Monday, December 25, 2017

The Twelve Days of Christmas

History shows that December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas, not because Jesus Christ was born on that day, but because it was already popular in pagan religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun. Fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism. Christmas was not observed in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, until about 300 years after Christ's death. In 274 CE, the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas eventually replaced pagan solar festivals and have celebrated Christmas Day since 336 CE.

Pope Gregory the Great, (c. 540 – 604) wrote a letter written in 601 CE to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommending local pagan temples not be destroyed but instead converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. To attract more followers, the obsolete feasts of antiquity were gradually adapted to the main events of the life of Christ.

The earliest known Christmas Day celebration in England was in the city of York in 521 CE, by King Arthur. By the twelfth century Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe. Today it is very difficult to separate occult beliefs and the sacred doctrine since they have become complexly intertwined. Although merriment and religious devotion were not associated in the early church, ultimately they were incorporated due to political pressures.

In the Scriptures, Mathew describes only the peripheral events of the birth of Christ 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.’

There is no mention in the Scriptures of the Wise Men as Kings and nor were they named. These 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 had been 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. 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 travelled the Silk Road to Bethlehem.

There is much evidence to suggest the Star of David was an alignment of the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. In ancient Jewish tradition, Jupiter was the planet called the “King's Star.”

Unlike the modern interpretation of the Christmas Nativity, it appears only shepherds were present immediately after the birth and the Magi did not arrive until the Twelfth Day. Dedicated followers of the Scriptures commemorated this event with the exchange of gifts on the 6th January. Most of the nativity scenes were painted in the 15 & 16th centuries and Christmas cards depicting them becoming popular only in the 19th century.

To promote universal celebration of Christ's birth the main churches eventually agreed to accept Twelve Days of Christmas. In the Western Church this ran from Christmas Day until Epiphany, (January 6th). Some believers consider the first day of the Twelve Days of Christmas 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. The Twelfth night held more significance to the Scots because of its pre-Christian association and the end of Samhain, or the Celtic Festival of the Dead. (the time from Halloween to the Twelfth Night).

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. 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.

Once December 25th became acknowledged as the main festival day, then exchanging gifts became part of the celebration. The Victorians were responsible popularising giving gifts on Christmas day. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria made it a Christmas habit and the idea soon caught on with middle class. An old English saying 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." This belief may be the reason why Christmas gifts were exchanged by the middle classes so as to avoid poverty. Many people gave presents to the poor and miniature shoes became popular gifts for good luck from the 18th century after a life-size print of the Duchess of York's shoe was published. Victorians started to give miniature porcelain shoes as keepsakes and for good luck.

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 and remain so to this day in the form of charms. Gin flasks were often crafted in the shape of women's boots and papers knifes in the shape of high heeled shoes and were commonly found in means' possession.

The nineteenth century custom of giving china and pottery miniatures of shoes and boots as good luck charms to friends and relations would often to mark important family occasions such as christenings, anniversaries and birthdays. One reason why miniature shoes were given instead of the real thing might be because superstitious people believe if you give a friend a new pair of shoes then they were sure to walk away from you. Wearing new shoes on Christmas Day was also thought, by many, to bring bad luck. The traditional Greece custom of burning old shoes during the Christmas season to prevent misfortunes in the coming year shares a rationale with the belief the shoe contains the spirit of the wearer and foul smells repel evil. Keeping Christmas cake or the remains of the Yule Log under the bed was also thought to help get rid of chilblains.

Reviewed 11/12/2016

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