Christmas, Jorge

The Origin of Christmas and its Customs

roman nativity
A 4th century depiction of the birth of Jesus featuring an ass and an ox. There is no evidence documenting animals at Jesus birth, so it is likely they were added at a later date.  Picture credit:  Giovanni Dall’Orto (2007).

Christmas brings to mind an array of customs, but it is not immediately obvious where they all come from. The popular tales surrounding the birth of Jesus, as say dramatised through a nativity play, leave much to be desired. For example, they tell us nothing of the origin of the Christmas tree or Father Christmas – the big man himself. Consulting the Bible is not much help either. In the New Testament one will find only two gospels that mention the birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. These scriptures do not even mention the variety of domesticated animals supposedly present at Jesus’ birth, nor do they state the shepherds and wise men appeared together. How did this all come to be one may ask? Well, this article will aim to explain the origin of Christmas and its customs, starting with its date.  

The Date

Popular mythology would place the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, 1 CE, although this is not mentioned in the New Testament. This figure originates, in part, from the miscalculations of the 6th century bishop Dionysius Exiguus, who is otherwise famous for the invention of the Christian calendar. He gave us the year of Jesus’ birth through comparing information from the New Testament and other Roman sources as to arrive at a date, finally settling on 754 AUC (years after the founding of Rome). To arrive at the day of Jesus’ birth one has to go further back to the ancient festival of Saturnalia – a precursor to Christmas.

As a side note, there were other earlier guesses of the date of the birth of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 215) guessed that Jesus was born on the 28th of March, and the anonymous document, DePascha Computus (written c.243) places the birth on the 18th of November. In fact, the Catholic Church’s official commentary on the New Testament, as written by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, places Jesus’ birth on the 11th of September, 3 BCE.

Saturnalia

saturnalia
A bas-relief of the God Saturn with his usual accompaniment – a scythe. Picture credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont  (2011)  licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Saturnalia was a festival celebrated well before the birth of Christ and well into the first millennium; it was instigated as to mark the end of Autumn planting in honour of the god Saturn (in Latin Satus means Sowing). Described as the “best of times” by the poet Catullus, the festival was enormously popular in part due to the relaxation of mores. It was a period of lawlessness where it became forbidden to punish anyone guilty of damaging property or injuring people. The festival saw the inversion of social roles with masters paying their tenants rent and the classes exchanging clothes. Included in this was the nomination of an enemy of the people to represent the Lord of Misrule – a practice that continued with the emergence of Christmas proper, but in different forms. Early festivals may have involved human sacrifice with victims pampered with the pleasures of the flesh, as to become tokens representing the forces of darkness.

Separately, the festival shared a number of similarities with Christmas today. The historian Lucian describes widespread intoxication, house-to-house singing and the consumption of human-shaped biscuits, although it must be stated that this ‘caroling’ was done naked. He even highlights the “occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water”. (The precursor to the ice bucket challenge! Well, maybe.) Other familiar occurrences include the decoration of trees, gift-giving and relaxed dress codes. Gift-giving emerged from how the Emperors compelled their most detested citizens to bring gifts during Saturnalia; this spread to the general population and evolved into the custom of gift-giving we know today.

saturnalia ernesto biondi
Saturnalia as imagined by the Italian artist Ernesto Bioni. Picture credit: Roberto Fiadone (2008) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Now returning to the original question of the day of Jesus’ birthday, Saturnalia was originally held for two days succeeding the 17th of December, but was gradually extended to become a week-long event, ending on (you guessed it) the 25th of the same month. The pagan festival’s popularity continued unabated into the Roman Empire’s Christian period and the church sought to attract converts to the religion by first tolerating, and then remarketing the celebration as a Christian event with the 25th as Jesus’ birthday. (Christianity was tolerated after 313 AD with Constantine’s Edict of Milan; it became the Empire’s sole authorised religion in 380 AD with the Edict of Thessalonica.) Interestingly, early schisms resulted in the adoption of different calendars with Orthodox Christians celebrating Christmas on the 7th of January.

The Pagan Roots of Christmas Past

There are other features of Christmas that may have their origin in Europe’s pagan past. Prehistoric peoples long celebrated the Winter Solstice and farming practices created an abundance of resources at this time, making feasting a possibility. This was because the alcohol made during the year had finally fermented, and that as livestock had to be slaughtered due to a lack of feed during winter, there was a surplus of meat available.

christmas pagans
Prehistoric peoples’  designed monuments like Stonehenge to cast light in certain ways on days such as the winter solstice. Picture credit: Jeffrey Pfau (2005) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

It is often claimed that the custom “kissing under the mistletoe” has pagan origins, emerging from Norse mythology, or perhaps the Roman festival of Saturnalia. One story goes that Hoder slew his brother Baldur with a spear of mistletoe over the female Nanna. Another states that the sexual license of festival of Saturnalia combined with the Celtic use of mistletoe, although it must be mentioned that neither of these accounts are well documented.

It is probable that the custom of the Yule log derives from Germanic pagans who burnt logs throughout the winter months to represent the sun. It has been stated that they believed the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and away from the earth.  Ostensibly, the word Yule derives from the Norse word Hwoel meaning wheel. However, it is more probable that the word yule was used to represent feasting, which was common in that time of year.

Christmas in the Medieval Period

Christmas remained popular throughout the medieval period, and many practices continued unabated such as the Lord of Misrule, where lord and peasant would swap places for a day. Other similar festivities include the Feast of the Holy innocents that saw the election of a boy bishop. Acts of charity was still instrumental to the holiday too. For example, in 1314 North Curry, Somerset, tenants received beer and a great variety of nutritious food to tie them over for the day.  

lord of misrule
Medieval tiles from the now destroyed Derby Black Friary displaying the spirit of Misrule in the corners.

The medieval Christmas was still very different than today as it lasted for 12 days from the 25th until the 6th of January. Before this period was a month of fasting in preparation for the day of Jesus’ birth. Feasting was paramount to the festival once it started, but the day of gift giving was New Year’s Day, as opposed to Christmas day. Sadly, goodwill was not extended to all men as Christmas was a day of ridicule and persecution for some. In Korneuburg circa 1305, Jews were accused of desecrating a consecrated communion wafer, leading to a witch hunt.  In 1466, Pope Paul II revived Saturnalia forcing Jews to race through the streets naked after being stuffed with food. This continued well into the 18th and 19th century when Jews were forced to march wearing clownish outfits and were pelted with missiles. In 1881, Christian leaders in Poland whipped the public into a frenzy that led to the death of 12 Jews and the injuries of many more.

The Medieval period saw the beginning of a number of customs integral to our Christmas. In 1223, the Italian village of Grecio saw the first instance of nativity. This was instigated by St. Francis of Assisi and was documented by the near contemporary St. Bonaventure in his book the Life of St. Assisi. St. Bonaventure describes how St. Francis was granted permission by Pope Honorious 3 to assemble live animals – an ass and an ox – along with hay, a manger and the local villages at a nearby cave. In this cave, St. Francis preached the story of Jesus’ birth and started a tradition that would prove extraordinarily popular. Nativities proved popular because they recounted the stories of the bible in the common tongue and in a simple way, via visual display and emotional engagement. This was important as, for the medieval layman, the stories were otherwise inaccessible, locked up in Latin scripture.

st francis nativity
A fresco depicting St Francis at Greccio. Painted between 1297-1300, the work is traditionally attributed to the Florentine master Giotto.

Around the same time, St Francis wrote the song Psalmus in Nativitate – the first Christmas carol. While St. Francis did not invent caroling, he wrote it in the style of popular music so it was easy to replicate; this differed from the church hymns of the past. Unsurprisingly, caroling took off and would often accompany nativity plays, although would also find popularity when sung on the street. It is likely that house-to-house singing did not originate at this point, but this is where it took a distinctively Christian form. The practice would spread all over Europe and it was around this time that travelling bard and mistress would begin singing Christmas songs at people’s houses in return for hot meals.

Christmas in the Early Modern Period

puritan ban christmas
A 17th century public notice from Boston deeming Christmas sacrilegious.

While Christmas was never the premium event in the medieval Christian calendar (the honours going to Easter followed by the Annunciation), the advert of Protestantism would undermine the holiday throughout the Early Modern period. Famously, the puritans would ban the holiday in both America and England because they knew that Jesus was not born on Christmas Day. They knew of the event’s pagan origins and believed only the scripture was worthy of worship. They also subscribed to the doctrine of abstinence that placed the revelry of Christmas in a negative moral light. (This revelry led to some deriding the festival as Foolstide.) Some had political, as well as theological, reasons to dislike Christmas as the festival was believed to be celebrated by royalists whom the Parliamentarians opposed.

The banning of the festival did not necessarily go down well and it became a hotly contested issue (not dissimilar to how Brexit divides us today) with polemical after polemical written for and against its celebration. The majority of the population remained sympathetic and significant portions of the population continued to celebrate the festival, if in private. As services were no longer held in churches, individuals would sometimes hold them elsewhere. One example of this comes from John Evelyn who in 1657 attended a ‘grand assembly’ celebrating the birth of Christ, which later was interrupted and broken up by the army. The authorities’ task of dampening the festivities was made harder due to the fact the day was a traditional holiday, which resulted in the population heading to taverns. Disputes over the event could even lead to civil disorder as in Ipswich in 1647 where the repression of the authorities led to rioting and the death of a protester. One extreme example led to a full blown revolt in Canterbury of the same year. The traditional festivities only returned in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy and the return of Charles II.

charles II christmas
Charles II by John Michael Wright.

The Victorian Revival

It is with the early eighteenth century revival of Christmas and its explosion of popularity in the Victorian period that we can easily recognise the Christmas we celebrate today. While there are a number of innovations such as the Christmas card and tree, the period primarily popularised and revived older practices, and consolidated them into one package. It is in this period that we also witness a shift from the rowdiness of the past to a more family-centred holiday. For example, it was with the relaxation of family discipline that Christmas day began to be viewed as a special day to treat children.

Christmas differed from the early modern period in that it found a new lease of life in churches. This was the case as theological changes in the previous century produced less stringent strands of Christianity that were more tolerant of joyous celebrations such as Christmas. This was further enhanced with the rise of the Oxford Movement that looked favourably upon Catholic rituals. Churches, thus, witnessed a return of richer, more symbolic forms of worship and were again brightly illuminated and extensively decorated. Essential to this was the introduction of boughs and flowers such as Ivy, Holly and Rosemary that the Victorians went mad for. (One commentator went as far as describing a church he visited as a greenhouse!) By the late nineteenth century, Christmas was widely celebrated in churches and was very popular. It was even common for couples to get married on Christmas day.

charles dickens christmas carol
The 1843 first edition cover of A Christmas Carol.

Key to the popularisation of Christmas was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that did more than any other work to instill Christmas in the popular imagination. The novel proved popular due to its powerful social message, religious themes and the fact it reflected a Victorian obsession with the supernatural. Once the novel was conceived, Dickens became impassioned and wrote the novel in a mere six weeks. A terrible sleeper, he spent many Christmases travelling throughout London, both in the day and at night, to soak up the atmosphere and the book captures it so well. Rich in description, the novel describes how the festival arrests the senses with its decorations and smell. The book’s greatest legacy, however, has to be its humanitarian vision that has remained influential even today and inspired such masterpieces as the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Testament to its success, the book has never been out of print.

After its conception in Grecio, Christmas caroling spread all over Europe and evolved, changing from country to country. Not dissimilar to a game of Chinese whispers, the carols’ meaning and performance changed with different languages and through combining with secular song. At the start of the 19th century, caroling at Christmas wasn’t as popular as it once was. It took antiquarians to help popularise the custom through publications of carols, taken from various communities throughout the British Isles. The most famous of the publications was William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern published in 1833, which became a bestseller. Included were such carols as The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen I Saw Three Ships, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing that are immediately recognisable today. Also worthy of mention is Davies Gilbert whose 1822 publication of Christmas carols from the West of England includes the carols While Shepherds Watched, A Virgin Most Pure, and The Lord at First did Adam Make. It is worthwhile to mention that the Victorians did produce new carols such as Thomas Neale’s Good King Wenceslas. To do this composers often adapted older melodies and verse. In 1878, Truro Cathedral would integrate carols into its Christmas service.

While the artist John Calcott Horsley created the first Christmas card, the commissioner of the piece, Sir Henry Cole, devised the idea. Horsley’s card embodies Christmas today, featuring three generations of the family round a table, flanked by scenes of charity. Cole previously introduced the Penny Post, which made it cheap to send cards and he printed over 4000 Christmas cards in their first year. In 1874, the Christmas card spread to America and by the 1880s the firm Prang and Mayer were producing over 5 million cards a year.

First christmas card
John Callcott Horsley’s Christmas card.

The Christmas tree originates from Strasbourg, Germany. It was here in the 17th century where the tree was first decorated and named after the Christian holiday. In the 18th century, the practice spread throughout Germany and was popularised by Goethe in his novel, the Sorrows of Young Werther. It spread to Britain with the German Prince Albert marrying Queen Victoria, and arrived in America with Pennsylvanian German immigrants. Although, its popularity was only consolidated after 1848 after an American newspaper carried a picture of Christmas tree.  

christmas tree
An 1858 wood engraving of a Christmas tree – published in the 25th of December edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Father Christmas

Many of Christmas’ customs origins can be gleaned from the tale of how Father Christmas came to be. The story begins with St. Nicholas in the 4th century and ends with Coca Cola in the 20th. It highlights how Santa is a truly global creation of Christian, Pagan and commercial origin who took centuries to evolve into the man we know today.

St Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (located in what is today Turkey) and is otherwise famous as an attendee of the Council of Nicaea. There are no contemporary accounts documenting his life, or surviving works of his hand, so we are largely ignorant of his life. One of the earliest tales of his life tells us how he provided three gifts anonymously to three destitute maidens as to save them from slavery. Fast-forwarding to the 11th century, sailors transferred the saint’s remains to the Italian city of Bari, supplanting the southern European gift-giving deity Pasqua Epiphania. (St Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors; Epiphania is reputed to place sweets in good children’s shoes!) It was here that a gift-giving cult developed, who met annually on the 6th of December – the alleged date of his death.

saint nicholas christmas
The Dowry for the three virgins by Gentile da Fabriano.

As the cult spread throughout Europe different cultures would adapt the saint’s appearance to match their own. Thus, once the cult reached Northern Europe, St Nicholas acquired a Germanic appearance. Influenced by the gods of their ancestors, Germanic peoples’ based Nicholas on the pagan god Woden, who used to ride horses through the heavens and possessed a magnificent white beard. Bereft of his Mediterranean appearance and light garments, the saint also donned heavy winter clothing. Later, the Catholic Church would seek to absorb the cult and decreed that he distributed gifts on the 25th of December, encouraging others to do so.

Jumping forward again to the beginning of the 19th century, the man of the moment is Washington Irving, who did the most out of anybody to popularise Christmas in America. Before Irving, Christmas had largely died out, although was still celebrated by some German communities. Irving experienced Christmas first-hand in his stay at Anton hall, Birmingham, and was one of the first to write about the joy of the holiday. The writer wrote a satire of Dutch culture and referred to Saint Nicholas in his Dutch name Sinterklaas, which anglicised as Santa Claus, gave Father Christmas his other English name. In his History of New-York, Irving furnished Santa with a pipe and wagon, making his journeying rather more comfortable.

Washington irving
Coincidentally, Washington Irving also created the headless horseman that  influenced the 1993 classic A Nightmare Before Christmas.  In one scene the main character Jack can be viewed holding his head in his hand in front of the moon as in  1974 postage stamp above.

In 1823, Dr Clement Moore wrote his timeless poem a Visit from St. Nicholas, with its memorable opening lines:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house  
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

Moore innovated by providing Santa with his eight reindeer, and kept him fit by making him descend chimneys. In the late 19th century, the illustrator Thomas Nast drew over 2200 images of Santa for the magazine Harper’s Weekly, giving him a uniform appearance. He also positioned him in the North Pole, filled his workshop with elves, gave him a list of good and bad children and started the practice of children writing to Santa.

thomas nast santa
An 1881 illustration of Santa by Thomas Nast.

In 1931, Coca Cola commissioned the Swedish artist Haddon Sundbolm to create a coke-drinking Santa. He modelled Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful chubby face. The campaign famously dressed Santa in the colours of Coke, although incidentally the traditional robes of bishops were red and white, and Saint Nicholas may have dressed in similar colours. Coke’s campaign was the first of many advertising campaigns that have standardised Santa’s appearance ever since.

A concluding thought

While Christmas does originate from multiple sources – pagan, Christian, commercial, natural and supernatural – key to the festival is a profound recognition of our humanity. Whether it be the long running custom of the Lord of Misrule, Scrooge’s change of heart, the Christmas truce of 1914, or George Bailey’s wish for his life back; Christmas is a time for goodwill to all mankind.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

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