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Christmas Customs

The origins Christmas draws its name from Christes Mass, which originated in the angels' song in Bethlehem. But, the idea of a Mid-Winter festival goes back to early times when men and women feared that the Sun would die on the shortest day of the year (around December 21st in the Northern hemisphere). So they lit fires to persuade the Sun to rise once more and hung evergreen boughs to encourage the other trees would grow leaves once more.

Because it was a time when light was restored into the world, many cultures recognised the Mid-Winter Solstice as the festival of spiritual and religious rebirth. The Persians had a mid-winter feast at which they kindled great fires for the birth of Mithras, the Sun God. In many ancient traditions, Corn and Vegetation gods, such as Osiris in Ancient Egypt and Tammuz of the Babylonians, died on this day and were restored to life by their Queen Consorts or mothers.

The Solstice was the Feast of the Unconquerable Sun when the Queen of Heaven or Earth Mother gave birth to the Sun God in a cave. The Ancient Egyptian priests would emerge from underground caves to pronounce that the Virgin had brought forth the sun.

The Mexicans and Peruvians celebrated the birth of the son of the Celestial Queen. In Northern Europe Odin or Woden, the original Father Christmas, rode through the sky in his chariot pulled by Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse. He dropped gifts for the blessed or sometimes left them at the foot of his sacred pine.
The Romans observed Saturnalia, beginning on December 19 for seven days, centred around a debauched version of Saturn or Old Father Time, another Father Christmas figure. A slave was picked as the Lord of Misrule.

In 353 AD, Pope Julius I changed the celebration of the birth of Christ from January 6 to December 25. But in many parts of Europe the old date for festivities persisted until the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar.

The Feast of Epiphany is still a focus of Christmas celebrations in Spain and Italy. On January 6 children leave grass or hay for the Three Kings who bring them gifts. In folk tradition Befena, the benevolent witch flies down the chimney and leaves sweets and tiny toys in the stockings of good children. According to legend, Befena was too busy with household affairs to attend to the Kings when they passed her home on their way to visit the Christ Child. She said she would care for them on the way back but they went another way. Therefore every Twelfth Night, Befena, also known as Epiphania, watches for the Kings but she always misses them.

The Eve of St Nicholas's Day, January 6, is still the occasion for the Saint (whose name has changed into Santa Claus) to visit the homes of children in Holland, Germany and Austria, promising presents for good children and writing the name in his book of children who have been bad. Children leave out their shoes for him to fill. He is accompanied by Knight Rupert or Black Peter, a Christianised version of Odin.

A Swedish celebration, the Festival of St Lucy, occurs on December 13, commemorating Saint Lucia or Lucy who went down into the catacombs to take food for Christians who were hiding from persecution. She wore a wreath of candles so both her hands were free. One of the daughters of the family wears a battery-powered wreath and serves the family spicy buns for breakfast at first light, singing a traditional St Lucy song. The festival, like the Mid-Winter Solstice, commemorates the return of light to the world.

Modern Research

Television has been blamed for making children more cynical but that is not the full story, according Dr Maire Messenger Davies who addressed the British Psychological Society in December 1995. In her survey of young American television watchers, all the six-year-olds she questioned believed in Santa Claus but three-quarters of them knew that Superman could not really fly. Ninety per cent of 11-year-olds knew the truth about Santa as well.

Dr Davies concluded that although television challenges children to think about reality, 'there are other things it cannot alter, like believing in Santa Claus. Younger children still do live in a world where there is magic and fantasy'.

But would-be Santa Clauses risk turning into a fireball unless they have the necessary magic to defy science. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have calculated that, with an estimated 92 million homes to visit around the world each Christmas Eve (1,064 visits per second), Santa's sleigh would have to move at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound.

Even if his reindeer were 10 times as strong as ordinary deer, he would still need 214,200 of them to pull 353,430 tons of presents. The scientists concluded that this weight travelling at mach 3,000 would mean Santa would burst into a fireball on contact with the Earth's atmosphere.

Christmas Legends

Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. He was patron saint of children and in his lifetime frequently gave tiny presents to all he met.

According to legend, one Mid-December, St Nicholas was passing a house when he saw three young ladies sitting by the fireside, weeping. Their father, a nobleman, had lost his fortune and so they had no dowries to wed the youths they loved. St Nicholas dropped three bags of gold down the chimney. One went into each of their stockings which were drying by the fire.

To this day three golden balls in memory of St Nicholas' gift may be seen outside pawnbrokers' shops, for he is also patron saint to them as well as unmarried maidens, children, perfumers, sailors and Russia.
From this legend grew our Santa. Dutch settlers took it to New Amsterdam (now New York) where he was called Sinter Klaus (Saint Nicholas) then Santa Claus.

The image of St Nicholas, the forerunner of Santa Claus as a whiskery Dutch settler continued in the US where there would be annual parades through the street on his day. These St Nicholas parades became enshrined in the 1800s. Dr Clement C Moore's poem, A Visit from St Nicholas, written in 1822, developed the image of Santa landing on rooftops in his sleigh and climbing down chimneys to bring presents. The poem was illustrated some years later in 1863 by Thomas Nast in Harper's Illustrated Weekly, giving him the red regalia, which have reinforced the present image of Father Christmas.

Legends of the Talking Animals

On Christmas Eve animals have the power to talk because they were present in the Stable when Jesus was born. Cows fall to their knees and turn to the East at midnight, cockerels crow, 'Christus Natus Est,' (Christ is Born), Oxen ask 'Ubi?' (where) and the sheep reply 'Be—ee-thlehem'.
Bees traditionally hum the Twenty-Third Psalm on Christmas Eve. It was also believed that all the trees in the forest bloom briefly and are covered with fruit at midnight on Christmas Eve. If you could eat one of the fruits you would gain immortality. But they always disappeared on touch.

Christmas Customs

Some old customs translate well into modern life in any country, such as Stir Pudding Day or the Festival of Candles on St Lucy's Day (December 13).

Christmas Crib

The crib was introduced by St Francis of Assisi in 1224 who was trying to remind people of the religious meaning of Christmas. He led the local people up the hills to a cave where he had created a scene complete with animals. In parts of France santons, clay figures, are made for the nativity scene that include models of local village characters and dignitaries.

Christmas Fare

Mince pies were originally brought to Europe from the Holy Land by the Crusaders and were savoury, made from meat with spices to preserve them. They were in the shape of a crib with a pastry baby on top. One was eaten on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Christmas Pudding

Christmas pudding was until the sixteenth century a semi-liquid porridge, containing the fruits, grains and metals (silver coins and charms) of the Earth, representing the Earth Mother. In the Northern tradition, the sprig of holly was the World Tree.

The pudding was cooked on Stir Pudding Day, the last Sunday before Advent. The mix was traditionally enough for thirteen puddings, the last of which would be given away to someone in need. Thirteen ingredients were used and each member of the family, ending with the youngest, would stir the pudding nine times clockwise and make a wish that would come true only if it was kept a secret.

Christmas Trees

These date back to early tribes who adorned the trees with blazing brands at the Mid-Winter Solstice to persuade the Sun to shine again. Lights, ornaments and offerings were hung on the trees in the groves, sacred to the Mother Goddesses who gave birth to the new sun and to pagan solar gods such as Dionysius who were reborn at this time. The Druids hung golden apples on trees.

The first Christmas decorations were made of pastry and were suns, moons and stars to represent the rebirth of the sun. The Romans trimmed trees with gifts and trinkets during Saturnalia.

On December 21 at the pagan Midwinter Solstice, St Boniface who in the eighth century travelled from England to convert the Bavarians. He encountered some Druids about to tie a young boy to a sacred oak and sacrifice him. Boniface chopped down the tree and behind it was a tiny evergreen. The Druids fell to their knees and hung their lanterns on the little tree.

The decorated Christmas tree gained popularity in Germany at the time of Martin Luther who hung candles on a tree to show his family the wonders of the stars in the firmament.

Prince Albert, the Consort of Queen Victoria, made the Christmas tree a tradition in Britain by introducing one in 1841 at Windsor Castle. British families, eager to emulate the royal family, took up the custom.
The pine tree was the symbol of Attis, the Phrygian God of Death and Resurrection. He was killed under a pine tree then reborn on December 25. Sacred offerings were placed at the base of a pine tree and it was decorated with gold and silver ornaments.

Holly and Mistletoe

The Holly and the Ivy,
Now they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

So runs the Christian carol. But its words look back to the earlier pagan festival when the Holly was the King of the Waning Year and the Ivy the female principle.

Holly wreaths offer shelter to tree spirits and so are hung on doors at Christmas to provide protection for them and all who lived within the house, for no evil could pass the door. In pre-Christian times holly was sacred to Saturn and used to decorate his temples at the feast of Saturnalia. The ivy crown was worn by the Lord of Misrule.

Christianity associated holly berries with the blood of Christ. Popular myth recounted that the berries were stained red by the blood of a little lamb at the first Nativity who caught himself on holly thorns.

Mistletoe, the Golden Bough and All-Healer of the Druids, is an ancient fertility symbol. It was harvested by unspoilt maidens with golden sickles from an oak tree at the Mid-Winter Solstice. Another legend says that the Norse Goddess Frigg, the mother of Baldur the Sun God, who was slain by a mistletoe twig, wept at his death and her tears turned to pearls on the plant. Mistletoe means 'give me a kiss' in the language of flowers and lovers should continue kissing until they have plucked all the berries, one for each kiss.

When Mary and Joseph were fleeing from Herod to Egypt with the baby Jesus they hid in a cave. Popular myth says that a spider wove a beautiful web over the entrance to keep them warm. When Herod's soldiers came by, they saw the entrance to the cave covered with webs and thought no one could be inside. So it is said to be unlucky to kill a spider and we put tinsel on our trees to remember how it saved the Christ Child.

Poinsetta Plants

A Mexican legends says that a little boy was too poor to put a gift in the charity box on Christmas Eve. He cried because he so much wanted to give something. At that moment a beautiful scarlet flower bloomed where his tears fell. He took it into the church and placed it before the crib. And so the plant is known as Flor de la Noche Buene, Flower of the Holy Night, and is ever after a reminder that Christmas is about love, not material offerings.

Yule Logs

Yule means the yoke of the year, the point of balance across the lowest point of sunlight. The Yule Log was usually made of oak, King of the new Waxing Year, and was sacrificed to give life to the Sun. It was kindled from wood saved from the previous year's log and the Yule fire was kept burning from the Solstice Eve to Twelfth Night, January 6.

As the log was ignited, a sacred charge was made such as: 'I charge this log to burn bright and to give light, health and wealth to this house and all who dwell therein.'

A small piece of the log was preserved for the following year and the ashes scattered on fields and gardens to make them fruitful. The burning of the Yule log was common throughout Europe and Scandinavia, although the pine or birch, symbol of regeneration, was used in Scandinavia, with an ash faggot in the centre, to represent the World Ash.

In modern celebrations the Yule Log is usually replaced by scarlet candles, one for each day of the Twelve Days of Christmas from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night.

For more on Christmas and some Christmas rituals and party games click here