The First Noel
In honour of the festive season Destination is taking some time to look deeper into the world’s beloved Christmas traditions and cultures
By Anthea Rowan
It’s impossible to ignore the imminence of Christmas. From October the organized amongst us begin to send out cards and anybody who hasn’t already booked a house at the coast for New Year knows that they’ve missed the boat and need to consider a Plan B. All around us, as the festivities draw closer, the colourful extravaganza that has become Christmas begins to unfurl; lights are strung, trees are decorated, children belatedly begin to behave.
But what’s it all about? Even those out there who properly remember that Christmas means more than present-giving and parties might be surprised at the origins of the world’s most celebrated date.
The History of Christmas
Christmas dates back over 4000 years, from before the birth of Jesus. Ancient midwinter festivities celebrated the anticipated return of the Sun after months of cold and darkness, a turning point between the old year and the new one. Oddly, given that Christmas draws its name from Christianity, Yuletide or Yule was celebrated in Pagan Scandinavia and the tradition had significant influence on Christmas. Indeed many of today’s traditions date from centuries before the birth of Christ: the twelve days of Christmas, the Yule log (courtesy of those Pagan Scandinavians) and the giving of gifts.
And we’ve definitely got the date wrong. It’s most unlikely that shepherds would have witnessed a shining star whilst watching their flocks by night on 25th December; at that time of year, on the periphery of the northern hemisphere near Jerusalem, they’d have been tucked up tight and warm inside. In AD 200 Clement of Alexandria wrote that the nativity was celebrated on ‘25 Pashons’ which correlates to the – much warmer –20th May. The earliest reference to the date of 25th December is found in a manuscript compiled in Rome. In the East early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as a part of Epiphany (6th January) and it was certainly Epiphany that had the upper hand as far as celebrations go through much of the early Middle Ages. The prominence of Christmas Day increased after Charlemagne became Emperor in 800 and King William I of England was crowned on what was by then known as Christmas Day in 1066 and grew in popularity throughout the Middle Ages.
The Scandinavians associated mistletoe with Frigga, the Nordic goddess of love, which is probably where the tradition of kissing started.
Following the Reformation of the 16th Century, the Puritans tried to outlaw the occasion, condemning the celebration of Christmas as a Catholic invention, there were riots and protests. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged its celebration and the Pilgrims banned it in America; Christmas in Boston was a non-event for almost 200 years until it was resurrected in the mid 1800s when, in Britain, writers began to promote it in their work. In 1843 Charles Dickens wrote the novel A Christmas Carol which helped to revive the spirit of the season as a family centered affair.
And so the same family-celebrated season of goodwill and generosity has sustained, born of a hybrid of beliefs - secular and scriptural, pagan and mythical - that have merged and muddied and morphed over the millennia to give us the basis for what has become an extravagant celebration enjoyed in almost every country in the world except a few: the People’s Republic of China, for example, which does not recognize the 25th December as a legal holiday.
But what of the traditions that are attendant to the date? Are their origins as blurred as those of the celebration itself? It seems not; it would appear that we’re agreed on how those all began.
Father Christmas and Stockings
A bit younger than Christ, and certainly much younger than the beginning of the festival with which he has become synonymous, Father Christmas aka Santa Claus began as Saint Nicholas, a Bishop of Myra (in modern day Turkey) and an especially generous man noted for kindness to children upon whom he bestowed gifts having first established their good behavior during the preceding year. A shy man who was happier imparting charity anonymously, it is said he once climbed the roof of a house to drop a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in a stocking hung in the fireplace to dry.
After his death in 340 AD St Nicholas was buried in Myra but his remains were stolen in 1087 by Italian sailors and removed to Bari in Italy, greatly increasing the Saint’s posthumous popularity in Europe. As the patron saint of Russia, he was depicted in a red cape sporting a long white beard. In Greece he became patron saint of sailors in France patron saint of lawyers and in Belgium patron of children and travellers. By the 12th Century an official church holiday was created in his honour; December 6th, which was marked by gift giving.
After the Reformation his popularity dwindled, except in Holland where Sint Nikolaas became Sinterklaas, who filled the empty wooden shoes of Dutch children who’d been good on the eve of his Saint’s day. Dutch colonialists to the Americas took the tradition with them where he morphed as Santa Claus.
In 1822, Clement C Moore wrote a poem for his children to describe Santa: He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly, He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. Which doubtless fuels our conceptualization of today’s Father Christmas; fun, fat and full of friendly benevolence.
History suggests that Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483 –1546) was the first man to decorate a tree in anything approximating the fashion we recognize today. Coming home one freezing December night, he was struck by the beauty of the stars whose brilliance was filtered by the branches of evergreen trees; the scene inspired him to decorate a fir tree with candles.
But the idea of decorating a tree at all dates back to the Middle Ages when a popular religious play described the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. A fir tree hung with apples was used to symbolize the Garden: the Paradise Tree.
The play ended on an upbeat note: the promise of a savior. Given Martin Luther’s example, it’s not surprising that 16th Century Germany took to decorating trees inside and out with fruit, flowers, confectionary and lights, a habit which the Teutonic Prince Albert took to England when he married Queen Victoria. The 1848 Christmas edition of the Illustrated News featured a portrait of the royal family gathered under a decorated tree in Windsor Castle and the trend took hold.
Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly
Holly, ivy and mistletoe are quintessentially linked with Christmas; we stick sprigs of plastic holly into Christmas pudding; we trail snakes of green ivy along mantelpieces and we pucker up under the mistletoe. Why? In the north Christmas was celebrated in midwinter, a time of the year associated with wailing winds and dark demons. Boughs of holly, believed to have magical powers because they remained evergreen, were placed above doorways to drive evil spirits away. Greenery was also brought inside homes to brighten them up in the bleak midwinter and is probably why the compulsion to decorate survives, even in the tropics.
As for the mistletoe, that was used by the Druids 200 years before the birth of Christ. They revered the plant for the same reason that holly was; it stayed evergreen. The ancient Celts believed mistletoe harboured healing powers. It was also regarded as a symbol of peace; the Romans said that enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their arms and embrace. The Scandinavians associated mistletoe with Frigga, the Nordic goddess of love, which is probably where the tradition of kissing started.
We can credit little boys in England with the idea of a scribed Christmas greeting. Urged to improve their writing skills, they were encouraged to articulate Christmas wishes to their parents. But it was Sir Henry Cole, an English public servant, art patron, and educator who is credited with creating the Christmas card as we know it. As Director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, he found himself too busy during the run up to Christmas 1843 to compose individual season’s greetings to his friends (don’t you just know that feeling?). So he commissioned the artist John Calcott Horsley to do the job for him. The resultant illustration, of a family enjoying the Christmas festivities, bore the message, ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You’. The popularity of the idea grew when ‘Penny Post’ public postal deliveries began and was promoted further as printing methods improved. By 1860 cards were being produced and posted in volume.
Christmas hymns appeared in 4th Century Rome. In the 9th and 10th century these evolved as Christmas poetry and by the 12th Century a Parisian Monk, Adam of St Victor, who recognized the importance of a good backing track, began to derive music from popular songs and marry that to Christmas themed lyrics and the traditional Christmas Carol was born. They appeared as ‘caroles of Cristemas’ in England in 1426, sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house. Some of today’s popular carols – ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The Protestant reformers tried to discourage the singing of carols (though rebel Martin Luther continued to write the songs and encouraged their use in worship).
Two hundred years later Charles Wesley recognized that a bit of singing in church was probably good for the soul and the popularity of carols surged. Secular songs didn’t appear until the 18th Century and Jingle Bells wasn’t copyrighted until 1857.
Turkey and Other Tucker
Christmas absolutely wouldn’t be Christmas without the grub. Even the Pagans knew that; their celebratory feasts were renowned for jovial gluttony. Take mince pies for example, they’ve been around for eons. Originally called the Christmas Pie, they first came about in the 11th century; the Crusaders, returning from the Holy Land, brought home a variety of spices. It was deemed important to add three spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) to symbolize the three gifts given to Baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men. It was considered lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (ending with Epiphany, the 6th of January).
Over the years, the pies grew smaller and their shape morphed from cradle shape to round and the meat content – usually minced mutton - was gradually reduced until the pies were filled with a mixture of suet, spices and dried fruit steeped in brandy. Figgy Pudding, as in ‘Now Bring us Some’ was similar to bread pudding and made from figs, breadcrumbs, spices and milk. It was served by Mrs. Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and is further immortalized in ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’.
As for the turkey, well it wasn’t always that way. For centuries it was traditional to eat goose at Christmas time, even peacock. However, this changed in the 16th Century, when the turkey was introduced to England by trader William Stickland, who imported six of the birds from America in 1526. He sold them for tuppence each in Bristol. Henry VIII was apparently the first person to eat turkey on Christmas Day, but it wasn’t until the mid 1900s that turkey overtook goose as the popular choice for Christmas fare. Today 87% of British people believe that Christmas would not be Christmas without a traditional roast turkey; they eat 10 million of them over there each year. In the States the average American consumes 17 lbs of turkey between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s a lot of poultry!
And whilst at the table feasting, inevitably we do so with silly paper crowns pulled out of crackers. Where on earth did those come from? Tom Smith, a baker from East London invented the Christmas cracker in 1847. His creation was a while coming. In 1840 he travelled to Paris and came across the ‘Bon bon’; almond confectionary wrapped in a twist of paper. He liked the taste so much that he began selling the sweets in London where they became very popular. Tom, something of an entrepreneur, noticed that his sweets had become particularly fashionable gifts amongst sweethearts and, inspired by the idea behind Chinese fortune cookies, introduced brief messages of love into the sweets.
One evening years later, enjoying the warmth of his fireplace, the crackle of a log gave him a new idea. He started experimenting to reproduce the same effect in his sweets. Despite a lot of scorching of furniture and fingers, eventually he got it right. He took two strips of thin card and pasted small strips of salt petre onto them. When these cards were pulled away, they produced a crack and a spark. Within a year, Tom’s inventions had become vogue. The sweets were first called ‘Cosaques’ after the cracking of the Cossacks’ whips. It was only ten years later that they came to be known as Christmas crackers. The coloured paper and added novelties came in following years as competing companies strove for a share of a growing market. So now you know; it’s not just us who are responsible for the hype: the pagans, the Romans, the Crusaders and even Henry VIII; they’ve all played a part in the Christmas extravaganza we indulge in today.