With Omicron now looming we once again find ourselves facing uncertain times.
But we shouldn’t let the Omicron grinch ruin our Christmas. And so, this blog aims to be a bit more festive in the hopes of raising our spirits – at least a bit!
Let’s try to think, instead, about all the things we love about Christmas. Christmas day, Christmas dinner, Santa, nativity scenes, Christmas trees and spending time with our family.
In thinking about these things, it suddenly occurred to me – how did all these things come together to make a modern Christmas?
What makes Christmas Christmassy?
Well, Christmas is obviously a Christian festival to celebrate the birth of Christ. I think we all get that bit. So, it’s easy to see how the nativity fits in.
But what about the rest of it?
Santa? A jolly man in a red suit from the North Pole? I’m not sure what he would have been doing in 1st century Bethlehem. Reindeers? You don’t see many of those in the middle east. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure turkey and Xmas pud weren’t on the menu at the Bethlehem inn.
So how did we end up with the Christmas we have today? Where did all these seemingly unrelated ‘trimmings’ come from, I wondered?
Well as I am a researcher, I should be able to find that out!
Christmas day falls on 25th December. This is the day when we celebrate Christ’s birthday. But wait. How do we know he was born on that day? The Bible itself does not actually say when he was born. So where do we get that date from?
The earliest record we have of Christmas being officially celebrated on December 25th was in 336 AD. It was just after the Roman Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity. So why did the Romans pick that day?
Well, as it turns out, December was a popular time of year for festivals. The pagan Germans celebrated Yule at around this time and the Romans themselves had Saturnalia.
Saturnalia, by Constantine’s time, ran from 17th to 23rd December. It was a festival of the Roman God Saturn. It was typically celebrated with banquets, private gift giving and general drunkenness. Sound familiar?
Constantine’s new Christian regime was no doubt keen to ween people off their pagan beliefs and festivals. So perhaps that might explain why 25th December was picked as the official day to hold a mass to mark the birth of Christ. Or perhaps it just seemed like an obvious time of year to have a festival.
Whatever their thinking, the Romans picked 25th December as the official date for Christmas Day from 336 AD onwards.
So, how does a jolly North Pole dweller with a penchant for chimney potholing and distributing gifts to children find himself in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth?
Well, obviously, he didn’t. But don’t worry – Santa is real!
Or, at least, Saint Nicholas was real. Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey (not the North Pole) in 270 AD. He is officially the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students. That’s a lot to look after if you are also expected to dish out presents to every child on earth in just one night every year.
Saint Nick famously inherited a large amount of cash from his parents when they died. However, being a devout Christian, he took all the teachings about the potential evils of wealth very seriously and decided the best thing to do was to give the money away to the poor and needy. But he didn’t want to be tempted with pride by taking the credit for his charitable acts, so he distributed the cash at night, hooded and cloaked.
Never went near the north pole. Probably never saw a reindeer. Elves? Right out.
How Saint Nick became ‘Santa’
Anyway, in 1087 AD (we think) the Spanish brought the celebration of Saint Nick’s saint’s day to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, they called him Sinterklaas – from which we get “Santa Claus”. It was the Dutch who seem to have taken the gift giving aspect of Saint Nick’s story one step further and added tales about him riding across the rooftops (on a grey horse rather than in a sleigh) dishing out presents to kids.
Originally his saint’s day was set on 6th December – close enough to Christmas for him to eventually become a part of the main event.
Meanwhile over the channel, in England, the English invented a character they came to call “Father Christmas”. The earliest record of this was a carol written by the Reverend Richard Smart; most likely published sometime during the 1460s or perhaps the early 1470s.
In this carol the Rev. Smart mentioned a character called ‘Sir Christmas’ who announces Christ’s birth and encourages those who heard the good news to ‘make good cheer and be right merry’. The good Reverend Smart was certainly an optimist since the War of the Roses was raging all around him when he wrote it!
By the time of Henry VIII, the character of Father Christmas was well established in England. By that stage he was usually depicted as a large man dressed in robes of green or scarlet.
At some time – no one really knows exactly when – the image of Father Christmas and Sinterklaas blended together in an English-Dutch fusion to create the Santa Claus we know and love today.
Santa gets his sleigh
When Europeans began to settle the Americas in significant numbers, they brought their various Christmas stories and traditions with them. And so it was that Santa first acquired his sleigh and his reindeer not in the North Pole, but in New York!
In early 19th century New York, the image of Santa riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer first appeared. The grey horse had obviously been traded in for the sleigh and reindeer but, aside from this, New York’s Santa was the same Santa inherited from England and the Netherlands.
An academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore was the specific New Yorker most directly responsible for popularising the new look Santa. He wrote a poem about Santa and his sleigh in 1823, even going so far as to give all the reindeer their names.
It all had little to do with 3rd century Turkey, but it soon became very popular – so popular that Moore’s image of Santa with his reindeer and his sleigh stuck.
And where do you find reindeer? Well obviously, in places like Lapland of course! And so it was that Santa found a home in the North Pole – all thanks to a New York Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature.
Evergreen firs are most common in northern climes, so not necessarily an obvious choice of tree for a Bethlehem scene. So, how did Christmas trees get in on the act?
In more pagan times evergreen trees were viewed as a symbol of life in mid-winter. They appeared to thrive at a time when other plants died. However, they weren’t necessarily associated with any festival. This came much later.
There is one story that says the tradition of decorating trees for Christmas started with Martin Luther – the 16th century founder of Protestantism. The tale goes that he was walking home one night and was awestruck by the sight of stars shining through the trees above. He apparently decided to re-create the effect at home for his family by decorating fir trees with candles.
Whether this is true or not, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree began around this time in Germany. However, they were not universally accepted as part of the Christmas tradition by any means. In the 17th century, many puritans in both America and England disapproved – denouncing them as a “heathen” practice. But 200 years later, when Queen Victoria (another German) allowed herself and her family to be sketched enjoying a family Christmas around one, they became firmly established as part of Christmas tradition.
The very earliest Christmas puddings appeared in 14th century England. Originally, they were a kind of porridge called “frumenty” – a savoury dish made from meat mixed with wines and fruits. It was eaten during the preparations for Christmas but not as part of the day itself.
By the 16th century, tastes changed and it became more of a sweet pudding than a savoury dish. Dried fruit had become more readily available and were increasingly used as a standard ingredient.
It wasn’t served as a standard dessert for Christmas Day until around 1650. By this time, it was called “plum pudding” and much more like the recipes we use today. The puritans of course tried to ban it on the grounds that it was “sinfully rich” in flavour. They were probably right, but that doesn’t stop us from eating it these days!
Turkeys were first brought to England in the early 16th century via Spanish merchants returning from South America.
There was an advantage in eating turkeys in the winter rather than killing a cow or a chicken. A cow could provide milk through the cold months if kept alive and a chicken could provide far more eggs than a turkey. This meant that turkeys presented a very attractive alternative for a hearty mid-winter meal.
Henry VIII was the first person to specifically include turkey in a Christmas feast. Before then such feasts had typically included geese, boars’ heads and even peacocks!
So, this is Christmas
As it turns out, the Christmas we know today is a truly international creation – blending traditions and stories from a diverse mix of different countries and peoples.
Romans, Dutch, Germans, English, Turks, Americans, and Spanish have all contributed their own traditions to the Christmas story. Everyone from American academics to Turkish Saints and English Kings have all played their part.
Christmas really is for everyone!
So, raise a glass this festive season and take the advice of the good Rev. Smart to ‘make good cheer and be right merry’.
Merry Christmas everyone!
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