How the Christmas we know came to be

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

As more doors on the advent calendar begin to open, you could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas was a purely commercial endeavour. But the traditions we all know, both religious and cultural, have had a curious history of their own.

For centuries we have celebrated Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ but in truth there is no actual record of Christ’s date of birth.

Throughout Europe a mid-winter festival has been celebrated around the time of the winter solstice (the 21st) for millennia. It was Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor who set the 25th of December as the official date of ‘Christ-Mass’ in 336 AD. For many years the Pagan festival of Saturnalia was celebrated from the 17th of December, and whilst the official
religion of the Roman Empire had changed, coinciding the timing of the old festival with ‘Christ-Mass’ would serve to ease the transition.

During the wild celebrations of Saturnalia, roles would be reversed throughout Roman society. The town drunk would be picked as The Mayor, slaves would be freed throughout the holiday and the homeless taken off the streets put in charge of great manor houses and estates, the owners of the houses reduced to mere servants. Gifts were exchanged, and society’s most wealthy were expected to pay the rents of the poor during the month of December. The festival was eventually extended to last three weeks, having been described as “the best of times” by a chronicler of the day.

The Greek poet Lucian of Samosata wrote of Saturnalia in this poem: “During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”

Some believe that the term Ho Ho Ho, may have actually come from the “Ho Saturnalia” a phrase that was shouted out loud in the streets of Rome throughout the holiday. Unfortunately, the festival never made its way to our shores but some parts of Christmas were still recognisable in Britain, even so long ago.

Decorated trees in the home also has its roots in Pagan ritual, with the evergreen plants historically representing everlasting life. The practice was particularly popular in Scandinavia. The darkest days of winter would be illuminated with candles and decorations, offering relief in the depths of winter’s relentless cold and dark. Some traditions such as the Yule Log also have practical beginnings. In times gone by, a giant log would be dragged into the house on Christmas eve, and although lovingly decorated, it would be placed onto the fire, to provide heat for the twelve days of Christmas as it slowly burnt down, heating the home as the festivities commenced.

Elizabethan times saw the emergence of the Christmas Feast, with great displays of food in wealthy homes, laden with cured meats and exotic fruits. Extravagant displays of food soon became an opportunity to display one’s wealth and sophistication, with the ultimate Victorian status symbol of the day being the pineapple. Exotic and rare, it was often used merely for display purposes. Such was the rarity of the fruit that pineapples were available for hire from lenders across London – not for eating, just to plonk on the table for decoration as you show off to your dinner guests.

Since around the fourth century AD the legend of Saint Nicholas, a wealthy priest from modern day Turkey, was profoundly popular. His status was divine; throughout Christendom many would pray to him for good fortune with paintings often depicting the figure wearing a red and white gown. Soon after the reformation of Christianity talk of St Nicholas began to fade.

But, for children, the character of a gift bearing figure who arrived at Christmas was firmly instilled in their minds, the stage was set for Father Christmas. From France, a figure by the name of ‘Pere Noel’ soon emerged. Other European countries envisaged a character by the name of ‘ChristKind’ – the early USA would adapt this to Kris Kringle’ and Britain would settle on the aptly named ‘Father Christmas’.

As with so many of the stories we hold dear, Christmas tales and traditions have deep historical roots. They borrow themes from mythology and religion and often stem from true events and characters. After all, Christmas, like all good stories, is worthy of at least some embellishment.

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