Christmas Day is a globally celebrated religious holiday and over two billion people which represents over a third of the world's population, will celebrate the birth of Christ. It is uncertain however how many of these people know or appreciate the origins of christmas day and its associated traditions.
History of Christmas Day
Christmas Day celebrates the Nativity of Jesus, the date of which according to tradition took place on 25 December 1 BC. The 25th December will be a public holiday in most countries around the world. If 25th December falls on a weekend, then a nearby week day may be taken as a holiday in lieu. Not all countries celebrate Christmas on 25th December, and it is not a public holiday in many countries.
Whilst the holiday has a strong grounding in the story of the birth of Jesus, many of the traditions we associate with Christmas have evolved from pre-christian beliefs and certainly the traditions have evolved beyond purely a Christian holiday to have a wider secular significance.
The celebration of Christmas in late December is certainly as a result of pre-existing celebrations happening at that time, marking the Winter Solstice.
Most notable of these isYule (meaning 'Feast'), a winter pagan festival that was originally celebrated by Germanic people. The exact date of Yule depends on the lunar cycle but it falls from late December to early January. In some Northern Europe countries, the local word for Christmas has a closer linguistic tie to 'Yule' than 'Christmas', and it is still a term that may be used for Christmas in some English-speaking countries. Several Yule traditions are familiar to the modern celebration of Christmas, such as Yule Log, the custom of burning a large wooden log on the fire at Christmas; or indeed carol singing, which is surprisingly a very ancient tradition.
Under the Julian calendar, the winter solstice was fixed on December 25, and this date was also the day of the popular roman holiday of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture; which was later superseded by Sol Invictus, a day that bundled up the celebration of several sun based gods into one easy to manage festival.
As Christianity began to take a hold across the Roman empire and beyond, the date of when to celebrate the birth of Christ became a bit of an issue, with several different dates proposed.
It was not until 350 AD, when the then Bishop of Rome, Pope Julius I, fixed the official Christmas day on December 25. Unfortunately Julius I didn't show his working out on how he reached this date; some scholars later suggested that it was calculated as nine months after the Annunciation (March 25), when the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary and told her she would bear the son of God. Whatever the reasoning, it is clear that, just as key pagan sites were being chosen for new churches, so too the date was chosen with the intention to catapult Christmas into becoming a major festival by placing it over the pre-existing pagan festivals.
Kissing someone who happens to being stood under a sprig of mistletoe is seen as a tradition popularised in Victorian Britain. However even this relatively modern tradition has much more ancient echoes in that Mistletoe bears its fruit around the time of the Winter Solstice, and its supposed mythical ability to heal and increase fertility.
In Norse mythology, an arrow made from mistletoe killed Balder, who was a brother of Thor. Frigga, Balder's mother brought him back to life shedding tears that changed the red berries on mistletoe to white. Frigga then blessed the mistletoe and promised a kiss to anyone who passed beneath it.
A hint of Mistletoe' s integration from pagan ceremonies into Christmas tradition is said that the mistletoe plant used to be a tree, and its wood was used to make the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. After the Crucifixion, the plant shrivelled to became the parasitic vine we know today.
Christmas crackers were invented by a London confectioner, Tom Smith. In 1844 he imported the French bon-bon into Britain, and sales of the new product turned out to be best at Christmas. Around 1846 or 1847, hearing a log pop on the fire, he hit on the idea of marketing the 'sweet at that time in a paper wrapping with two handles which detonated a firecracker.' These proved so successful that later the sweet was replaced by a small gift. Tom Smith's company has been the leading manufacturer of crackers in the UK ever since. By the 1870's manufacturers had added paper hats. A cracker is now usually constructed of a small cardboard tube containing the paper hat, small gift and joke, wrapped in brightly decorated paper which is twisted at either end. The ends are open and the cracker is pulled by two people, breaking a card strip, impregnated with chemicals which runs from end to end, this produces a 'pop'. Crackers are usually bought in boxes of around 10 or 12. The blue plastic cup, tiny blue plastic ball and a short length of white string for making a cup and ball game. The gift was probably obtained from a Christmas cracker by Giles Gaudard Barber who donated the item to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Also in the museum is a fortune-telling fish, also obtained from a cracker, and donated by Lorraine Rostant a conservator then working in the Museum. The fish is made from a very thin piece of plastic. It is placed on the hand, and its movement is supposed to indicate various states of mind, which can be interpreted from the instructions accompanying it, e.g if the head moves, the person is 'jealous'.
A particular emphasis in the winter festivities was not surprisingly always upon light. In 1725 a Newcastle clergyman commented that many people in the north of England lit huge 'Christmas candles' on Christmas Eve. It seems to have been a matter for each family or local area when the candles were actually lit, some doing so on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas Day; some families had standard-sized candles and others many candles, some of them painted. The aim was to fill the family home with light. The Christmas candles that many people still light today, either to decorate their living-rooms or as a feature of the Christmas meal table in their dining-room reflect this tradition. Today christmas cakes are often decorated with figures of Father Christmas, snowmen and small candles. The Pitt Rivers Museum collections include a box of twelve candles. These are coloured orange, yellow, grey and green and are arranged in a Christmas box. They were used to decorate a Christmas cake. These candles were bequeathed by Frederick William Robins, who was greatly interested in lighting and had a large collection of such artefacts he bequeathed to the museum. These candles came from Boscombe, Hampshire. The candles are approximately 10 cm high.
Gift-giving, before the 1800's, had traditionally been associated with New Year rather than Christmas Day but during that century, the date gradually changed to Christmas Day, where it has remained. Dislike of the perceived commercial nature of Christmas started early, 'George Bernard Shaw started an enduring myth in 1897 by declaring that 'Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press'.
The Pitt Rivers Museum also have other Christmas gifts in their collection, namely two packets of cigarettes issued by Her Royal Highness the Princess Mary's Christmas Fund, 1914. When the first world war started, public opinion was firmly on the side of the armed forces, risking their lives for their country. People who remained in Britain wished to show their support. Thousands of appeals were launched during the First World War but the most memorable was the Princess Mary Christmas Fund. It was launched on 14 October 1914 by Princess Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary (known as Mary), the daughter of King George. She had originally intended to pay (from her personal allowance) for a gift for every soldier and sailor. This was not practical and she was asked to give her name to a public appeal which would provide a gift for every man serving under Admiral St John Jellicoe and Field Marshall Sir John French, around half a million men would benefit. It was decided that the money should be spent on an embossed brass box, based on a design by Messrs Adshead and Ramsey. The cost of each box was 6 1/4 d [pennies] per box. The Appeal proved a great success. The total sum eventually subscribed was £162,591 12s 5d. In the end nearly two million presents were distributed. Because of the distribution problems with such a large number of parcels many people received their gift in the New Year (and were given a New Year card from the King and Queen).
The contents varied considerably; officers and men on active service in the Navy or Army received a box containing a pipe, tinder lighter, one ounce of tobacco, twenty cigarettes in distinctive yellow monogrammed wrappers and a Christmas card. Non-smokers and boys received a brass box, a packet of acid tablets [sic], a khaki writing case containing a pencil, paper and envelopes. [I think most people would consider that a less exciting parcel!] Special provision was made for the foreign troops serving, to take account of their perceived cultural preferences. Nurses received the box, a packet of chocolate and a greetings card. Because some of the contents were difficult to provide at such short notice some other gifts were substituted.
The 'tin' itself was approximately 5" long by 3¼" wide by 1¼" deep with a double-skinned, hinged, lid. The surface of the lid depicts the head of Princess Mary in the centre, surrounded by a laurel wreath and flanked on either side by the 'M' monogram. At the top, a decorative cartouche contains the words 'Imperium Britannicum' with a sword and scabbard either side. On the lower edge, another cartouche contains the words 'Christmas 1914', which is flanked by the bows of battleships forging through a heavy sea. In the corners, small roundels house the names of the Allies: Belgium, Japan, Montenegro and Serbia [sic]; France and Russia are at the edges.'
The Fund was eventually wound up in 1919 and the remaining funds transferred to the Queen Mary's Maternity Home, founded by the Queen for the benefit of wives and infants of the men who had served.
As mentioned earlier, the tradition of singing of songs can be traced back to the pagan festivals before the advent of Christmas. Indeed, the word carol is derived from the Greek word choraulein, which meant "an ancient circle dance performed to flute music."
As carols were already an established custom, early Christians made the shrewd decision to integrate Christian songs into the tradition rather than ban the singing. Most new Christian Carols were written in Latin, which was by the middle ages, a language only used by the church, thus reducing the popularity of the custom. However, carols received an injection of popularity when St. Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays in Italy in 1223, which included songs written in the local people's language.
The tradition of 'Modern' Carol singing flourished in Britain. Known as Wassailing, it was a chance for peasants to get some much needed charity from their feudal lords. This singing for money developed in a custom involving traveling musicians who would visit wealthy homes, singing in the hope of receiving money food or gifts in return.
There was a short interruption in 1647, when the puritans come to power after the English Civil War. The puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, disapproved of the celebration of Christmas. There was even a fine of up to five shillings for anyone caught singing Christmas carols. When King Charles II came back to the throne in 1660, the public singing of Christmas carols was permitted again.