Only 4 more sleeps until Christmas, who’s excited? Meeee! I hadn’t been feeling particularly festive until the last couple of days, maybe it’s the warm weather, but now most of the jobs are done, the kids have finished school, and the decorations are up I’m getting in the spirit.
Mid winter has been celebrated for centuries around the world. Early Europeans rejoiced on the darkest days of winter, The worst was behind them and they could look forward to longer days with more sunlight.
|A winter's day|
Scandinavians celebrated Yule from December 21st. Large logs would be brought in to the home and the people would feast until the logs burned out, and they believed that each spark from the log represented a calf or piglet born in the coming year.
The Roman’s celebrated the festival of Saturnalia which took place from December 17th until a few days after Solstice.
The feast, in honour of Saturn, their god of agriculture, was a hedonistic celebration with plentiful food and drink where the normal social order was turned on it’s head. Masters became slaves and slaves would command control of the city. The feast of Juvenilia was also observed around the same time, honouring the children of Rome, and the upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the infant god of the unconquerable sun.
|Looks like a crazy party!|
The birth of Jesus was not celebrated by early Christians, their main holiday was Easter. Church officials decided that his birth should be instituted as a holiday. As they did not know the date he was born, Pope Julius I chose December 25th. It is believed that this date was chosen to absorb the traditions of the pagan festivals.
Traditionally, Christmas became a Christian festival around 675AD when St. Boniface cut down an Oak tree in front of some newly baptised Christians. The Oak, sacred to Pagans, split in to four pieces from which grew an evergreen tree. It was symbolic of the death of Paganism and the establishment of Christianity.
|St. Boniface cutting the Oak|
In 17th century Europe Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England and tried to rid the country of decadence. As a result Christmas was cancelled. After much protest, it was finally reinstated by Charles II.
The Puritan view travelled across to the United states with the Pilgrims and from 1659 - 1681 Christmas was outlawed in Boston, with anyone breaking the law by showing Christmas spirit being fined five shillings.
In the 19th Century, A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens. During this era, many children lived in poverty and were mistreated by their elders. The message of charity and goodwill to all men spread through America and Victorian Europe and encouraged a day of peace with family and friends, decorating trees, giving gifts and sending cards to each other.
|A Victorian Christmas|
The traditional gift giver, Saint Nicholas, is the patron Saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. He was born in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) and lived from 270-343AD. His wealthy parents, who raised him as a devout Christian, died in an epidemic, and following Jesus’ words to ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor’ he used his whole inheritance helping those in need and became known for his generosity.
One story tells of a poor man with 3 daughters. Having no money to offer dowries, they had little chance of finding a husband and were destined to be sold in to slavery. On three different occasions, bags of gold were thrown in to the house through an open window. They landed in stockings and shoes hanging by the fire to dry, and this began the custom of leaving stockings to be filled with gifts. Another retelling the story describes the bags of gold as balls. Finding an orange in your stocking is said to represent a golden ball given by St. Nicholas.
|Stockings by the fire|
The tradition of the Christmas tree dates back many years, Evergreen trees have always had special meaning for people during the winter months. The belief was that winter was caused by the sun (a god) becoming sick. As he grew weaker the days became shorter. The Winter Solstice (December 21st or 22nd) was celebrated as it meant that the sun god had started to get well again and the light would start to return.
The Egyptian god Ra, wore the sun on his crown. They celebrated his recovery by bringing green palm rushes symbolising the triumph of life over death in to their homes.
|The Sun God Ra|
The Romans saw the solstice as the beginning of the return of their crops and decorated their homes with evergreen boughs. And the Druids in Europe decorated their temples with evergreen branches which symbolised everlasting life.
|Hanging Fruit on evergreens|
Ancient Germanic people tied fruit and candles to evergreen branches in honour of their god Woden, the god that gave us our Wednesday or Woden’s day, the green trees symbolising eternal life.
Whichever point in history our traditions were taken from, each festival and celebration centres around the solstice and the return of the sun. In the days before power this was an important time and signified the start of a new year, the time to make plans, and celebrate longer days and the return of the light.
(Don’t miss our own solstice themed celebration happening with Lesley’s Re-Birth of the sun challenge!)
However you’ll be celebrating and whatever your traditions, we hope you have a peaceful season and a Happy New Year!