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The History of Christmas

The 25th of December is a prominent date for many reasons entirely unconnected to Christmas. It has seen many births and deaths of famous people, two coronations and the re-discovery of a new country, much of which has been ignored in the midst of the ritual seasonal festivities. In this article I will not only give the history of Christmas I will also demonstrate some of the historic events that have happened at this time of year.

Light was the focus of the annual midwinter solstice around December 21, from which the modern Christmas derives. The magical solstice ceremonies that celebrate the rebirth of the sun and later the sun gods, and in Christianity the nativity of the Son of God. This festival dates from Palaeolithic times and is found in many cultures, around the world especially those in the northern hemisphere such as Scandinavia that have long, cold winters.

Noel (Christmas) means ‘day of birth’. So it can be said that the astrologer takes the Noel of each of us into account when working out, establishing and interpreting a birth chart. However, for Christians, Noel (Christmas) refers more specifically to the celebration of the Birth of Jesus. Even though, nowadays, it’s purely religious character has gradually become blurred in favour of a more commercial ritual, a custom devoid of any substance, which does not mean very much anymore.

But to a certain extent myths, legends, symbol and history merge together and breed confusion in our minds. It’s not the story of Jesus’ birth we are going to relate, but the story of this festival. Religious for some people and social for others, which everyone celebrates on the night of the 24th/25th December, and which is above all an occasion for giving presents.

If you look at the calendar, you will notice that Christmas Eve falls each year two of three days after the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, which marks the moment when the Earth is at its farthest point from the Sun. It is the first day of winter, the moment when the Sun enters Capricorn in the zodiac, which symbolically heralds the rebirth of the day and the resurrection of the sun. Since from this moment the days get longer, whilst the nights grow shorter, right up to the spring equinox, when light triumphs over darkness and day becomes longer than night.

The day of the winter solstice was celebrated in many ancient civilizations throughout the world, where the worship of the Sun played a dominant role. It is know that our most immediate ancestors, the Celts of whom the Gaul’s formed a branch, celebrated the solstices and the equinoxes.

The holiday is also called ‘Brigit’s Day’, in honour of the great Irish goddess Brigit, who was considered a goddess of fire, patroness of smith craft, poetry and healing. The custom of giving presents on Christmas Day goes back to the Roman Saturnalia which took place each year between the 17th and 24th of December, at the time of the winter solstice. At these celebrations, in honour of Saturn, all the roles on Roman society were reversed; the slaves became masters and the masters waited on the slaves. Every excess and debauchery was allowed. Every taboo was lifted. Finally, those taking part in these Saturnalia offered each other presents on the 25th December, thus celebrating the first day of the year, New Year’s Day. It’s quite likely that the Festival of Fools from which many carnivals still draw their inspiration have been a continuation of the Roman Saturnalia.

The Celtic calendar modelled itself not on the solar year, but on the solstices and equinoxes, on the start and finish of work involved in rearing animals and growing crops. A traditional British Christmas dish would have been a boar’s head, a turkey or a goose.

The night of the 21st to 22nd December the night of the Winter Solstices was called ‘the night of the silver fir’ by the Celts and Gaul’s. On that occasion the Celts and Scandinavians burnt a huge log of fir. In Scandinavia the winter festival of Yule great logs were burned and people drank mead around bonfires listening to minstrel poets singing ancient legends.

So, even though it’s true that the Christmas tree is often associated with the myths about the tree of life or axis of the world, the tree of paradise and the tree of the cross, you can see why the fir was chosen to symbolize them. Pagan families would bring a live tree into the home so the wood sprits would have a place to keep warm during the cold winter months. Bells were hung in the limbs so you could tell when a spirit was present.

Light marks every stage of the Christmas celebration, beginning with the Advent candle and ending with the Twelfth Night fires and candles to mark the last day of the festivities and to bring protection to cattle and the following year’s corn.

In Scandinavian homes, a circle of four Advent candles that is lit on at the time on each of the four Sundays of Advent is still an important feature of the pre- Christmas period. In Sweden from Advent every window in the home is illuminated with electric branch candelabras to dispel the darkness.

A single Advent candle that traditionally has 24 marks on it is once again becoming popular in the UK, with a section of the candle lit at dust and burned for each of the days of Advent.

A Christmas Eve candle (to represent the sun) is traditionally left burning through the night of Christmas Eve, surrounded by nuts, fruit, spices and small piece of coal or wood sliver coins and a small ear of corn saved from the previous harvest. As a magical gesture to ensure there will be sufficient light, warmth and food through the winter. Like the golden candle that is frequently lit on solstice eve instead of the traditional bonfire, this custom is a direct descendant of the ancient magical solstice fire, which gave strength to the dying sun.

During the mediaeval period, and up until the Industrial Revolution, any stranger who called at a house on Christmas Eve having seen the light would be made welcome, in memory of Mary finding no room at the inn. In Ireland, Brittany and among American families who have Celtic connections, the Christmas Eve custom of leaving a lighted candle in the window to light the Virgin Mary on her was still survives.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem because the Romans were holding a census, so everyone had to go to their town of origin.

The white flowers and red berries of holly symbolize within the Christian tradition represent Christ’s blood and Mary’s virginity.

Mistletoe, which was sacred because it mysteriously grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was ceremoniously cut and a spray given to each family, to be hung in the doorways as good luck. The Celtic Druids also regarded mistletoe as sacred and considered it a fertility symbol because of its resemblance to male genitalia. Druid priests cut it from the tree on which it grew with a golden sickle and handed it to the people, calling it ‘All-Heal’. To hang it over a doorway or in a room was to offer goodwill to visitors. Kissing under the mistletoe was a pledge of friendship it was also thought to help women conceive.

Twelfth Night is a magical but frightening period when Odin and the Wild Hunt rode across the skies on the eve of Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, in England and parts of Europe. On Twelfth Night fires were lit on the highest point of a wheat field, twelve fires in a circle with a larger one in the centre. In Ireland, twelve lighted candles were placed in a sieve of oats with a larger one in the centre. In both instances they represented Jesus and the Apostles. In an older custom the central fire was said to represent old Meg, a witch, associated with the Celtic Callieach, or Hag of Winter, who was burned as a corn sacrifice.

The reindeer figure came from a representation of the horned god of the forest Celtic mythology. Santa’s 8 reindeers; Prancer, Blixen, Donder, Dancer, Cupid, Vixen, Comet, and Dasher were a much later invention from the poem called ‘A visit from St Nicholas’ by Clement Clark Moore in 1936.

The Santa Claus in red with long white beard we know today was invented by Coca Cola as a marketing ploy to advertise their popular drink in 1931, but there was a St Nicholas who lived in Myra (now know as Turkey) in about 300AD and he became a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.

There was also a good King Wenceslas who ruled Abyssinia, he worked to Christianise the people of Bohemia in 907-927 and was later venerated as a martyr and hero in Bohemia.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the character Scrooge has a catch phrase Bah Humbug that Became associated with the ballyhoo of Christmas.

Among the famous who were born on 25th December are the British novelist Rebecca West, the American Hotelier Conrad Hilton and the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who was assassinated in 1981.

Two great film actors died on 25th December Charlie Chaplin in 1977 and WC Field in 1946. Charlie Chaplin received a knighthood in 1975.

The timing of Fields death is somewhat ironic as it is said that he hated Christmas and all its superfluities.

Emperor Hirohito of Japan acceded to the throne on Christmas day in 1926 as divine ruler and became 124th of his line.

Somewhat further back in history, the scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton came into the world on Christmas day in 1642. It was supposedly in the garden of his parent’s home in Lincolnshire that he saw the falling apple, which inspired him to conceive the theory of gravitation.

Christmas day in 1497 saw the discovery, by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, of Natal the smallest province in South Africa while was en route for India.

He landed at the port of Calicut in 1498, but had to withdraw hastily from a very hostile reception many years later he return to India as Portuguese Viceroy, were he died Christmas Eve 1524.

Another explorer, Italian born Christopher Columbus re-discovered America in 1492. He set sail on 25th December in the Saint Maria under the patronage of the Spanish Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. He ran aground off the coast of Hispanola in the West Indies. The Santa Maria was sunk, but Columbus landed and spent the celebratory season with the pagan natives. He named the first European structure in the New World ‘Navidad’ the Spanish word for Christmas.

December 25th 1066 has gone down in history as the date of William the Conqueror’s coronation in Westminster Abbey, after the defeat of King Harold 11 in the Battle of Hastings.

Westminster Abbey was also the scene of the 1050 attempt to steal the Stone of Scone by the Scottish nationalists and to return it to the county of its origin.

The Nationalist took it to Arbroath, where Scotland declared its independence from England in 1320, after Edward’s death; the stone was recovered and returned to the abbey.

The holy days and fasting days act of 1551 forbid the use of any form of transport other that foot to reach the Christmas day service and Parliament make Christmas itself illegal in 1647.

There is a town in Indiana in the USA called Santa Claus and there are shops open all throughout the year selling Christmas decorations. A Christmas card drawn by John Lennon for his manager sold for £5.405.00 in April 2000.

The Christmas carol Silent night was written by Joseph Mohr in 1818 and was first played on a guitar.

The song Twelve days of Christmas comes from the time when the Catholics in England were prohibited from any practice of their faith by law during the period 1558 to 1829. The song was to help young Catholics lean the tenets of their faith. The songs gifts are hidden meaning to the teaching of the faith. The ‘true love’ mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor it refer to god. The ‘me’ who received the presents refer to every baptized person.

The other symbols mean the following:

  • 1 The partridge in a pear tree – Jesus Christ.
  • 2 Turtle Doves – The Old and New Testaments.
  • 3 French Hens – Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues.
  • 4 Calling Birds – The Four Gospels and or four Evangelists.
  • 5 Golden Rings – The first fie books of the Old Testament, the ‘Pentateuch’, which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.
  • 6 Geese a Laying – the six days of creation.
  • 7 Swans swimming – the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments.
  • 8 Maids a milking – the eight beatitudes.
  • 9 Ladies Dancing – the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  • 10 Lords a leaping- the Ten Commandments.
  • 11 Pipers piping – the eleven faithful apostles.
  • 12 Drummers drumming – the twelve points of doctrine in the apostle’s Creed.

In some versions of the song no 3 is sung as the three wise men, Claspar, Balthazar and Melchior, but it is more usual to hear 3 French hens.

As we can see there is more to Christmas than meets the eye not only is it a pagan and Christian festival but it has many traditions that go back hundreds of years and has also known many past events throughout history.