Are you “Ho-Ho-Hoing” this holiday season with your Christmas presents bought and wrapped, your decorating done and your baking tucked away in the freezer? Are you looking forward to spending time with family and friends and savouring that yummy Christmas pudding? Perhaps you’ve had a life-changing experience and gained a new outlook on Christmas, thanking God for your blessings.
Or maybe you feel a bit more like Scrooge in Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol and are looking to blame someone for all the “Bah-Humbug.” There is plenty of blame to go around because our Christmas traditions are derived from a kaleidoscope of ancient heritages such as Teutonic, Victorian and American.
First Christmas celebrations
A Roman almanac records celebrations of the Feast of the Nativity as early as AD 336. Some believe that the emperor at that time adopted the December 25 birthday of one of their gods for the feast of Christ’s birth, and with the help of the Roman church, that was trying to Christianize the pagan celebrations, “Christ’s Mass” came to be celebrated by both the western and eastern churches during the fourth century.
Romans celebrated a festival of peace and plenty on December 17. They decorated their homes and public places with holly boughs, flowers and candles, partied and exchanged gifts.
St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor renowned for his generous spirit of giving, was honoured by a medieval feast on December 6. Our present-day Santa Claus (from the Dutch “Sinter Klass”) is a composite of legendary figures such as this Turkish saint, the Austrian “Christkindl,” the French “Pere Noel” and England’s “Father Christmas.” When the Dutch settled the American colony of New Amsterdam, they continued their custom of “Sinter Klass.” Scandinavians contributed Santa’s sleigh piled full of gifts and pulled by flying reindeer.
In the biblical story of Christ’s birth, the Three Wise Men journeyed to Bethlehem to worship the King of Kings and present Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Christians honour Christ with their Christmas gifts and continue His ministry through their tithing and charity.
Christmas tree and Yule log
The Scandinavians celebrated a Yule festival that coincided with Christmas. They decorated their houses and barns with fir trees to honour the spirits and burned logs to scare away evil spirits. An eighth-century missionary proclaimed the forever-green fir tree a holy symbol of everlasting life to Christianize this pagan festival.
Christmas trees were also a Germanic custom. Medieval German plays about Adam and Eve used fir trees hung with apples to portray the Tree of Paradise. Paradise trees also decorated their homes on the December 24 feast day of Adam and Eve. Their branches were adorned with wafers to symbolize the Host and tapers to symbolize the light of Christ. Wooden Christmas Pyramids, crowned with a star, contained shelves of Christmas figurines and were decorated with evergreens and candles. The modern Christmas tree is a combination of the Tree of Paradise and the Christmas Pyramid.
Sixteenth-century German folklore credits Martin Luther for lighting up the Christmas tree. Walking home through the forest around the year 1513, he noticed how the stars seemed to light up the tips of the trees. He brought an evergreen tree into his house and decorated it with candles to recreate the experience. Ralph Morris, an American telephone company employee, modernized the concept when he brought home some switchboard lights to decorate his Christmas tree in 1895.
Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, introduced the Christmas tree to the Royal Court in 1841. Candles, candies and cakes were fastened to its branches with ribbons and paper chains. The custom quickly spread to the British lower classes.
The Christmas tree tradition was imported to America by the German colonists of Pennsylvania in the 12th century. By 1841, this custom had become so fashionable that the first commercial Christmas tree lot was established in New York.
So it seems that whether you find yourself afloat in the “Ho-Ho-Ho” boat or swamped in the “Bah-Humbug” boat this Christmas, you are in a Yuletide of long-standing tradition.
Merry Christmas everyone!