How Did Your Ancestors Celebrate Christmas?

Christmas, one song tells us, is the most wonderful time of the year. There are sparkling lights and elves in red tights, glistening snow and hearts all aglow, candies galore and gifts from the store, and finallyLooking at dolls, good will and good cheer and twelve dancing reindeer. It’s a time of beauty, joy, reverence, camaraderie, and all those fruit cakes.

There are so many traditions! We bring evergreen trees into the house to string them with lights and wrap them with garland. We put pretty presents under the tree. We hang mistletoe, ring bells, put up stockings, give out candy canes, decorate in red and green, adorn the mantle with holly, hang wreaths on the door, toss down some eggnog, and wait until Christmas morning to see what Santa Claus brought us.

christmas-stocking-for-you-english-schoolBut did you ever stop to wonder where all these traditions come from? How our ancestors celebrated Christmas? Not just our grand- and great-grandparents, but those ancestors who came many hundreds of years ago and more. Did they go caroling? Did they make gingerbread houses? Did they hang stockings from the mantel? And why did there always seem to be an orange in my stocking?

For most of us the origins of our Christmas traditions are long lost. We don’t remember their origins, if we ever knew. We perform the same rituals as our parents because they are nostalgic; they make us feel warm and fuzzy, like we are carrying on something important that links us to our families and the happy times growing up.

One family I read about long ago always cut their Christmas ham in half before placing it in the oven. A grown daughter of the family, baking her first Christmas dinner, asked her mother why they cut the ham in half. Christmas dinnerThe mother answered that it was because her mother always did. So the young woman asked her elderly grandmother, who replied that it was because when she was a young wife her oven was too small to hold the entire ham uncut. I assume this was the end of that particular holiday tradition.

As Christmas dinner goes, turkey is a more traditional choice than ham in England and America. Though turkeys were once only found in North America, it’s said that wealthy families of Victorian England started the tradition of the Christmas turkey, an imported bird too rare at that time for the common people to afford. Middle class families then settled for goose. Of course, for Americans the wild turkey was plentiful, sealing its fate as Christmas dinner.

And what would Christmas be without the evergreen tree, brought indoors and wrapped with garland, strung with lights, hung with beautiful, glittering ornaments and draped in icicles? Icicles may be fading into history as people have less messy options today, but the decorated tree remains much as it has Christmas familybeen since being first introduced in fifteenth century Germany, where trees were hung with apples, nuts, and baked goods. Even that date is simply when Christians adopted the tradition from much earlier pagan religions.

Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolize everlasting life. A text from 1604 says that the inhabitants of Strasburg in Germany “set up fir trees in the parlors…and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.”  Tinsel was added to their trees around 1610, and were made of real silver.

Legend says that Martin Luther was the first to decorate trees for Christmas. He supposedly was walking through snow-covered woods on a moon-lit night and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens, their icy branches shimmering in european-pagan-santathe moonlight. He got the idea to bring a small fir tree into his home, decorating it with candles lighted in honor of Christ’s birth. It’s a beautiful legend, but there is no evidence that it is true.

As far back as ancient Egypt, Rome, China, and Palestine, the winter solstice was celebrated by bringing evergreens into the home and decorating them. It was believed that without such celebrations to each culture’s gods and spirits, the spring may not come. Romans decorated their boughs with lights and wore crowns of holly or exchanged holly wreaths, symbols of victory over death and darkness.

In Europe, the Druids brought evergreens inside so that the woodland spirits and fairies would have someplace warm to sleep during the long winters. The Druids also hung sprigs of holly and mistletoe indoors to ward off spirits that lurked during the dark winter Wreath paganmonths. Holly, with its fresh green leaves and bright berries, symbolized growth and fertility, the hope and reminder of renewal in the springtime to come.

Mistletoe was cut by Druid priests from oak trees, their sprigs then hung over doorways to protect against thunder, lightning, and other evils. The Greeks, Norse, and Babylonians also ascribed magical powers to mistletoe, associating it with love and fertility. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that it made its way to our Christmas celebration of Christmas, in Victorian England, as an invitation to kiss. No one knows exactly why.

But the use of evergreens is not the only bit of symbolism to transcend from paganism to Christianity. Bells, too, were first used by pagan priests to drive out evil spirits, as were candles, which were said to drive away the forces of cold and darkness.

Red and greenThe traditional colors of red and green, one the opposite of the other on our modern color wheel, represented male and female, fertility and incubation. Candy, it is said, was first given out as a way to keep children quiet during religious services.

And the tradition of giving fruit cakes dates to ancient Rome, where the people exchanged cakes made with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed with barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added. (I think I still have one of the first fruitcakes ever made.)

The Scandinavians made wreaths with candles to light the winter night as a sign of hope for the future light of spring. They believed the wreath would delight the god of light and move him to turn the world towards the sun once more.

Pagans in the British Isles, too, featured wreaths in their festivals, placing four candles on the wreath to represent the elements of earth, wind, water, and fire. Rituals performed with the wreaths were believed to ensure the continuance of the circle of life.

ConstantineBut how did those practices make it to Christianity? The Roman Empire didn’t at first take to the young religion. They burned some Christians, threw others to the lions, and persecuted any they could find. But then came Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome.

He was canny, and knew that his people would not easily give up their raucous winter festivals, especially Saturnalia and the birth of Mithra. So Constantine took traditions from these festivals and merged them with the Nativity story, and thus was the celebration of Christmas born roughly 300 years after Christ’s actual birth.

He didn’t annex all the pagan traditions, though. The poet Lucian of Samosata, who lived around 150 years after the time of Christ, has the god Saturn say about Saturnalia, in his poem of that name:Saturnalia

“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, those practices did not make it into Christianity. In fact, some of our most cherished Christmas traditions were banned at various times and places through our two thousand years of Christian history. Christmas trees were banned in all Christian denominations until relatively recently, as was the singing of Christmas carols.

CarolersThe word “carol” comes from the Greek word “choros” meaning “a band of singers and dancers.” From ancient times songs were sung during winter festivals, but the medieval Christian church did not approve, and in 1290 the Council at Avignon actually banned the singing of carols.

Not to be deterred, carolers took their songs to the street and went door to door to spread their good cheer. A ban was again placed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan lord protector of England. Anyone caught singing carols was at risk of being accused of witchcraft.

In fact, in early America Christmas was not celebrated. The Puritans considered such celebrations no better than pagan rituals. Puritan Christmas banWilliam Bradford, Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, even outlawed the celebration of Christmas, ordering Puritans taking the day off back to work.

Still, our desire to lighten the darkest days of winter with logs, candles, holly, mistletoe, and evergreens time and again prove stronger than any customs against them.

As for the orange in the Christmas stocking, hung by the chimney with care, there is a long history for that as well. It starts with Nicholas, who was born in the year 270 in a part of the Roman Empire that is now part of Turkey, and who was later made a saint, St. Nicholas. St Nicholas orangesHe was a generous man and liked to give anonymous gifts. Once, the legend goes, he heard of a man so poor that he could not afford a dowry for his three daughters, which meant the girls would have no prospects for marriage. Nicholas secretly threw three balls of gold into the family’s window one night near Christmas, landing in the girls’ stockings, hung by the fire to dry. And so as a child I received an orange in my stocking, along with nuts, candy, and small toys.

Whatever your holiday tradition, there is a reason for it, and the reason no doubt dates to long ago, even to the days before Christ walked the earth, for we have always been a reverent people, steeped in ritual and tied to the ways of the past, whether or not we understand the reason for those rituals.

I didn’t address purely Christian symbols in this essay. That is a rich topic which I will leave to another time, perhaps Easter.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to one and all!Merry Christmas




The Winter Solstice and Christmas: From Sun to Son

Imagine yourself as fresh to the world as Adam or Eve. What a wondrous place you inhabit, full of beauty and mystery. Like a child, you wander free, examining every thing, curious about every leaf and insect, rock and rivulet. But the insect bites you, and it hurts. You want to know why it did that, and lacking any other explanation, you decide it must be angry. Then it rains, and you are drenched and cold. Jupiter god of weatherYou don’t know why that happened, and so decide the skies must be angry.

And then the leaves begin to fall off the trees, and they keep falling, day by day, until none are left. Your world is becoming colder, darker. The sun sinks lower into the horizon every day. Whatever or whoever is behind this, you think, must be in a very bad mood. Nothing else could explain it.

As the light fades a little faster each day, you become afraid. What if the sun goes away altogether, leaving you in darkness? Will the sun come back? How can you make the sun come back? Please come back!

For those who lived before astronomy, mathematics, and physics came to explain nature’s secrets, the world was beguiling, unpredictable, and often frightening. There were no scientific explanations for the movements of the sun or the turning of the seasons. Weather patterns that change day to day often seemed fickle, without pattern or reason. And so the people ascribed those acts to gods who had human-like moods and tempers. Nothing else could explain nature’s behavior.

What we take for granted about the natural world today was not yet known. That the earth, for instance, circles the sun, held in orbit by powerful gravity. Apollo sun godOr that the seasons are determined by the sun’s position relative to earth. The sun, we know, grows weaker in the winter and stronger in the summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere because of the tilt of the earth’s axis.

But early cultures did not know these things. They lived at the mercy of nature. And so they created religions that sought to erase the unknown and give their followers a sense of control over their world by creating gods that ruled these otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena.

Lacking scientific reasons to inform them why the sun comes up and goes down each day, or why the rains suddenly cease and the lands dry up, the people decided that gods were behind these acts of nature. When gods were happy nature cooperated with the needs of man. When the gods were angry people might starve.

Zeus, supreme god of the Greeks, threw thunder bolts when angry. He changed the seasons and shaped the weather according to his temper.Gefjun The Germanic Goddess Gefjun plowed the land and brought abundance and prosperity. Apollo, god of sun and light, drew his chariot across the sky by a team of celestial horses, driving the sun in its course.

These beliefs created order in the people’s worlds, if not always predictability. They could create more predictability, they thought, and better design nature to their needs, if they pleased the gods. And so they prayed and created elaborate rituals and festivals to honor the gods.

Across nearly every culture one of the most important deities was the god of light and sun. The sun ruled their worlds, and so the people took effort to worship and placate their sun gods. The winter solstice was perhaps the most important celebration, the time when the sun no longer sank into a lower arch every day and instead began to rise again, winter’s light no longer growing shorter every day, but lengthening into spring and then summer. Only then did they know their gods were happy and that the days would not continue to shorten until there was only darkness.

But they could not trust that the solstice would always return. They knew their gods were fickle. And so when the days of fall shortened into winter, after the harvests were in and the leaves fallen from the trees, when the cold crept into living spaces and clouds obscured the sun, people of ancient times called up their gods and spirits to ensure spring’s safe return. The sheer power of their rituals, they believed, could miraculously transform gathering dark into lengthening light. Sol invictus

The day of their rituals, the day when the sun started its rise up the horizon once more, fell and still falls, depending on positions of the planets, between December 20 and 23 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day, the winter solstice, people from the North — ancient Rome, Scandinavia, Persia, Germany, China, North America — celebrated the sun’s new path higher into the sky.

On the solstice the sun halts its southward journey, pauses for a moment, and then starts moving northward. The Scandinavian and British people gave the name Yuletide to their winter solstice celebrations. “Yule” means “wheel” or “whole,” and “tide” means “time.” Yuletide, then, is the time of wholeness, or holiness. Germanic people called the solstice “weihnachten,” which means “the holy nights.” For them, and for the earth, it was a time of deep rest. A time of peace and reverence. The old year ends, its journey complete, its duties fulfilled. Now the sun can begin its journey up the sky again, bringing new birth, new life.

In some cultures it was a day of of feasting, merrymaking, and exchanging gifts. In others it was a day for quiet and reflection. In Scandinavia the people lit giant bonfires that symbolized the birth of the light of life, afterwards bringing into their great halls the yule log to burn during the twelve days of holy time. They brought “trees of life” into their homes and placed a star at the top to represent the light of life.

SaturnaliaIn Rome master and servant switched roles, the master serving the servant. The Romans lit candles and brought evergreens into their homes. Their festival, called Saturnalia, led right into Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, which was celebrated with a solemn festival of lights on December 25.

How easy it was for Christianity to assume that date to celebrate Christ’s birth, exchanging worship of the sun for worship of the Son! Many, maybe most Christian scholars believe this theory to be true. Indeed, no less than the Catholic Encyclopedia flat out says: “The true birth date of Christ is unknown.” And Catholic World states clearly,

No one supposes or has ever supposed that [December 25] was His actual birthday.”

As for the origin of December 25 as the day of celebrating Christ’s birth, Catholic Encyclopeida goes on to say,

“The same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.”

Which means that both worshipers of the sun and worshipers of Christ believed the winter solstice, and particularly the sun’s birth day, was a fitting time to worship and celebrate, in once case the Sun, in the other, the Son.rohden_franz_von_gerburt_christi_2

The Bible does not mention the date of Christ’s birth, and gives few clues. What clues there are tend to point against December 25 as the date of the blessed event. What’s more, since celebration of birthdays was considered a pagan practice by early Christians, no mention at all is made in early Christian texts of celebrations honoring the birth of Christ. One early scholar even mocks Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, calling them pagan practices.

It wasn’t until more than three hundred years after the birth of Christ that the first Christmas celebration was recorded, in a text written by an Egyptian teacher far from Judea. It was the time of Constantine, Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Constantine had been a worshiper of the sun god Apollo, but on the day before a key battle he had a vision of a bright cross inscribed with the words, “hoc signo vince,” meaning, “in this sign conquer.” Jesus appeared to him in a dream that night telling Constantine to use the cross on his war flag.

Thus began the reign of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, which spread under his rule from western Asia to Britain, Constantine and crossencompassing cultures that had been in battle with each other for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

To maintain his grip on the Empire Constantine needed to ensure peace among these former enemies. He would do it, he decided, through Christianity, and so began his crusade to spread the Gospel far and wide.

That included issuing an edict granting everyone in the empire the freedom to practice their religion, followed by a second edict proclaiming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. He did this not out of piety, but out of political ambition, wishing to spread peace throughout his empire through the word of the Gospel, and to expand his empire through Christianity’s growth. In fact, Constantine was something less than pious, even having his wife and son murdered because he feared their treachery, and persuading his people to adopt Christianity under threat of death.

Priests, too, had their roles, one of which was to convert the masses of pagan idolaters to Christianity. One tactic they used was to superimpose Christianity over existing pagan holidays, including the festival of the winter solstice, Saturnalia, and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or birthday of the unconquerable sun. In Northern Europe the twelve days of Yuletide were reinterpreted as Christian.

The priests made the ceremonies quieter, more solemn, by holding a mass on the feast day, called “Christ’s mass.” They also reimagined the Saturnalian practice of giving gifts to symbolize the gifts given to Christ by the three wise men.Sun Christ

All across Europe and Western Asia Christianity slowly absorbed the ancient traditions, made them its own. The old gods disappeared, replaced by the one holy God and His Son.

The holy day — holiday — celebrations remained, wrapped now in the shining Light of Christ and all that is whole and holy. There is peace, joy, renewal in that Light of Lights; remembrance, reverence, and the reminder that we are all, whatever our beliefs or creed, of this earth, together. The new sun is born. The new Son is born. Ancient, pure, life-giving, forgiving, embracing, beloved.