of today's Christmas cards.

The first Christmas card was printed in England in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole, director of The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, became weary of hand penning Christmas greetings and commissioned illustrator John Callcott Horsley to design a printable card. The card caused an uproar. Henry Cole’s Christmas card cost one shilling, a week’s pay in the 1800s. When in 1840 the he postal act brought about the penny post, this allowed mail to be sent anywhere in England for a penny. Christmas Cards became even more popular when they could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one halfpenny - half the price of an ordinary letter. Religious themed Christmas cards were popular.

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. The Colonists’ Christmas was a time before telephones and Skype to link with their homes and families. Scottish tea planters in the east ate plum puddings and turkey dinners long before their relatives in Scotland gave recognition to Christmas Day.

The origins of the Christmas tree come from Germany when St Boniface was converted to Christianity. After he came upon a group of Pagans worshipping at an oak tree he cut it down and when a fir tree sprung up from the roots this was taken as a sign. By the 16th century fir trees were brought into the home and it is reputed Martin Luther was the first person to decorate the tree with candles. The lights which decorate the Christmas tree are remnant of paganism. German settlers are thought to have taken the decorated trees to North America when they emigrated. In the early 1800s when the first lit tree was erected outside a church, many parishioners protested because they felt the action was pagan. The introduction of electricity meant it was much safer to illuminate the tree. Soon ever town community council had civic displays, all trying to compete with each other.

Horns and bells were traditionally used to decorate the Christmas tree, 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 fairy like figures were used on the trees but later these became angels. The origins of tinsel relate to the time when Europeans let their animals into the house. This was done because the birth of Christ took place in a stable. The story goes women did not want spiders in their homes, but when a spider spoke to the baby Jesus, he 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.

The Yule log was a Norse custom and burning of the Yule was a celebration of the sun during the winter months. Most ancient superstitions surrounding Yuletide were concerned with the darkness and the evil it was thought to harbor. Many superstitious people kept the ashes and embers from the previous year, as a lucky talisman and used them to rekindle the Yule log fire. According to tradition it was extremely unlucky for a barefooted woman or a squint eyed man to see the yule log; and a flat footed visitor to the house whilst the log was burning was a very bad omen. The log has subsequently influenced other Christmas traditions including desserts such as log shaped cakes. Keeping Christmas cake or the remains of the Yule Log under the bed was also thought to help get rid of chilblains.

The English enjoyed Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day whereas many European countries feast on Christmas Eve. It is thought King Henry VIII may have been the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas although goose was the predominant roast until the Victorian era. For Catholics fish pie became popular after the Reformation and later ham also enjoyed common. Wartime rationing meant sausages became common Christmas far. Post war rising cost of goose saw chickens and turkey rise in popularity sealed with the introduction of freezers. Christmas pudding dates from medieval England.

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. Later these became exclusive to Christmas.

Families sang carols (songs of joy) and clapped their hands to keep warm. The custom started in England and most carols were written in the nineteenth century. These scenes were depicted graphically in the works of Charles Dickens’. For the first eight years of the author’s life it snowed in London. This was quite unusual but clearly left a lasting impression with scribe.

In pagan times, mid-winter was always associated with spirits and monsters that were on the prowl. 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.

Many European cultures have mythical creatures who do mischievous things to the unsuspecting at Christmas time. The origins are probably pre-Christian and relate to the Festival of the Dead. In Sweden it was believed evil trolls roamed the countryside between cockcrow and daybreak on Christmas Day.

In Greece there are wicked elves called Kallikantzaroi. In order to keep them from causing trouble in the house traditionally a large log called a skakantzalos (Yule Log) was burnt. Sometimes old shoes were burnt in the hope the smell would keep the wicked elves away. Greek children born on Christmas Eve or Christmas day were often feared to be Kallikantzaroi and as a precaution all children born within the Christmas festival were bound in braids of garlic or straw and their toenails singed.

In Scandinavia, the Julenisse are little people who live outside but during the winter festivities sneak indoors to cause mayhem. The elves are practical jokers and do mischievous things like hide shoes, or blow out candles. To avoid their attention, it is important to leave out a bowl of rice pudding and if they are kept happy then the children of the house find the occasional treat or lost coin. Julenisse wear woollen clothes with red caps, and long red stockings and wooden clogs.

Zao Jun (The Kitchen or Stove God) in Chinese culture is thought to just before the Chinese New Year return to Heaven to report the activities of every household over the past year to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang). The Jade Emperor will reward or punish a family based on Zao Jun's yearly report. In order to prevent Zao Jun from giving too much information about the family traditionally sticky sweet cakes ( or Chinese New Year's cake) are left as an offering to the Kitchen God.

Reviewed 5/12/2016

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