Beautifully decorated Christmas trees, the heavenly aroma of freshly baked plum cakes, stockings stuffed with trinkets and strings of lights adorning doors and windows—Christmas is here! Christmas may be the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ—the central figure in Christianity. But the festival is an international celebration that goes beyond the tenets of the religion. Christmas has been celebrated for over two millennia and over the years has also incorporated pagan traditions. Christians attend midnight mass and pray for their near and dear ones. There are also exchanges of gifts and good wishes, meals with family and friends and general bonhomie.
Winters were always a time of celebration
Centuries before the advent of Christianity, late winter was a time of celebration among early Europeans. It was a time when the harshest days of winters had been endured and people looked forward to the long days of sunshine and light.
According to Norse mythology, Odin was the ruler of the Aesir tribe of deities, who were revered by the pre-Christian Norse. The Germans worshipped him as they believed he took nocturnal flights to observe people and decide who would prosper or perish.
The Romans worshipped Saturn, the God of Agriculture, and celebrated Saturnalia. The festivities began a week ahead of the winter solstice and continued throughout the month. It was a time when the social order in Rome was overturned. The slaves became kings and peasants willed the command. On December 25, the upper-class Romans worshipped the unconquerable sun god Mithra and this was considered the purest of all days.
The 12 Days of Christmas
In the pre-Christian era, the Norsemen or Vikings of Scandinavia celebrated the rebirth of the sun by burning a log. This was called the Feast of Yule. The celebrations began on December 21, the winter solstice and continued through January.
The male members of
the house would gather large logs and set them on fire. It would take 12 days for
the logs to burn out completely, during which the feasting continued. Every
spark that came out of the burning log, during these 12 days signified that a
new cattle would be born in the coming year.
Before the 16th century, this period was marked by famine in the European countries. People would slaughter their farm animals so as to avoid the added expense of feeding them. For most, this was the only time of the year that would get to feast on fresh meat. Moreover, this was also the time when the fermentation of wine and beer was finally done and it was ready for consumption.
Christmas Narrative or Nativity
The gospels of Luke and Matthew describe the birth of Jesus Christ. Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth and reached the city of Bethlehem, in accordance with the messianic prophecies.
After unsuccessful attempts to get an accommodation in any of the inns, they finally took shelter in an abandoned stable. This is where Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary. The angels professed the news to the shepherds around who further spread the word. The Magi or three kings followed a star to Bethlehem and brought gifts for Jesus Christ.
Was Jesus Christ really born on Christmas?
There is no real and substantial proof that December 25 is Jesus Christ’s birthday. Even the Bible has no direct reference to the day Jesus Christ was born. Based on the astronomical phenomenon and historical references, it is said Jesus of Nazareth was born sometime in the summer. Choosing the time around the winter solstice and Saturnalia as Christmas was a simple way to assimilate pagan religions, for whom this winter period was of great importance, into Christianity.
Moreover, the church officials believed that holding Christmas around the same time as the other festivities of the winter solstice increased its chances of getting widely embraced. It was first referred to as The Feast of Nativity and by the end of the sixth century, the custom had spread to Egypt and England.
evolution of Christmas celebrations
In the Middle Ages, believers would attend the Church on the day of Christmas and would celebrate it cacophonously by getting drunk and playing pranks on the upper-class elites, in the latter part of the day. In the 19th century, Americans had a big role in evolving the holiday from being carnival-like to being a family-centred day of harmony and goodwill.
Furthermore, books such as Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol struck a chord with the public and rose the sentiment of charity and sensitivity towards the emotional needs of children. It then became that time of the year when children would be pampered lavishly with gifts and sweets.
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In the next 100 years, Christmas added unto itself several other customs such as decorating trees, sending holiday cards to loved ones, exchanging gifts and meeting family and friends.
Story of Saint Nicholas AKA Santa Claus
The story of Santa Clause starts with a monk named Saint Nicholas, who donated all of his inheritance and moved to the countryside to help the poor and needy. According to a popular legend, three sisters from a poor family could not marry as they had no money for a dowry. Their father decided to sell them. To save them Saint Nicholas slipped gold coins from their chimney. One landed in the stocking left to dry near the fireplace while another gold coin landed in the pair of shoes kept on the hearth.
Soon, he became known as the saviour of children. In the late 18th century, Dutch families gathered in New York on the death anniversary of “Sint Nikolaas” and this became a memorable day in the history of America.
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem which depicted Saint Nicholas as a plump jolly man who flew home to home and delivered gifts to children. This was visually immortalized by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew the red costumed white-bearded Santa Clause that we know today.
The significance of Christmas trees
In ancient times, even before Christianity came into existence, people decorated their homes with evergreens such as the fir, spruce and pine trees. These trees, that remained green throughout the year had a special significance for people and was believed to save them from evil spirits and goblins.
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In the western countries where winters are harsh and cold, the Sun was considered a divine being, who fell sick every year resulting in the dark nights of winter. The evergreens reminded them that summer was near and soon the sun god would shine strong again and there would be greenery everywhere.
The Romans who celebrated Saturnalia marked the solstice as an occasion to decorate their homes with evergreens in the anticipation of seeing their farms and orchards green and fruitful.
The credit of starting the customary Christmas tree decorations lie with the Germans, who in the 16th century decorated the trees in their homes with candles and ornaments.
Christmas Celebrations across the world
Christmas traditions and customs vary across the globe but the underlying commonalities that sustain are - light, greens and the sentiment of hope.
Sweden: December 13 marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations in Sweden. It is a day to honour St. Lucia, who is considered the patron saint of the blind. This day, which is also called as Little Yule, is celebrated by undertaking a candlelit parade in which the girl who is chosen to be Lucy leads the procession wearing a full-length white gown and is surrounded by torchbearers. The eldest daughters of the family are called Lussi on this day. They rise early and dress in a white gown and a red sash and wear a crown made of twigs and adorned with nine lighted candles. They wake up the other members of the family and together they have breakfast in a room lit with candles. Every corner of the house is illuminated with candles on this day. This tradition has crossed boundaries and is celebrated in Finland and Denmark too. The Finns visit the graveyards of their departed loved ones on the day of Christmas Eve.
Norway: Ever wondered why a fireplace is such a central part of a conventional Christmas scene? Or the reason behind the holiday special log-shaped cakes, cheese and desserts? The answer lies in the ancient Norse custom of burning a log during the winter solstice. The early Norwegians thought of Sun as a wheel of fire that circled towards and away from the Earth and each time it moved towards the Earth, it gave them hope and joy.
Australia: It’s not unusual for temperatures to soar up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Australia during the holiday season. Christmas comes here during summertime and so outdoor barbecues, family gatherings, exchanging gifts and a meal including turkey, pork and seafood are how Christmas celebrations take place in Australia.
England and America: Children leave their stockings near the fireplace or hang it on the bedpost in the hopes of getting treats while they are asleep. For similar reasons, the Scandinavian children leave their shoes on the hearth. Christmas tree decorations, exchanging gifts, carol singing and family gatherings are important rituals.
India: Although Christianity is not a major religion in India, the celebration of this festival is a secular affair. Christians attend the mass, sing carols, exchange gifts and share meals with family and friends.
Christmas Day Essentials
Church attendance: Attending the Church service is important on this day and most churches will see a full attendance on this day. The services start at midnight and see people flocking in with friends and family.
Decorations: The custom of decorations during Christmas was started in the 15th century in London. All churches are decked with holm, ivy and bays.
The heart-shaped ivy represents Jesus coming to earth. Holly is seen as protection against witches and its thorn represents the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at the crucifixion.
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The traditional colours of Christmas are red- which symbolises the blood of Jesus shed during the crucifixion. Green symbolises eternal peace and life.
Homes are decorated with lights, illuminated sleighs and snowmen guarding the porch. Many residential communities also set up a Christmas village with miniature dolls and figurines. Mistletoe, a symbol of fertility is hung in hallways.
Christmas Trees: Fresh or artificial Christmas trees are purchased and decorated with ornaments such as lights, tinsel, small gift boxes, candy canes, toffees and treats, flowers and small lanterns. Underneath the Christmas trees, gifts are arranged on the day of Christmas.
Nativity Scene: A special exhibition of the nativity or manger scene is set up outside Churches and homes. Model figurines are used to represent the birth scene of Jesus Christ. This typically includes baby Jesus, Mother Mary, Joseph, shepherds, sheep, angels and the three Magi.
The Feasts and Treats of Christmas
The best part about Christmas is the homemade treats and traditional recipes. Special emotions are associated with festive foods as it brings along with it the warm moments of nostalgia and excitement.
Some of the classic Indian treats and recipes of Christmas include Marzipans, RoseCookies, Kulkuls and Neureos. Eggnogs, mince pies, Christmas puddings and cakes, Yule Log and Gingerbread House are some of the international favourites for the year-end festival. Each of these has its own unique inception story.
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and Freaky Facts Of Christmas
1) It takes 15 years for Christmas trees to grow. According to a report shared by the National Christmas Tree Association, 25-30 million Christmas trees are sold every year in the US alone!
2) The tradition of decorating Christmas trees has its origin in Germany. The Germans decorated evergreens as a winter solstice tradition ever since the beginning of the 17th Century.
3) The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches celebrate Epiphany, 13 days after December 25. They believe this is the day when the Three Wise men finally met Jesus Christ in the manger.
4) Englishman John Horsley popularised the custom of sending out Christmas cards featuring handwritten greetings in the late 1830s.
5) Christmas was banned from 1659-1681 in the western countries and was outlawed in Boston. Anyone found spreading the Christmas cheer was fined 5 shillings.
6) The Celtic people hang mistletoe in their houses to ward off misfortune and evil spirits and bring good luck. Moreover, the Teutonics believe that standing under the mistletoe speeds up healing and increases fertility.
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7) The most popular reindeer, Rudolph, was the imagination of copywriter Robert L. May, who wrote a poem about the reindeer to increase the sales of a departmental store.
8) The custom of singing carols was started by wandering musicians in England. Around the holidays, they would visit castles and homes of the elite to sing and perform, in return for which they got warm food and money.