What does it really mean to people and where does it all come from?
Today, I thought I would like to look at the reasons we celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is marked on the 25th of December or 7th of January for Orthodox Christians and is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, of Nazareth, whom Christians believe is the Son of God.
Jesus' birth, known as the Nativity, is described in the New Testament of the Bible, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which give different accounts and it is from them that the Nativity story is pieced together.
Both Gospels tell us that Jesus was born to a woman called Mary who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter. The Gospels state that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant.
In Luke's account Mary was visited by an angel who gave her the message that she would give birth to God's son. According to Matthew's account, Joseph was visited by an angel who persuaded him to marry Mary rather than send her away or expose her pregnancy.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us about some wise men who followed a star that led them to Jesus' birthplace and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and Luke’s tells us how shepherds were led to Bethlehem by an angel.
Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus' birth, because Joseph had been ordered to take part in a census in his hometown of Bethlehem. The Roman Emperor needed to determine how much money to collect from the Jewish people in tax so he had them counted in the census. Anyone that had moved away from their family homes, like Joseph had, was made to return there so they could have their names entered in the Roman records.
It was a long, arduous 90-mile journey from Nazareth along the valley of the River Jordan, past Jerusalem to Bethlehem for Joseph and Mary, so Mary travelled on a donkey to conserve her energy for the birth.
However, all was not well and when they arrived in Bethlehem the local inn was already full with people returning for the census. The innkeeper, seeing Mary was close to having the baby, let them stay in the rock cave below his house which was normally used as a stable for his animals. It was here, in the lowly company of the animals, that Mary gave birth to her son and laid him in a manger.
There is no mention of the date of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels and it was not until the 4th century AD that Pope Julius I decided upon the 25th of December as the date for Christmas and the birth of Christ. This act sought to Christianise the Pagan celebrations that already took place at that time of year and by 529 AD, the 25th of December had become a civil holiday and by 567 AD the twelve days from 25th December to the Epiphany were public holidays, which is where the popular song comes from.
The Christmas period is not only a Christian festival, however and the celebration has roots in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festivals of the ancient Greeks, the beliefs of the Druids and the folk customs of Europe, which all occur similarly at this time of year.
Christmas comes just after the middle of winter, the winter solstice, whilst the sun is strengthening and the days are beginning to grow longer. For lots of people all throughout history this has been a time for celebrations and for feasting.
Our ancient ancestors were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors, which meant the seasons and the weather played a vital part in their lives and because of this they had a great reverence for, and some even worshipped, the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons and can be seen represented in much of their artwork. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule, which is another name we use for Christmas, is thought to have come. During the Winter Solstice the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale, which to me sounds like many of the celebrations we may attend. I wonder if they had monopoly, or charades on the tables there?
The Romans also held a festival to mark the Winter Solstice, which they called Saturnalia, taken from the name of one of their gods, Saturn, which ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when everything was turned upside down and men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. This Roman festival also involved processions, decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles and giving presents, which is again similar to what we all do today at this time of year.
Nowadays sprigs and wreaths of holly are commonly used during the Christmas period and we see them everywhere we look, hung on doors and inside windows. The religious significance of its use pre-dates Christianity and it was previously associated with the Sun God, again the Roman god, Saturn and was important in Pagan customs. Some ancient religions used holly for protection and they even decorated doors and windows with it in the belief it would ward off evil spirits, so its roots could very well stem from a continuation of these beliefs.
Before Christianity came to the British Isles the Winter Solstice was held on the shortest day of the year, the 21st of December when the Druids, the pagan, Celtic priests, would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. Nowadays it is also associated with love at Christmas and sees many couples beneath its sprigs, kissing each other.
At the time of Jesus' birth, Judaism was the main religion of Israel and the Jewish midwinter festival of Hanukkah marked an important part of Jewish history. It is still celebrated today and is eight days long, with each day seeing a candle being lit. You can see the Hanukkah candles on sale in the stores, alongside the Christian decorations whilst out shopping. For the Jewish people it is a time of remembrance, celebration of light, a time to give gifts and have fun, once again just like the ones at Christmas.
Christmas has always had a strange combination of Christian, Pagan and folk traditions. As far back as 389 AD, St Gregory Nazianzen, warned against 'feasting in excess, dancing and crowning the doors', for he saw that the Church was already finding it hard to bury the Pagan remnants of the midwinter festival.
During the medieval period from around 400 AD to about 1400 AD the festival of Christmas was a time for much feasting and merrymaking. It was predominantly a more secular festival, but it did contain some religious elements.
This medieval Christmas lasted 12 days from Christmas Eve on the 24th of December, until the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, on the 6th of January, which is where the song comes from and is also the traditional date at which we take down the Christmas decorations until the next one. The Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means 'to show', pertaining to the time when Jesus was revealed to the Magi by Mary and Joseph. The Epiphany was at least as big a celebration as Christmas day up until the 1800s, when it was superseded by Christmas day itself.
Many of the Pagan traditions which had been brought to Britain by the invading Roman soldiers, are still in use today and these include the covering houses in greenery and bawdy partying that have their roots in the unruly festival of Saturnalia.
The Christian Church attempted to curb such Pagan practices and popular customs were re-used, or re-written to give them a new Christian meaning, which is where a great many of the yuletide customs come from. Pagan songs used in celebrations such as the midsummer and harvest festivals were taken up by the Church and by the advent of the late medieval period the singing of Christmas carols had replaced such songs and become a traditional pastime for the seasonal period.
The Church also added a new Christian meaning for the use of holly, making it symbolic for Jesus' crown of thorns. It is told that the holly's branches were woven into a painful crown and mockingly placed on Christ's head by the Roman soldiers, chanting: "Hail King of the Jews." It is also said that holly berries were originally white, but when they made contact with Christ's blood it left them with a permanent crimson stain.
There is another legend, which tells of a little orphan boy who, living with shepherds, was there with them when the angels came to announce Jesus' birth. The excited child, wanting to offer a gift, set about making a crown of holly for the newborn baby's head. But when it came time to give it to the newborn baby, he was awash with shame at his gift, thinking it unworthy and he started to cry. At this point the baby Jesus suddenly reached out and touched the crown, whereupon it miraculously began to sparkle and the orphan boy's tears turned into beautiful, bright, scarlet berries.
There was a time, however, when the festivities were frowned upon and from around the middle of the 17th century until the early 18th century the Christian Puritans suppressed all the Christmas celebrations in both Europe and America. Beginning during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England between 1558 and 1603, due to a belief in strict moral codes, plenty of prayer and close following of New Testament scripture this movement was formed by the group calling themselves, Puritans. One can only imagine the relief when this viewpoint fell out of favour with the people and the festivities started again, although back then the re-runs of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows had not yet begun and the Queens speech was heard by only a few folks living nearby too.
The Puritans were of the belief that, as the date of Christ's birth was not in the Gospels then Christmas had too strong a link to the Pagan Roman festivals and were thus opposed to all celebrations, particularly the lively, drink riddled celebrations inherited from Saturnalia. By 1644 all of the Christmas festivities had been banned in England. I wonder how many folks moved over the borders to avoid missing out on the parties though, as this included decorating houses with evergreens and even eating mince pies. No wonder the Puritans didn’t last, my Dad, who is a baker and confectioner by trade, still makes us mince pies even now. He told me the other day he is due to start making some any day…hmm I cannot wait.
The re-telling of the Christmas story, over centuries has been an important part of the Christianisation of Christmas and one way this has been achieved is through the crib, which is a model of the manger that Jesus was born in. This tradition of crib making dates back to at least 400 AD when Pope Sixtus III had one built in Rome.
In many parts of 18th century Europe crib making was very skilfully executed and was considered a very important craft form, but this was not the case in England until much later, which may account for why British Christmases were less Christian than those in other parts of Europe and had their roots more based with Pagan traditions. This tradition of crib making lead to the use of the Nativity plays, which began in churches where they were used by the Priests to illustrate the Christmas story as it was told in the Bible.
Thankfully, the Victorian Era, which lasted from around 1837 to 1901, saw the festivities return to full swing following the lull in Christmas celebrations during the Puritanical period. This new Victorian Christmas was based on their love of the nostalgia for Christmases past and Dickens' novella, “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” written in 1843 inspired thoughts of what the ideal Christmas should be, whilst managing to capture the imagination of both the British and American middle classes, because these groups of people were the ones that had money to spare and to spend and they were able to make Christmas a very special time for all the family.
This is really were the traditional forms of Christmas that we know today have come from, with the reviving of the traditions of carol singing, borrowing the practice of card giving from St. Valentine's day and popularising the Christmas tree first made a part of the festivities in Germany. The idea of using Christmas trees was originally brought to Britain and popularised by the royal family. The first time this happened was in 1834 when Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree into the royal household, when he had been given a tree as a gift by the Queen of Norway, which was displayed in Trafalgar Square.
In Art the Victorians idealised a lot of their views of the medieval world and although the Victorians also attempted to revive the Christmas of medieval Britain, many of the new traditions were Anglo-American inventions from across the pond. From the 1950s onwards, carol singing became the norm again, especially in America, who incorporated them into their celebrations of Christmas in the Church. The tradition of Christmas cards was started by the British, who were the first to send them, but the Americans, many of whom were on the move, during this period and away from their families, picked up the practice because of their cheap postal service and because it was a good way of keeping in contact with people at home.
Advent is the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus and begins every year on Sunday nearest to the 30th of November. The word Advent originates from the Latin "adventus", which means coming and traditionally it is a penitential season, but is no longer kept with the strictness of Lent and Christians are no longer required to fast. During this time Advent wreaths are popular especially in churches, which are made with fir branches and four candles with one candle lit each Sunday during Advent.
Christmas Day is the Christian festival most celebrated by non-churchgoers, and quite often one can see churches completely full for the service late on Christmas Eve, which has a special feeling about it.
A big and very important part of today's Christmas is the part played by Father Christmas also known as Santa Claus and Kris Kringle in America. His origins lie in Christian and European traditions, but the visual image of Father Christmas that we have today is the one popularised by American card-makers during the Victorian era, which is pretty much the standard of all we see nowadays at Christmas. The Victorian view of Christmas has become the template from which all other things flow.
Every year on Christmas Eve, following a frantic rush to fulfil all the orders for toys and games from all the boys and girls around the world, Father Christmas visits houses at midnight, coming down the chimney to leave presents. Children hang up their stockings and large socks with Christmas patterns knitted into them, so that Father Christmas can fill them with little toys and presents, which we call 'stocking fillers'. Some Presents are left under the Christmas tree and some in small sacks.
When the new smokeless houses began to be built, with gas and electric fires replacing the old style traditional coal and wood ones, the children were afraid they would no longer be able to receive presents, but Santa, ever the resourceful one, had a special magikal key created by The Elves of the north, which meant he could get inside even if the door was locked and there was no chimney.
I have often wondered about hiring some of his Elves to help out here at the Keep, but I have always worried that with all the workload there at the North Pole, Santa’s Elves may have no one spare, without causing mayhem at the winter workshop.
Some traditional accompaniments used by Father Christmas pre-date even Christianity, with his sleigh, pulled by reindeer, stemming from Scandinavian mythology and the practice of leaving mince pies and a glass of milk or brandy for him on Christmas Eve may be a remnant of Pagan sacrifices made to mark the end of winter and the coming of spring.
Whatever comparisons we can make though, he and his Reindeer and Elves never complain and love all the little goodies left by the kind children wanting to thank him for their gifts.
Santa Claus, whose name comes from Saint Nicholas, which in turn comes from the Dutch word Sinterklaas is known the world over. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey is, among other things, the patron saint of sailors. There is a very famous story, which is told, which has him anonymously delivering bags of gold coins to a man who could not afford the dowry for his daughters to get married. Some versions of this story even have Saint Nick, as he is sometimes known, dropping the bags down the chimney.
All that matters though, is that all the little boys and girls are tucked up in bed early that night and that they have been good all year, or as good, as possible, and they have sent off their letters to Santa at the North Pole in time for his deliveries on Christmas Eve.
In previous centuries the Church worried about what repercussions the Pagan influence had on the Christian festival, but nowadays any ethical considerations are quite firmly focused on the over-commercialism of the holiday, with the average person in the UK spending hundreds of pounds on Christmas-related purchases. Protests against consumerism have been made by Christians and non-Christians such as 'Buy Nothing Christmas', encouraging people to spend time with their families instead of spending money on them. For me, it’s all about moderation and sharing with your loved ones. If there is one time of year, which shows people putting their hands in their pockets to help others and also seeing them looking out for others, including complete strangers then this is it.
If only we could bottle up that sentiment, warmth, love and friendship and ship it around the world, it may just be a much nicer and safer place to be.
With all the many Carol Concerts, Christmas Trees, Office and Works Parties, Midnight Mass, Seasonal Songs, Festive Films and Television Programmes, today's Christmas festival has elements of the Pagan, Christian and folk traditions and continues to thrive despite the attempts of the PC Brigade to turn it into a Winter Festival with Winter Lights and all the other offensive, supposedly none-offensive nonsense we hear them spout.
No chance it is Christmas Time, with Christmas Trees, Christmas Lights and Christmas Presents!!!
It is a time to share, to love and be amongst those you wish to share that love with.
Christmas remains a time to forget about the long, dark, dreary, grey, days and one in which to celebrate life with friends and family in the knowledge that for that one night in a little town in the Middle East, called, Bethlehem this would not exist.
Until next time have fun!
December 13th 2009
8 hours ago