Ahhh, Christmas! That most wonderful of holidays, both for sheer merriment and the folklorist alike!
Have you ever stopped for a moment, in between kisses under the mistletoe, hanging ornaments on an evergreen, placing a wreath on the front door, drinking from a Wassail bowl, singing carols, or just plain feasting, and wondered just where all these accepted traditions surrounding this season actually came from?
Christmas, with its incredible wealth of custom and tradition, serves as a clear reminder that modern "civilized" people are a whole lot closer to their ancient ritualistic ancestors than one might imagine.
Modern Christmas is, of course, centered around the birth of Christ, but as that event is well documented in literature a bit loftier than this, we shall confine ourselves to a look at how this Religious Feast Day became the rich and vibrant celebratory extravaganza it is today.
The early Christian Church was a bit disorganized during its first 300 or so years, mostly due to the fact that to be a Christian during that time greatly increased one's chances of feeding lions, the hard way. However, the dawning of the 4th Century found a Christian on the throne of Imperial Rome, and in less than 100 years Christianity moved from Rebel Cause to the Official Established Church of a fading Roman Empire.
The actual date of the Nativity had long been the subject of debate during Christianity's Underground period, but with the new Establishment Pope Julius I was able to settle the controversy by proclaiming December 25 as the official date, in the year 350 AD.
This was a rather fortunate choice, as that point in time, coming as it did immediately after the Winter Solstice, when the days began to lengthen rather than shorten, was already historically a major Feast Day, as barbarians everywhere honored the return of the Sun to its place of dominance.
The Romans themselves had celebrated the season as Saturnalia, when slaves and masters exchanged roles, courts were closed, chaos and feasting prevailed, and no one could be convicted of a crime. (This time of year was sometimes called Jule-tide in honor of Julius Caesar, and later barbarised into "Yule-tide"!)
The Romans also developed the custom of exchanging gifts...
In Barbaric Europe, the season was universally celebrated. The Germanic tribes of Central Europe considered the Winter Solstice to be the time that witches and demons came forth, and left presents for these demons to dissuade them from destroying the Earth. (Cookies for Santa, anyone?)
The Norse tribes further north celebrated with a traditional feast of a Boar's head, in honor of Frey, the God of Herds, whose symbol was a boar. (Frey was also honored in the naming of a day of the week: Frey's Day, or Friday -- the day before Saturn's Day.) The Norse also originated the lighting of bonfires and Yule Logs, and upon conquering Britain passed many of these traditions on.
Our friends the Druids (who you may remember from our Halloween column, and who were prominent among the Celts of Western Europe and the British Isles at this time) were heavily into nature, believing trees and plants to have souls, and made much symbolic use of Evergreens, going so far as to decorate trees with their enemies, a custom that has thankfully undergone a bit of change before coming our way!
The significance of Christmas Trees, holly, and mistletoe finds its roots back among these pagan kinfolk of Merlin. (Merlin is of course the wizard who produced a magic sword in an anvil on Christmas Day that only the future King Arthur was able to free.)
At any rate, the early Church, in its wisdom, realized that any attempt to convert this continent of heathens was doomed to failure if one was to destroy their heritage, rich as it was in ceremony and tradition. Instead, they incorporated as many of these hallowed rites into the new Christian Holiday of Christmas. This seemed to go over well enough with the aforementioned heathens, who were quite willing to accept this new faith provided they could still gorge themselves for days and drink themselves silly. Christmas became the most popular day of the year for the crowning of Kings (Clovis, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror, to name but three), and great celebrations in the form of hunting and jousting were de riguer at Christmas time during the Middle Ages.
The real Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived around the time that Julius I made December 25th the official date of Christmas. The Church would award a specific day to a Saint upon bestowing the honor, and Nicholas received posthumously the date of December 6th as his day to be honored.
In those early and somewhat more pious times, the feast days of saints were the barometer used to mark the beginning and ending of seasons, and it became a common practice to begin the Christmas preparations on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, because of the close proximity of the date. (The fact that Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children probably didn't hurt, either.)
As Nicholas' name became more and more attached to the Yule festivities, the Germanic descendants of the Central European tribes began to turn him into one of those fabulous creatures that their old legends had spoken of as running loose during the season, only now instead of giving him gifts, he himself would give gifts to those deserving (and coal or switches to those not so deserving).
Saint Nicholas eventually (by the end of the 18th Century) had come to personify Father Christmas, a stern sort of fellow who handed out Just Desserts. It was an attempt by English children in America trying to pronounce the Dutch children's Sinterklaus (that's Dutch Children for Saint Nick) that gave us the name Santa Claus.
Santa at the time was still a tall, thin, stern sort of chap -- until 1822. That year an Episcopal professor named Clement Moore wrote a little poem to amuse his children. The result was A Visit From Saint Nicholas, or The Night Before Christmas.
Forty years later, in the midst of the Civil War, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast decided to draw Saint Nick as the fat, jolly old gent we know and love, and the rest is... history?
As noted above, Saint Nicholas got himself posthumously associated with Christmas by virtue of having had December 6 declared his "day", which is just something they used to do to saints and means nothing in these cynical modern times.
The interesting part is that the yearly visitation to good little dutch children, complete with gifts for the good and lumps of coal or switches for the not-so-good originally took place on December 6 and had nothing to do with Christmas! Of course, the Saturnalian revelry that Christmas was supposed to supplant had from Roman times a long tradition of gift giving, so it was inevitable that the two December "gift holidays" should eventually merge.
Another day occasionally set aside for gifts was "Twelfth Night", January 6, which traditionally ends the period of Christmas festivities ("twelve days of Christmas" and all that). It is traditional in some cultures to set aside one gift for each child to be opened on that day.
Also on the subject of Twelfth Night, you should never remove Christmas decorations before then, but be sure to take them all down and ditch the tree the very next day, or bad luck is sure to follow. (It used to be safe, until around the mid 1800's, to leave them up until February 2 if you so desired, but we are captives of our time and must adhere to its dictates.)
As far as "our time" is concerned, the ease with which we take for granted the 25th of December as a Holiday belies its not-too-ancient status: at the time Dickens' A Christmas Carol was written it was not acknowledged as such (except for the very rich), and not until 1871 was Christmas made a day of rest in England!
A final note concerning everyone's favorite Yuletide custom: mistletoe. Each time one steals a kiss under it one must pluck a berry from it -- when the berries are gone, so are the kisses. Also, after Twelfth Night the mistletoe must be burned, for if it is not those who kissed under it are fated never to marry!