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The word ‘Christmas’ comes from the old English Cristes masse, meaning ‘the festival mass of Christ’.
Christmas as people know it today is an incredible mixture of customs and traditions from many different times and places. Some come from the Romans and others from different parts of Europe. Some come from pre-Christian times, some from the time when Europe was gradually being converted to Christianity, while others have been added during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There are at least six different stages by which the festival has developed.
The mid-winter festival in Rome began with the Saturnalia during 17-24 December, which was named after Saturn, the god of everything that grows. It was celebrated with a week’s holiday, when schools and courts were closed, houses were decorated with evergreens, lamps, torches and candles were lit, and presents were exchanged. There was plenty of eating and drinking; there were games, charades and singing, and differences between masters and slaves were forgotten, with masters often waiting on their slaves at table.
The next significant development came in AD 272 when the emperor Aurelian made 25 December, the day following the end of the Saturnalia, a special festival in honour of the sun god, making it a public holiday and giving it the name dies natalis invicti solis, ‘the Day (or Birthday) of the Unconquered Sun’. The worship of the sun had been popular in Rome for a long time, and as part of the feast people used to light bonfires to help the sun on its way. By creating a feast on 25 December, the emperor was no doubt trying to encourage these ideas and practices, and may have been trying to promote the old religion of sun worship as an alternative to Christianity, which was becoming more popular.
All over northern Europe, and especially in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, people celebrated a Yule feast in the middle of winter around the period of the winter solstice. The word ‘Yule’ comes either from the old German ‘jol’ meaning ‘turning wheel’, and thus referring to the increase of sunlight after the mid-winter solstice, or the from the Anglo-Saxon ‘goel’, meaning ‘feast.’
The feast took different forms in different countries, but everywhere it seemed to meet two basic needs: the need to enjoy festivities and cheer everyone up in the middle of winter, when the weather was at its worst and the working day at its shortest; and the need to ensure that everything would grow again in the spring. Christmas which have their origin in this pre-Christian period include decorating homes with holly, ivy and mistletoe, burning the yule log, and lighting candles and feasting.
Some time during the second century a group of Christians in Alexandria in Egypt, who were followers of a heretical Christian teacher called Basilides, began to celebrate the baptism of Jesus on 6 January, and called it the ‘Epiphany’, from the Greek word for ‘appearing’. They may have chosen this day because it was already used for different pagan festivals such as the feast of Dionysus, which was associated with the idea of the lengthening of the day at this time of year, the feast of the goddess Aeon (Time), and a feast of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. It was also believed that during the night before 6 January the water of the Nile has special magical powers. By choosing this day, these Christians wanted to express their belief that the one true God had appeared on earth in the person of Jesus, and that his baptism in the River Jordan was the beginning of his ‘appearing’.
It seems likely that other Christians took over the festival of 6 January from the, and by about AD 300 many Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus during the night of 5 January and his baptism on 6 January. Part of an Egyptian papyrus has survived which includes the liturgy used for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and there is other evidence which shows that by 300 the Epiphany had become an important and popular feast throughout the East.
We know from several writers from the third century onwards (including Hippolytus and Augustine) that arguments like these were being put forward in an attempt to decide on the dates of the birth and death of Jesus:
‘The spring equinox is 25 March, and it must also have been the first day of creation.’
‘The first Good Friday, the day when Jesus died, was on 25 March, the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan.’
‘Jesus must have been conceived on the same date as his death.’
‘If 25 March was the date of the conception of Jesus, he must have been born on 25 December. He was therefore conceived at the time of the spring equinox and born on the winter solstice.’
Although this kind of speculation seems unconvincing to people today, it’s very possible that it was convincing to many in the third century, when this style of argumentation was widely accepted.
Many have argued that Christians deliberately chose 25 December as the date for celebrating the birth of Jesus because they wanted to displace the pagan celebration of the birthday of the sun on this day. What better day could there be for celebrating the birth of Jesus than the day on which the people of Rome had for fifty years been celebrating the birth of the sun—25 December?
Others have suggested that it wasn’t quite as simple as this, and that the association of 25 December with a thoroughly pagan feast could have created many problems for new Christians. Wouldn’t they be confused between the ideas of worshipping the sun and worshipping Christ? It has therefore been suggested that Christians must have been influenced by the other arguments which pointed to 25 December.
It could be, however, that both ideas came together and suggested the same day. Whichever reason seems more appealing, it remains clear that the choice of the date must have been related in one way or another to the cycles of the sun.
It can’t merely be coincidence that these developments took place during the time that the emperor Constantine was trying to establish Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. When in 312 he adopted the Christian faith, he didn’t immediately reject all his old pagan beliefs and practices. In fact he seems to have wanted to combine the worship of the sun with the worship of Christ. He probably believed that Christianity would be a better religion for uniting the empire than the old religions with their many gods and goddesses.
He called the Council of Nicaea in 325, and on that occasion bishops representing most of the churches in the Mediterranean area confirmed the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. They also rejected as heretical other beliefs which cast doubt either on his divinity (for instance, by suggesting that he was a created being from heaven), or on his humanity (by saying that he only appeared to be human). It’s very probably, therefore, that soon after the Council of Nicaea the leaders of the church thought that one way of affirming the church’s belief in the divinity of Christ and in his true incarnation ‘in the flesh’ would be to have an annual festival commemorating his birth.
Already in 321 the emperor Constantine had made the first day of the week—traditionally regarded as dedicated to the sun god and kept by Christians as ‘the Lord’s Day’—the official weekly day of rest for the whole Roman Empire. So, since the resurrection of Jesus was already being celebrated on the weekly day of the sun, it must have seemed natural to link the birth of Jesus with the annual festival of the birth of the sun on 25 December.
There is therefore no need to think of the new Western Christmas on 25 December simply as a deliberate attempt to stamp out a pagan festival. By this time the old pagan religions had probably already lost much of their attraction, and many people were coming to appreciate the universal appeal of the Christian faith. They thought of Christ as the fulfillment of the prophet Malachi’s words that ‘the sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings’ (Malachi 4:2). And they spoke of him as ‘the light of the world’ (John 8:12) and ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32). It was very natural, therefore, that Bishop Ambrose of Milan in one of his sermons in about 380 could point out the contrast between Christmas and the old pagan festival by saying, ‘Christ is our new sun!’
Other written records confirm that by 336 Pope Julian had fixed 25 December as Christmas Day for the Western church. This date soon came to be accepted by Christians in many different countries in the West and the East—except the Armenians and the Coptic Orthodox Christian in Egypt, who still celebrate Christmas on 6 January.
During the time of Pope Gregory the Great (AD 540-604), the period of Advent was developed as a time of preparation for Christmas. The idea probably came from the six-week period of preparation for Easter, known as Lent. Like Lent, it also became a period for preparing those who wanted to be baptized.
In the early sixth century Christmas was made a public holiday by the emperor Justinian.
When Christians took their faith to the northern parts of Europe, they found the Yule festival which the Norsemen and others celebrated at the winter solstice. They must therefore have absorbed many of the customs associated with the winter festival.
The Christmas festival developed its own set of traditions (discussed later in this section). In the seventeenth century, the Puritans of England did their best to discourage its observance, because they disapproved of the many traditions and superstitions that surrounded it. In 1652 Christmas was actually abolished by act of Parliament! But when Parliament met on Christmas Day, public reaction was so strong that there were riots in several cities. One Puritan writer, Hezekiah Woodward, wrote a tract in 1656 which he described Christmas in these terms:
‘The old Heathens’ Feasting Day, in honour of Saturn, their Idol-God, the Papists’ Massing Day, the Profane Man’s Ranting Day, the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day, the Multitude’s Idle Day, Satan’s—that Adversary’s—Working Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…’
The spirit of the Puritans was kept alive in America, where, for example, in 1659 the General Court in Massachusetts passed this law:
‘Anybody who is found observing, by abstinence form labour, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas Day, shall for every such offence five shillings.’
Christmas Day remained an ordinary working day in America until the middle of the nineteenth century, and in Scotland it wasn’t until the early 1950s that it became a public holiday.
Nevertheless, after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 the celebration of Christmas was revived in England. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many more traditions became part of the festival.
The list of customs and traditions that are current today is a very long one.
Advent. The period of four weeks leading up to Christmas marks the beginning of the Christian year. The first Sunday in Advent falls on the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day (30 November), and is known as ‘Stir Up Sunday’ because of the words of the special prayer or Collect for that day which begins, ‘Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of Thy faithful people…’ This is traditionally the day for mixing the ingredients of Christmas cakes and puddings, and for all the family to make a special wish as they take their turn in stirring the mixture.
The Advent wreath originated in America. This circular wreath, made out of evergreens, carries four candles, with a fifth in the centre. One is lit on each of the four Sundays of Advent, and the fifth on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Bells. It is traditional to ring church bells on Christmas Day to greet the birth of Jesus, and at midnight before New Year’s Day to ring out the old year and ring in the new.
Boxing Day. This name was first given to 26 December in England in 1840. One explanation is that it was the day when the poor boxes or alms boxes were opened in church and the money in them was given to the poor. Another explanation is that it was on this day that servants received their ‘Christmas Box’, a special gift for Christmas. For many years until recently the various tradespeople who made deliveries throughout the year would call to receive a tip for their services.
Candles. People originally lit candles during the mid-winter festival to represent the light and heat of the sun. Later they were given a Christian meaning, and were regarded as symbolic of Jesus, the Light of the World.
Carols. These originated in the Middle Ages as singing dances with a strong rhythm and refrain. They came to be popular songs sung at church festivals, especially at Easter and Christmas, but were not confirmed to religious subjects.
Christingle. This custom started in the Moravian Church in Germany. On Christmas Eve 1747 the bishop gave each child a candle with a red ribbon as a reminder of Jesus, the light of the world. The custom spread and changed in the process. A candle is inserted into the top of an orange; cocktail sticks with nuts and raisins are stuck all round, and a red ribbon is tied round the middle.
The orange represents the world, and the candle represents Jesus as the Light of the World. The nuts and raisins represent the fruit of the earth, and the red ribbon represents the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. Children are encouraged to bring their orange to a special service in church before Christmas, and all the candles are lit together.
Christmas cards. These date back to the time when the Penny Post was started in England in 1840. Cards were first produced in larger numbers in 1860, and they soon took the place of the traditional New Year cards. They became even more popular when, from 1870 onwards, cards could be sent in an unsealed envelope for a halfpenny. Soon after this the custom spread to other countries.
Crackers. The tradition of having crackers comes from France, where a bag of sweets used to be wrapped in paper and then pulled apart by two children. They were first produced commercially in England in 1860, with a cracker to make the noise when they were pulled apart.
Crib. As far back as the eighth century there had been a permanent crib in the Church of St Maria Maggiore in Rome, where the pope would celebrate Mass at Christmas, using the manger as an altar. From the eleventh century a nativity dram was performed in many churches. But it was St Francis and his followers who made the idea of the crib so popular. He set it up in a cave on a hillside outside the town of Grecchio in Italy on 24 December 1224, using an ordinary manger filled with hay, and real people and animals.
Epiphany. The feast of Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January. It commemorates the revealing of Christ to the world, the word ‘Epiphany’ meaning ‘appearing’ or ‘revealing’. It focuses in particular on the story of the visit of the Wise Men.
Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The traditions associated with this character provide an excellent example of how these develop over a long period of time, gathering new elements and sometimes being changed radically as they travel from one country to another. These are the main stages in that development:
When, after his death, the secret of his generosity was revealed, it became a custom to give presents secretly on St Nicholas’ Day (6 December), pretending that they had been given by St Nicholas himself. He later became the patron saint of all children, and especially of orphans. He was also considered the patron saint of pawnbrokers: the three golden balls of their trade sign are a reminder of his three bags of gold. Merchants and sailors also came under his patronage.
Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The first service of this kind was held in Truro in 1880 by Bishop Benson. When he later became Archbishop of Canterbury, the tradition was adopted at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge where the first such festival was held on Christmas Eve in 1981.
Gifts. The custom of giving gifts at Christmas goes back to the Roman custom of exchanging gifts during the Saturnalia feast, when the rich used to give money and clothes to their poor neighbors, and receive in return garlands, tapers or some grains of incense. Alternatively, it may go back to the exchange of gifts within the family on 1 January, New Year’s Day, when gifts were intended to bring good luck and prosperity. In some countries, such as France, gifts are still exchanged on New Year’s Day.
During the early years of Christianity in the Roman Empire the Christians probably did not exchange gifts at New Year, because the practice was associated with a pagan feast.
In many parts of Europe St Nicholas is thought of as the one who brings gifts when he visits, either on 5 December or Christmas Eve.
Holly and ivy. Evergreens of all kinds, and especially holly and ivy, used to be regarded throughout Europe in pre-Christian days as symbols of survival and perpetual life. They were used to decorate sacred buildings and homes during the mid-winter festival. The prickly holy was seen as a symbol of the male principle (and therefore lucky to men), and engaged in a constant battle with the female principle, which was represented by the ivy, eventually overpowering it.
The church at first discouraged these customs, because they were seen as essentially pagan. Tertullian, for example, wrote to Christians, ‘If you have renounced temples, do not turn the door of your house into a temple!’ Eventually, however, Christians overcame their misgivings and began to use evergreens to decorate their houses and their churches.
Midnight Mass. The custom of celebrating Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve began in Rome in the fifth century, probably on the model of the celebration of Easter beginning on the evening of Easter Eve and continuing through the night. It was celebrated in Rome in the Church of St Maria Maggiore in a shrine which was designed as a replica of the crib at Bethlehem.
Mistletoe. This plant was thought to have magic power to ward off evil. It was therefore popular with the Druids, especially if it grew on an oak tree, and branches were hung over doorways to keep out evil spirits. In Scandinavia mistletoe was for a long time regarded as a protection against fire and lightning, and as containing power to heal and ensure fertility. The practice of kissing anyone caught under the mistletoe no doubt goes back to this custom and to ancient fertility rites. Unlike other evergreens, mistletoe has not generally been used for decorations in church, because of its associations with pagan rites. In many churches it is completely banned.
There is an old Norse myth which tries to explain the popularity of mistletoe. The story is that Balder, the sun god, was killed by a sharp arrow made from a branch of mistletoe and shot by Loki, the god of evil. The other gods, however, brought Balder to life again, and the mistletoe tree promised never to harm anyone again. This is said to explain how mistletoe became a symbol of love.
Stockings. The custom of putting out stockings on Christmas Eve is connected with a story told about St Nicholas. Once when he was out at midnight he threw some gold coins down a chimney, and they landed in a stocking which was drying on the hearth.
Tree. The fir tree was called the ‘Tree of the Christ-Child’ by Boniface, an English missionary working in Germany in the eighth century. The story is told that once on Christmas Eve he came across a child who was about to be sacrificed beneath an oak tree to the god Odin. He rescued the child and ordered the oak tree to be cut down. When this was done, he found a small fir tree growing beside the stump of the oak tree, and from that time called the fir tree the ‘Tree of the Christ-Child’. The fir tree thus became a symbol of the Christian faith taking the place of the old pagan religion represented by the oak tree.
According to tradition it was Martin Luther in Germany in the sixteenth century who popularized the custom of decorating the tree with real candles. It is said that when he was walking in the woods one night and saw the winter stars twinkling through the branches, he had the idea of putting a fir tree in his house and putting candles on it to give his children the idea of the starry sky.
From there it was taken to America by Hessian soldiers fighting in the English army of George III during the American War of Independence. It was first brought to England by Germans in the 1820s, and quickly became popular after Prince Albert from Germany married Queen Victoria in 1840 and introduced the tree to the royal family at Windsor Castle in 1841. Charles Dickens in 1850 called it ‘the new German toy’. But by 1870 trees were being put up all over the country. As they became popular they took the place of the older Kissing-Bough, a garland of evergreens decorated with candles, coloured paper and mistletoe, which hung from the middle of the ceiling in the main living room and provided a focus for the Christmas celebrations.
Other ornaments on the tree, such as glass balls, were introduced to take the place of apples, which used to be painted and hung on evergreens in houses in honour of the god Woden.
Mounted at the top of the tree there is often a doll. Originally a doll representing the baby Jesus or the angel Gabriel was chosen, but a frequent choice today is a fairy, a princess, or a star.
Tinsel on the Christmas tree is explained by a legend about a poor woman and her tree. When spiders spun webs on the tree one night, the Christ-Child turned the spiders’ webs into silver as a reward.
Wreath. The custom of hanging wreaths of evergreen on doors and inside windows comes from the United States.
Yule log. The lighting of the yule log used to be one of the most important items in the Christmas festivities. A large log was cut from an oak, ash or apple tree, and brought ceremonially into the house at dusk on Christmas Eve. When one end of it was placed on the fire, a glass of wine was poured over it, and the fire was then lit using the remains of the previous year’s log. The fire would burn for at least twelve hours, and in some cases for the whole of the twelve days of Christmas. The purpose of the log was to bring prosperity to all in the house and ensure that the sun would return and the days grow longer. Sometimes ashes from the log were used as charms for healing or protection against harm.