Though you may have been celebrating Christmas all your life, there are things about this special day that you may not completely understand. Certain customs and how the holiday became part of world culture are often thrown by the wayside in our excitement to shop, eat and celebrate.
How the Holiday Came to Be
Christianity has existed for more than 2,000 years, but celebrations that centered on the birth of Jesus have not been around for quite that long. In fact, Jesus’ birthday was not even considered a feast day until the 4th century, some 300-plus years after his birth. Instead, his crucifixion and subsequent ascension into heaven has been celebrated on Easter Sunday since early Christian times.
Religious leaders had long argued as to the date of Jesus’ birth. When should Christmas (Christ’s Mass) be honored? The Bible does not specify the date, though many believe it was in springtime since shepherds were herding their flocks in Bethlehem. Finally, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the day to honor the Nativity. This date coincided with the pagan Saturnalia festival, a weeklong celebration that was raucous, with plenty of alcohol drinking and the wealthy giving gifts and money to the poor and, at times, a reversal of roles, with the rich serving their servants. It was thought that if Christmas were celebrated during Saturnalia, perhaps the pagans would find Christianity more popular and eventually they would convert. The new holiday incorporated some of the trappings of the pagan festivals, including the exchanging of gifts.
Christmas did not catch on very quickly, however. It took nearly 100 years before its popularity would reach England. After another 200 years, Scandinavians began celebrating it. When Puritans reached America in the 1600s, they outlawed the observance of Christmas in Boston because of the holiday’s association with paganism. Yet in the Jamestown Settlement, Christmas was happily celebrated with eggnog, now a winter festival staple. December 25th did not become a federal holiday in the United States until 1870.
Old Saint Nick
When the Vikings came to the New World, they built a cathedral in Greenland and dedicated it to St. Nicholas of Myra, a Byzantine Turkish Bishop. St. Nicholas was devoted to the poor, giving them gifts and dowries so they would not have to succumb to crime. Beginning in the Middle Ages, gifts were presented to children in St. Nicholas’ honor at Christmastime. St. Nicholas grew in popularity in America as the holiday became more widespread. The saint’s Dutch nickname was Sinter Klaas, short for Sint Nikolaas.
The Christmas Tree
For centuries, people revered evergreens. Even in cold winter months, these botanicals could still be used to decorate the home and were also thought to deter evil spirits and keep illness at bay. Evergreens also were a reminder that the sun gods would let plants grow again as spring neared. Remember Saturnalia, that pagan pre-Christmas festival? Saturn was the god of agriculture and to celebrate the solstice, early Romans decorated their abodes with boughs of evergreens. Even the Vikings regarded these plants highly, considering them the special plant of their sun god, Balder.
The Christmas tree as we know it today originally came from Germany where, in the 16th century, Christians decorated trees and placed them in their homes. Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer, added candles onto a tree after walking home one evening and being amazed by the twinkling stars he could see through the trees. He wished to recreate what he’d seen and placed lighted candles on an indoor tree’s boughs, fastening them with wires.
In America, the first holiday tree on display wasn’t recorded until the 1830s when Pennsylvanian Germans began to decorate them. By the late 19th century, Americans started using ornaments from Germany to hang on tree boughs. They also used apples, cookies, strung popcorn and berries. With the advent of electricity, the glowing holiday tree became the norm. The world-famous Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City was first lit in 1931.
Why Do We Decorate with Poinsettia Plants?
This green-and-red plant became the symbol of the Christmas season when Joel R. Poinsett brought one here from Mexico in 1828. Mr. Poinsett was the American minister to Mexico. The plant is known as “Fluor de Noche Buena” or “Christmas Eve Flower” in its native land.
The Lucky Yule Log
The German pagans celebrated their own festival called Yule, which was later integrated into Christmas celebrations. Scandinavians though a Yule log was a good luck charm, with the burned remains bringing fortune all through the year. The ashes from a burned Yule log were often thrown into water wells in order to ensure that the water would be safe enough to drink.
Christmas Pudding originated in medieval England and was a key part of the holiday dinner. It is also called Plum Pudding, though there are rarely any plums in the recipe. There were raisins in it, and in those times, raisins were referred to as plums. The extravagant pudding is made up of a combination of dried fruits, eggs, suet, molasses, rum and spices. It is aged for weeks, even up to a year, and was traditionally prepared on or just after the Sunday before Advent. Its relation to the religious holiday is that the pudding is made up of 13 ingredients to represent the apostles and Jesus. Every member of the family had to stir the pudding from east to west to show respect to the Three Kings and their journey to see the Christ child. Some cooks placed silver coins in the pudding to bring wealth in the year ahead. Other items put inside the servings were wishbones for luck, thimbles for thriftiness or a tiny anchor for safety. Plum Pudding is still popular in Great Britain.
The hymn, Silent Night, was first sung during a Christmas Eve mass in Austria using a guitar because the church organ had become too rusted to use. Organist Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the music and Father Joseph Mohr the lyrics in 1818. In 2011, UNESCO labeled the hymn an ‘intangible cultural heritage.’
The popular and more secular song, Jingle Bells, was not originally written for the Christmas holiday. It was written by James Lord Pierpont and titled “One Horse Open Sleigh.” He wrote it to be sung during the Thanksgiving holiday. Pierpont wrote the carol while at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850. He was inspired to write Jingle Bells because of the sleigh races that were so popular during that time period. We often think of jingle bells as evoking a certain type of bell that is round. But the word “jingle” in the song is a verb: to make the bells jingle and be heard. Racing sleighs were silent as they made their way through the snow and ice. The horses’ harnesses had straps with bells on them. When an intersection was coming up, the bells would be jingled to avoid a collision. Jingling Bells was played at drinking parties, with guests jingling the ice in their cups as they sang along.