All about Xmas

While the big shops put up enormous wreaths and the little shops spray on the Santa Snow window stencils, churches iron out the creases on the Put Christ Back Into Christmas posters for the glass cases on the street front. Their struggle is not new. The Church, or at least Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth, tried to stamp out Christmas, all feast days and anything fun more than three centuries ago. A tract author with the central casting-puritan name of Hezekiah Woodward wrote, in 1656:

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 Multitudes’ Idle Day, Satan’s - that Adversary’s - Working Day, the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day...
Picture that on the notice board outside St Chad’s.

The fact is, old Hezekiah Woodward, in part, made a pretty fair point. Christmas was, indeed, in its origins a heathen day of feasting for Saturn. And Baal. And Mithras.

Christmas, ironically, antedates the Nativity of Christ, and December 25 is a fudge. In the third century AD the Church fathers chose that day as Christ’s birthday, with good reason. It happens to fall approximately on the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice, and December 25 (Midwinter’s Day) has been from time immemorial a day sacred to the rebirth of the light of the sun in the depths of winter.

This day was the Festival of Natalis Sol Invictus (the Birth of the Undefeated Sun) in ancient Rome. Ancient peoples also commemorated the Babylonian Queen of Heaven, Osiris in Egypt, Dionysus, Helios, Adonis, the Celtic Cernunnos, the Syrian Baal, Attis, Mithras, Balder and the Norse goddess Frey - all celebrated on the ancient Winter Solstice, and mostly solar saviours and dying gods. Most of these deities were given similar titles: the Light of the World, Sun of Righteousness, and Saviour.

Origins of customs

The Roman Empire gave the world the tradition of gift-giving in late December, with its citizens giving clay dolls (sigillaria) at the festival of the Saturnalia. Like modern revellers, too, they ate their fill of fruits, nuts, breads, pies and star-shaped cakes. They gave us decorations as well, decorating their temples with greenery for the festive Saturnalia celebrations at this time of year. Later, the Saxons at Winter Solstice time decorated their homes with two of the scarce bits of natural colour in the winter snowscape, the red-berried holly and the evergreen ivy.

Meanwhile, the Celtic Druids gathered mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on trees. On the sixth day of the new moon a fasting, white-clad Druidic priest cut the holy parasite from an oak tree with a sacred golden sickle held in his left hand. A virgin had to catch the falling plant, for it was not allowed to touch the ground. Mistletoe was believed by these ancient Britons, and other Europeans, to promote fertility and ward off evil. Today, of course, the fertility connections are clearly seen when a kiss is snatched under the mistletoe; the modern quest is to find a virgin to catch it should it fall.

Unable to stamp out the widespread pagan 'Yule' (Midwinter) customs, early Church leaders pragmatically put a Christian spin on them. Throughout Europe, the celebration of Christ’s birth grew in stature and became, with Easter, one of the two great festivals of the calendar. Gradually, traditions grew up, growing and changing over the centuries, even until today, layer upon layer like sedimentary levels in an archaeological dig.

Yule drool

For example, for about 300 years in Britain it was customary to eat a goose at Christmas, though eventually the turkey took that honour -Henry VIII is the first person on record to have had a turkey Christmas dinner. Today the steaming turkey in Australia is still a hot property, but because of our climate, Australians are increasingly turning to mixed cold meats as well as fish and vegetarian main courses for Christmas luncheon. The plum pudding (introduced to England in the seventeenth century by George I, it is said), still appears on Australian tables as a matter of course, though few families still have silver pre-decimal coins to bake in them.

In early Christian Rome, sweetmeats were presented to the fathers at the Vatican on Christmas Eve; no doubt from that custom we derive such seasonal standards as plum puddings and mince pies. (The latter were once called shrid pies and were coffin shaped, to represent the manger of Jesus.) In olden days the hackin, a large sausage, had to be baked by dawn on Christmas day, or else two young men would frogmarch the cook around the marketplace to shame her for her idleness.

Today’s yule log in Australia is generally a pastry or ice cream concoction, or else a chintzy plastic thing with a little Santa sleighing along the top on the end of a cord, to the tinny tune of O Little Town of Bethlehem. The original, ancient, Celtic version was a large log brought indoors symbolising the purifying radiance of the sun god and bringing his blessing into the home. Centuries later, in medieval times, the custom was still to light this year’s log with a piece of last year’s. In Cornwall they chalked a man on the log, perhaps a forgotten reference to the human sacrifices that took place on the old bonfires (bone-fires) of the Solstice. The yule candle had a similar role to the log, and we see it everywhere today on Christmas cards and decorations.

Deck the halls and other culture

The old Saturnalian greening of the temple soon led to church decorations at Christmas (in old church calendars, Christmas eve is marked "Templa exornantur": churches are decked) and eventually the Christmas wreath and tree emerged. The latter had an interesting path down the centuries to modern homes. Tradition has it that St Boniface in the eighth century substituted a fir tree for the pagan oak, as a symbol of the faith. While Church reformers often turned their zeal and malice towards “idolatrous” practices, Martin Luther fostered the ancient Christmas tree cult by using a candlelit tree as a representation of Christ’s home, the starlit heavens. Fir trees decorated with candles, apples, fruits and paper flowers were introduced by German immigrants into Britain, and popularised later in the nineteenth century by Prince Albert, the German-born consort of Queen Victoria.

Another Victorian addition to Christmas which is now an indispensable part of the cult, is the Christmas card. Englishman WCT Dobson is usually regarded as the blameworthy one for sending the first such greeting, and in 1846 Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum produced the first commercial Christmas cards. They initially flopped but by the end of the century the Postmaster was already urging the good folk of Britain to “Post Early for Christmas”.


Christmas carols also endure as integral parts of Yuletide. We hear them in shops and lifts, in commercials and on the radio. For a few weeks each year they are a ubiquitous feature of the Christmas landscape. The reason is simple: millions of people love them. Carols are touchstones of our lives, unchanging reminders of who we are and where we have been. The carol we hear today is the same as the one many Australians sang in childhood, twenty, forty, sixty, eighty years ago. And we can be reasonably sure they were sung centuries ago by those ancient folk whose blood still runs in the veins of many Australians. They, however, were fortunate in not having to hear them endlessly from a million PA systems.

English carols go back to early medieval times, but the first printed collection of carols in English was published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. Not all of the inhabitants of the British Isles enjoyed carols with equal fervour - until recently the custom was virtually unknown in Scotland where religious feasts were discouraged by the austere sixteenth century reformer John Knox. Throughout much of the Western world, however, carols are an ineradicable part of Christmas. Even Oliver Cromwell in his puritan fervour to ban Christmas and carols, did not succeed for long, though many carols were lost for centuries until rediscovered by Victorian antiquaries (The Holly and the Ivy and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are examples).

We keep adding to the ancient song list: Silent Night was first performed in Austria on Christmas Eve 1818; Jingle Bells was written by J F Pierpont in 1857 for his Sunday School class; Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer appeared in 1939; Irving Berlin gave us White Christmas in 1942 and John and Yoko’s Happy Christmas, War is Over, is now almost an old standard.

Unfortunately, like the excellent animated tableaux in department store windows that delighted children a generation ago, carol singing from door to door seems to have been lost to “progress”. If only Carols by Candlelight organisers could let their imaginations loose a little, and reintroduce the strolling group. In Igls, an Austrian village, about 250 children parade by lamplight every December 23 in a tradition loved by villagers and tourists alike.

Christmas means change. Today all over the planet the Christmas theme of redemption is often subordinated to commercial and secular themes, and the baby Jesus is lost behind the jolly fat man in red (it might only be an urban myth that a Japanese department store put a crucified Santa in the window).

Saint Nick

Santa Claus is derived from St Nicholas, fourth century Archbishop of Myra, one of Christendom’s most popular saints. Secretly at night he gave bags of gold to the three daughters of a poor man so they would not have to sell their bodies: this deed eventually gave pawnbrokers their “three gold balls” guild sign and “Santa Claus” the reputation as a gift-giver.

Pagan attributes from the Norse god Woden, who rides through the sky with reindeer and forty-two ghostly huntsmen, blended with the saint. He became one, as it were, with the old Yuletide Father Christmas during the Reformation, and was given a nudge along by Clement C. Moore’s famous 1822 poem A Visit from St Nicholas (“‘Twas the night before Christmas...”). Moore, however, had a gnome-like St Nick “dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot”. The Santa we know is a late-nineteenth century creation of Coca-Cola’s ad department.

Did Charles Dickens invent Christmas?

The modern Christmas owes as much to Charles Dickens as to Clement C. Moore, the Church and all the pagan tribes combined. The English author published A Christmas Carol in 1843, idealising and some will say sentimentalising the festival. He used the theme in other stories and had a huge impact on the English-speaking world’s conception of Christmas. Dickens is one reason that our Christmas symbols today are so very often those of nineteenth-century London.

From ancient Rome and Celtic Europe to Madison Avenue and the Chinese sweat shops that churn out our less expensive baubles, Christmas is an international affair that spreads like a mist, altering - and itself being changed by - all that it touches. It was ever thus. Perhaps mist is not the word. A spirit. Forever there have been changes to the “Christmas of old” that have riled the conservative side of we humans. Every innovation to Yule, from the Christ-child himself to the plastic Christmas tree, has brought disturbance and discomfort. This, surely, is how culture happens and how traditions, bless ‘em, are made. There are middle aged people now who look back as nostalgically upon plastic trees and the Christmassy smell of mangoes as their forefathers did upon sleigh rides, and as their forefathers did upon a jolly good human sacrifice. And there are those who will brook no talk at all of Christmas in 1995.

Happy New Year

Merry Christmas, of course, goes with Happy New Year like holly berry goes with jollymerry. Today, on January 1, New Year’s celebrations take place in the great majority of places in the world. Even places like Japan have dropped their lunar calendar and accepted the West’s, helping to make commemorations like New Year a part of world culture.

The Japanese like to see the New Year in with a good blast from Beethoven’s Ninth, while on Rio’s Copacabana Beach on New Year’s Eve, one might chance to see locals surging into the ocean bearing flowers and gifts for the goddess. The Danes love to make a racket, even more than most nationalities do, and they will be found smashing pottery and bashing on front doors.

All over the world, people love to make a noise on the last midnight of the year. Church bells ring out in England (fitted with muffles until midnight, then allowed their full voice), and in Thailand the temple bells peal at midnight as people call out Kwam Suk Pee Mai (Happy New Year!).

An old Icelandic custom has it that if the pantry window is left open on New Year’s Eve, the pantry drift (a frost which is fine-grained and sweet to the taste), will come in and, when gathered and saved in a pot marked with a cross, will bring prosperity to the home. Icelanders used to believe that elves moved house on this night, and could be coerced into giving treasure to those who intercepted them at crossroads.

The People of Nigeria allowed their Ndok ceremony, held biennially in December, to merge with Western New Year customs, as Ndok was a rite of renewal. Only the men engage in Ndok, which sees, as everywhere on New Year’s Eve, much noisy, rowdy behaviour and, as in Iceland, people meeting at crossroads which are believed to be places of assembly for spirits.

In Russia, Grandfather Frost (D’yed Moroz), who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus, and his assistant the Snow Maiden (Snegourka), will pay a New Year’s visit to children, bringing with them gifts. In Greece, however, children will have left out sweets, cakes and drink for St Basil, another Santa-like character, for it is his feast day. They’ll even put a log in the fireplace so he can step easily down the chimney. In Armenia on December 31, goodies are lowered down the chimney on a rope.

New Year’s revelling, however, has been most shaped by the otherwise generally sensible Scots, who really know how to kick up their heels to say “good riddance!” to the Old year and “welcome!” to the new. The singing of Auld Lang Syne, is, of course as Scotch as whisky, and was recorded from the oral tradition by the Scottish national poet, Robbie Burns. Now, all over the world, people mouth the words like football players pretending the national anthem before a game. Despite its difficult words, it is one of the world’s best known songs.

The Scots call this season the “daft days” or Hogmanay, a word which might derive from practically anything if you listen to the experts, such as the Greek for “holy month” and the French for “man is born”.

While some New Year’s customs go back to ancient Europe and even the Middle East - we know, for example, that 4,000 years ago the Babylonians made New Year’s resolutions - the Scots put their stamp on it, for they always thought it was a bigger deal than Christmas. They have yet to convince the rest of the world, however, to indulge in the Hogmanay sport of “first-footing”, in which it is thought to be good luck if the first person over one’s threshold in the New Year comes in the front door, is male, without eye trouble, not splay- or flat-footed, fair haired, carrying a lump of coal and a bottle of Scotch, and leaves by the back door. (In 1966, 19-year-old first-footer Alex Cleghorn was walking on Govan Rd, Glasgow with his two brothers, when suddenly he disappeared and was not seen again. Daft days indeed!) On the Greek island of Carpathos it is a white dog they have to rush inside at the stroke of midnight..

Australians, with their keen sense of culture and modernity, tend not to bother with the lumps of coal, white dogs, elves and crossroads, tending instead to get blithering drunk (like the wassailers of old England, the door-to-door drinkers whose name came from the cry Wass hael!, which approximates to Cheers!) and to pretend to have an ab-fab time. A few, however, will see the New Year in at Watch Night services in churches, a custom started by the abstemious John Wesley.
Perhaps this year we could all spare a thought for poor young Alex Cleghorn as well as all the victims of alcoholic poisoning and Watch Night services. And while we’re at it, for all the one-eyed, red-headed, splay-footed females of Scotland - if only for this one special night of the year.

Christmas links

Some more Christmas links

Vegan Christmas or Yule

Useful links that have helped with my research

Globe animation, courtesy Catlady's Globes

This page was originally found at Wilson's Almanac thanks Pip for the use of the info'