Monday, December 30, 2013

A brief history of the celebration of Christmas

Celebrations in mid winter predate Christian times by millennium and whilst Christmas became a Christian festival many of the original superstitions of pagan times are still observed. The following presentation is but a brief introduction to the topic.

The Egyptians
Celebrations at mid winter predate Christian times by millennium and whilst Christmas became a Christian festival many of the original superstitions of pagan times are still observed. Four thousand years ago, the Egyptians (3110- 30BC) celebrated the rebirth of the sun with a festival that lasted 12 days to reflect the 12 divisions in the sun's calendar. Evergreens were cherished because they symbolized the season to come. Using palms with 12 shoots to represent a complete year they decorated their houses with greenery in a similar way to what we do now.

The Zoroastrian Tradition
The Babylonians (1750- 529 BC) celebrated renewal of the year and the same festivities were later adopted by the Persians (529BC - 637AD). Persian New Year and was one of the seven most important festivals in the Zoroastrian tradition. Special food was prepared for the feasts that followed and singing and gift giving during the winter solstice became an established practice. December 25th was the day to honour the harvest god, Saturn, and Mithras, the god of light as far back as 336 AD.

The Festival of Saturn
In Roman times people decorated their homes with greenery but the usual order of the year was suspended and grudges and quarrels forgotten. Wars were interrupted or temporarily set aside and merriment of all kinds prevailed. The Festival of Saturn (Saturnalia) was the Roman mid-winter ‘festival of misrule.’ Thought to have started in Persia the custom temporarily subverted social order during festivals. Subsequently masters and slaves exchanged places. The same practice continued throughout the Middle Ages during other festivals such as The Festival of Fools.

Saturn and Mithras
The 25th December was used by pagans to honour the harvest god, Saturn and Mithras, the god of light. Pagans prepared special food, decorated their homes with greenery, and joined in singing and gift giving. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the celebrations and customs became part of the Christian way.

Festival of the Dead (Samahain)
According to Celtic myth Lugh, the Sun God was defeated by his dark side and become the Lord of Misrule. Good folk needed the comfort of their own kind and protection from the evil forces of the dark. Samhain was the great gathering of the clans and if you watched The Highlander film or TV series you will of heard of the Great Gathering. Well there was such an event and it took place in the mid winter. Samhain was celebrated on three levels. It was a time of plenty as the live stock were returned from the hills before the severe winter ahead; it was a time of great kinship, as the hill dwellers came to the gathering; and was the time of year when the darkness of night prevailed over the lightness of the day.

The Festival of Light
In pre-Christian times, Samhain was an unreal time, when one year turned into another. A twilight zone where the spirits of the dead and those not yet born, walked freely among the living. Halloween or the beginning of the Festival of the Dead and Hogmanay , the end as beginning of the New Year. Many rituals and superstitions from that time still prevail and are incorporated into modern Christmas customs. Christmas was called the Festival of Light in the Western or Latin Church. Lighting candles and lamps helped return the light and warmth as well as chasing away the spirits of darkness.

The Birth of Christ
History shows that December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas, not because Christ was born on that day, but because it was already popular in pagan religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun. Fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism. Christmas was not observed in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, until about 300 years after Christ's death. In 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals.

A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs.

Christmas Day
Christians celebrated Christmas Day since 336AD and the earliest known Christmas Day celebration in England was in the city of York in AD 521 by King Arthur. By the twelfth century Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe. The obsolete feasts of antiquity were gradually adapted to the main events of the life of Christ. This was probably done to attract more followers. In retrospect it is very difficult to separate occult beliefs and the sacred doctrine since they have become complexly intertwined. Although merriment and religious devotion were not associated in the early church, ultimately they were incorporated due to political pressures.

The Three Wise Men
In the Scriptures, Mathew described the peripheral events of the birth which have been systematically embellished by the faithful. According to Mathew 2:1

‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men (Magi) from the east of Jerusalem.’

There is no mention in the Scriptures of the Wise Men being Kings; nor were they named. These details were left to wide interpretation which was possibly done for the best ‘political’ reason as the Gospels were spread. For instance if the Wise Men were Kings then this would obviously unite the populous from various geographical locations i.e. Balthazar was the king of Arabia; Gaspar (or Casper) the king of India; and Melchior was the king of Persia. There is no confirmation of the way the Wise Men travelled to Jerusalem albeit Mathew wrote they had navigated by following a star. Chinese Christians believe at least one of the Magi came from China and cite anecdotal evidence about Liu Shang, the chief astrologer during the Han dynasty. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese called the "king star" - which became associated with the birth of a new king. According to contemporary reports the astrologer was absent from the China’s imperial court for almost two years shortly after he discovered the star. Some Chinese Christians believe it is possible Liu Shang travelled the Silk Road to Bethlehem.

Unlike the modern interpretation of the Christmas Nativity, it appears only shepherds were present immediately after the birth and the Magi did not arrive until the Twelfth Day. Dedicated followers of the Scriptures commemorated this event with the exchange of gifts on the 6th January.

Nativity Scene
Most of the nativity scenes were painted in the 15 & 16th centuries and Christmas cards depicting them becoming popular only in the 19th centuries.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
To promote universal celebration of Christ's birth the main churches eventually agreed to accept Twelve Days of Christmas. In the Western Church this ran from Christmas Day until Epiphany, (January 6th). Some believers consider the first day of the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on the eve of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). Eastern Orthodox Christians use a different religious calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7th. They observe Epiphany or Theophany on January 19th. In the Western church, Epiphany (Three Kings Day) is usually celebrated as the day the Wise Men (or Magi) arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). In Spain this is known as la Fiesta de Reyes, el Dia de los Tres Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos and in Holland, Driekoningendag.

Traditionally at the end of the Twelve Days a feast was held and gifts were given. People ate cake (King Cake) and drank alcohol on Twelfth Night. King cake is still used as part of the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Once December 25th became acknowledged as the main festival day, then exchanging gifts became part of the celebration. As the Twelfth Day marked the end of the Christmas celebrations then all Christmas decorations required to be removed from the house otherwise misfortune would follow.

Puritans banned Christmas
In 1644 the English Puritans forbid any merriment or religious services by Act of Parliament. This was on the grounds that it was a heathen practice, and ordered Christmas to be kept as a fasting day. Charles II revived the feast, but the Scots adhered to the Puritan view and did not celebrate Christmas for several centuries.

Modern Christmas
Modern Christmas was introduced in Victorian Times. Queen Victoria spent long holidays with her German relatives and always enjoyed the decorated the mid winter festivals. She particularly loved the Christmas Tree and insisted in having one in Buckingham Palace where she and Prince Albert decorated it for the Royal children. The Royal couple were so popular loyal subjects took to the custom and every home had one. Initially they were decorated with flags of the Empire but when Woolworth's offered coloured lights, these were used instead. In the Royal household of Queen Victoria this custom was observed throughout the twelve days of Christmas. These sentiments are very similar to the cheer promoted in the greeting of today's Christmas cards.

Scottish Christmas
Christmas was banned in Scotland after the Reformation and Presbyterian ministers visited their flock to check they had no festive foods in the house. The Scots rejected the celebration of Christmas because there was no reference to it in the New Testament. Christmas was just another day with faint echoes of bonfire ceremonies, more related to pagan sun worship than celebrating the birth of Christ. Many viewed the English celebration as an attempt by the English to emulate Hogmanay. Others viewed it, as a time for Victorian ‘do good’ers’ to exercise charity to the less privileged. Christmas in Scotland did not become a public holiday until 1958.

Colonial Christmas
At first Christmas was a time for colonists to link with their homes and families. Scottish tea planters in the east ate plum puddings and turkey dinners long before their relatives gave recognition to Christmas Day. The first official Christmas celebrated in Australia was Dec 25, 1788 at Sydney Cove. No Christmas cheer was shown to the prisoners on that day with the exception of Michael Dennison who had been sentenced to 200 lashes. In the spirit of the season the prisoner was given 150.

The Christmas Tree
The origins of the Christmas tree come from Germany when St Boniface was converted to Christianity. After he came upon a group of Pagans worshipping at an oak tree he cut it down and when a fir tree sprung up from the roots this was taken as a sign. By the 16th century fir trees were brought into the home and it is reputed Martin Luther was the first person to decorate the tree with candles. The lights which decorate the Christmas tree is a remnant of paganism.

The Electric Christmas Tree
German settlers are thought to have taken the decorated trees to North America when they emigrated. In the early 1800s when the first lit tree was erected outside a church, many parishioners protested because they felt the action was pagan. The introduction of electricity meant it was much safer to illuminate the tree. Soon ever town community council had civic displays, all trying to compete with each other.

Tree Decorations
Horns and bells were traditionally used to decorate the trees, the purpose of which was to frighten away evil spirits. Later these ornaments took on a Christian message i.e. heralding the birth of Christ. Originally fairy like figures were used on the trees but later these became angels. The origins of tinsel relate to the time when Europeans let their animals into the house. This was done because the birth of Christ took place in a stable. The story goes women did not want spiders in their homes, but when a spider spoke to the baby Jesus, he was allowed to go to the Christmas tree on the night before Christmas. By morning his web had turned to silver with the rising sun. A spider's web on the Christmas tree is thought to be a sign of good luck.

Carols (songs of joy)
Families sang carols (songs of joy) and clapped their hands to keep warm. The custom started in England and most carols were written in the nineteenth century. These scenes were depicted graphically in the works of Charles Dickens’. For the first eight years of the author’s life it snowed in London. This was quite unusual but clearly left a lasting impression with scribe.

Christmas Fayre
The English enjoyed Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day whereas many European countries feast on Christmas Eve . It is thought King Henry VIII may have been the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas although goose was the predominant roast until the Victorian era. For Catholics fish pie became popular after the Reformation and later ham also enjoyed common. Wartime rationing meant sausages became common Christmas far. Post war rising cost of goose saw chickens and turkey rise in popularity sealed with the introduction of freezers. Christmas pudding dates from medieval England.

The Yule Log
The pagan festivals which predated Christianity included many superstitions which eventually became part of the Christmas tradition. The Yule log was a Norse custom and burning of the Yule was a celebration of the sun during the winter months. Most ancient superstitions surrounding Yuletide were concerned with the darkness and the evil it was thought to harbor. Many superstitious people keep a piece on the log from the previous year, as a lucky talisman. According to tradition it was extremely unlucky for a barefooted woman or a squint eyed man to see the yule log; and a flat footed visitor to the house whilst the log was burning was a very bad omen. The log has subsequently influenced other Christmas traditions including desserts such as log shaped cakes.
The Evil Eye is well documented in occult culture. Keeping Christmas cake or the remains of the Yule Log under the bed was also thought to help get rid of chilblains.

Yule logs were traditionally burnt during the winter festival and the ashes and embers were kept for good luck for the following year. It was a very bad omen if the Yuletide embers were touched by either a flat footed woman or a man with a turn in his eye.

Christmas Crackers
Christmas crackers were an attempt to make a log shaped novelty similar to the Yule log. At first sugar almonds and love messages were placed on the table then when the 'snap' was invented, the now familiar cracker was introduced. Instantly these became popular with families and were used in all manner of celebrations. Later these became exclusive to Christmas.

Christmas Cards
The first Christmas card was printed in England in 1843, when Sir Henry Cole, director of The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, became weary of hand penning Christmas greetings and commissioned illustrator John Callcott Horsley to design a printable card. The card caused an uproar. Henry Cole’s Christmas card cost one shilling, a week’s pay in the 1800s. The postal act of 1840 brought about the penny post, which allowed mail to be sent anywhere in England for a penny. Cards became even more popular in the UK when they could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one halfpenny - half the price of an ordinary letter.

Religious themed Christmas cards were popular.

Christmas Gifts
An old English saying was "If you do not give a new pair of shoes to a poor person at least once in your lifetime, you will go barefoot in the next world."

This belief may be the reason why Christmas gifts were exchanged by the middle classes so as to avoid poverty. In any event many people gave presents to the poor and miniature shoes became popular gifts for good luck from the 18th century onwards. One reason why miniature shoes were given instead of the real thing might be because superstitious people believe if you give a friend a new pair of shoes then they were sure to walk away from you. Wearing new shoes on Christmas Day was also thought, by many, to bring bad luck. The traditional Greece custom of burning old shoes during the Christmas season to prevent misfortunes in the coming year shares a rationale with the belief the shoe contains the spirit of the wearer and foul smells repel evil.

In pagan times, mid winter was always associated with spirits and monsters that were on the prowl. During the Feast of the Dead (Hogmanay) Druid priests cut down mistletoe which grew in sacred oaks with golden sickles. These were used medicinally and helped infertility.

Trolls , Kallikantzartoi and Julenisse
Many European cultures have mythical creatures who do mischievous things to the unsuspecting at Christmas time . The origins are probably pre Christian and relate to the Festival of the Dead.

In Sweden it was believed evil trolls roamed the countryside between cockcrow and daybreak on Christmas Day.

In Greece there are wicked elves called Kallikantzaroi. In order to keep them from causing trouble in the house traditionally a large log called a skakantzalos (Yule Log) was burnt. Sometimes old shoes were burnt in the hope the smell would keep the wicked elves away. Greek children born on Christmas Eve or Christmas day were often feared to be Kallikantzaroi and as a precaution all children born within the Christmas festival were bound in braids of garlic or straw and their toenails singed.

In Scandinavia, the Julenisse are little people who live outside but during the winter festivities sneak indoors to cause mayhem. The elves are practical jokers and do mischievous things like hide shoes, or blow out candles. To avoid their attentions it is important to leave out a bowl of rice pudding and if they are kept happy then the children of the house find the occasional treat or lost coin. Julenisse wear woolen clothes with red caps, and long red stockings and wooden clogs.

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