Christmas really began in the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Celebrations for Jesus’ birthday were moved to the midwinter solstice, conveniently coinciding with the ancient festival of Saturnalia. People were already decorating their houses with evergreens, feasting and exchanging small gifts. Now they could carry on carousing in a suitably Christian spirit.
It wasn’t just the Romans who celebrated the turning of the year. Many of our traditions have Norse or Teutonic origins. Viking children got midwinter presents from Father Odin, riding on his eight-legged horse. The English word Yule comes from the Scandinavian ‘wheel’ (hjul). Cart wheels and spinning-wheels were ceremonially bound to prevent use. The Yule log was hauled in from the woods on the solstice – around Christmas Eve – and kept burning for the next twelve days. This is the sacred time set aside for celebrations, and marks the period between Christ’s birth and the arrival of the Three Kings (Epiphany).
Advent literally means ‘coming’ (ad-venire). Christians decorate their houses to welcome the holy infant. Evergreen branches symbolize his promise of eternal life. The fir tree with gifts was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert after he married Queen Victoria in 1840. Pine wreaths on the door are another Germanic custom, circles symbolizing eternity.
Holly was used by the Saxons in their sun-return festivals. It is named the ‘holy-tree’ because berries like blood-drops appear about this time. Ivy is another evergreen, originally dedicated to the Roman god Bacchus (Greek Dionysius): the French word ivre means ‘drunk’! Its twining tendrils are a symbol of lasting love.
Mistletoe was known to the Celts as ‘all-healer’: a sprig brings good luck, not to mention an excuse for kissing. It was venerated by the druids, who believed it was seeded by lightning: these pagan associations exclude it from church decorations.
Candles on Christmas Eve guide the Holy Family towards shelter. They recall Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, which is celebrated around this time of year. Midnight chimes were once a protective noise to drive away bad spirits. Carols (Latin choraula, a flute-player) were originally circle dances accompanied by singing: St Francis of Assisi introduced joyous hymns and set up the first Nativity crib in 1224AD. Nowadays children attend a Christingle service, carrying an orange (representing the world), tied with a red ribbon (blood of Christ), decorated with a candle and sweets.
We prepare seasonal food: sugared and spiced to mask the taste of stored ingredients. Each country has its own specialities. Eat a mince pie in a friend’s house on each of the twelve days of Christmas for a happy month in the coming year. Round biscuits, puddings and pies recall the shape of the sun; the blue brandy-flames around a plum pudding recall the ancient solstice festival.
Cards at Christmas are a good tradition, albeit a relatively new one. They only date from Victorian times – after all, they presume a postal service and high literacy rates. The first commercial Christmas cards were produced in 1846: they were condemned by temperance enthusiasts because they showed a family drinking wine.
Christmas cards perform a very different function from e-mail or Facebook: each envelope is a small gift, representing a quantifiable investment of writing time and money. Of course, card etiquette is fraught with difficulty. Is a hand-written note preferable to a round-robin letter? How many years should you continue sending if there is no reply? Why do people always send you a card the year when you finally cross them off your list? What does my choice of charitable cause say about me? But this is as naught compared with the problems of presents, especially the annual potlatch* festivities with the relatives (*Native American celebration where big chiefs distributed status goods)…
If you like this post, leave a comment and use the buttons below to Share on Twitter, Facebook and Stumbleupon. Visit my Author Page and follow me on Twitter @janebaileybain. ‘LifeWorks‘ is about using myth and archetype to develop your life story.