The word Christmas comes from the old English “Cristes maesse” meaning Christ’s Mass. The Holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The actual birthday of Jesus is not known; therefore, the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day around the old Roman Saturnalia festival (17 – 21 December), a traditional pagan festivity. The first mention of the birthday of Jesus is from the year 354 AD.
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Gradually all Christian churches, except Armenians who celebrate Christmas on January 6 (the date of the baptism of Jesus as well as the day of the three Magi), accepted the date of December 25th. In American/English tradition, Christmas Day itself is the day for opening gifts brought by jolly old St. Nick. Many of our current American ideals about the way Christmas ought to be, derive from the English Victorian Christmas, such as that described in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The caroling, the gifts, the feast, and the wishing of good cheer to all – these ingredients came together to create that special Christmas atmosphere. The custom of gift-giving on Christmas goes back to Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Kalends. The very first gifts were simple items such as twigs from a sacred grove as good luck emblems. Soon that escalated to food, small items of jewelry, candles, and statues of gods. To the early Church, gift- giving at this time was a pagan holdover and therefore severely frowned upon. However, people would not part with it, and some justification was found in the original gift giving of the Magi, and from figures such as St. Nicholas. By the middle ages gift giving was accepted.
Before then it was more common to exchange gifts on New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. Santa Claus is known by British children as Father Christmas. Father Christmas, these days, is quite similar to the American Santa, but his direct ancestor is a certain pagan spirit who regularly appeared in medieval mummer’s plays. The old-fashioned Father Christmas was depicted wearing long robes with sprigs of holly in his long white hair. Children write letters to Father Christmas detailing their requests, but instead of dropping them in the mailbox, the letters are tossed into the fireplace. The draft carries the letters up the chimney, and theoretically, Father Christmas reads the smoke. Gifts are opened Christmas afternoon. From the English we get a story to explain the custom of hanging stockings from the mantelpiece. Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down the chimney. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost if they hadn’t landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry.
Since that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them filled with gifts. The custom of singing carols at Christmas is also of English origin. During the middle ages, groups of serenaders called waits would travel around from house to house singing ancient carols and spreading the holiday spirit. The word carol means “song of you.” Most of the popular old carols we sing today were written in the nineteenth century. The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to lift sagging winter spirits and remind the people that spring was not far away. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is descended from ancient Druid rites. The decorating of Christmas trees, though primarily a German custom, has been widely popular in England since 1841 when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up in Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria, and their children. The word wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael,” which means “good health.” Originally, wassail was a beverage made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, nuts, eggs, and spices.
It was served for the purpose of enhancing the general merriment of the season. Like many of the ancient customs, wassailing has a legend to explain its origin. It seems that a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words Waes hael. Over the centuries a great deal of ceremony had developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl is carried into a room with great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink is sung, and finally, the steaming hot beverage is served. For many years in England, a roasted boar’s head has been associated with Holiday feasting. The custom probably goes back to the Norse practice of sacrificing a boar at Yuletide in honor of the god Freyr.
One story tells of a student at Oxford’s Queen College who was attacked on Christmas Day by a wild boar. All he had in his hand to use as a weapon was his copy of Aristotle, so he shoved the book down the boar’s throat. Wanting to retrieve his book, the student cut off the animal’s head and brought it back to the college where it was served for Christmas dinner with much pomp and ceremony. It is from Scandinavia that most of our Yule log traditions derive. The dark cold winters inspired the development of traditions concerned with warmth and light. Yuletide, meaning the turning of the sun or the winter solstice, has traditionally been a time of extreme importance in Scandinavia – a time when fortunes for the coming year were determined and when the dead were thought to walk the earth. For a long time, it was considered dangerous to sleep alone on Christmas Eve.
The extended family, master and servant, alike would sleep together on a freshly spread bed of straw. The Yule log was originally an entire tree, carefully chosen, and brought into the house with great ceremony. The butt end would be placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The tree would be slowly fed into the fire and the entire process was carefully timed to last the entire Yule season. The Christmas tree has never been particularly popular in France, and though the use of the Yule log has faded, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the “buche de Noel,” which means “Christmas Log.” The cake, among other food in great abundance, is served at the grand feast of the season, which is called Le reveillon. Le reveillon is a very late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies according to regional culinary tradition.
The traditional Christmas dinner is made of turkey with chestnuts puree, and the buche de Noel as desert. Oysters are eaten on New Year’s Eve only because New Year’s is more an adult celebration and usually children are not very fond of oysters. The tradition in Paris is to eat grilled chestnuts in the streets during the month of December and part of January. The popularity of the Nativity scene, one of the most beloved and enduring symbols of the holiday season, originated in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi asked a man named Giovanni Vellita of the village of Greccio to create a manger scene. St. Francis performed mass in front of this early Nativity scene, which inspired awe and devotion in all who saw it. The creation of the figures or pastori became an entire genre of folk art.