The Ghosts of Christmas Past: A legacy of tradition

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Most of us are familiar with the Christmas story. However, very few know the story of Christmas. As the days count down towards present-opening, food-eating and beverage-drinking, it is important to look back and find the origins of what we consider to be quintessential Christmas.

“It’s a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism”, stated Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University, “However, you’d be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon.” In the Bible, the date of Jesus’ birth is never given, so the church likely adopted customary festivals. For example, pagan celebrations of a midwinter festival, around the winter solstice on 21 December, were known in Scandinavian countries as “Yule”. The Roman Festival of Saturnalia also took place between 17 and 23 December and honoured the god Saturn. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “birthday of the unconquered sun”, was held on 25 December and was the “birthday” of the Pagan sun god Mithra. Christmas also coincides with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, a celebration documented centuries before the Christian church was formed. The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on 25 December was in 336 C., during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25 December.

As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries AD, they encountered people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds, many of whom readily adopted Christianity with some colloquial differences to remember past traditions. As European missionaries began to spread Christianity, so spread Christmas. The first recorded Christmas in Japan was a mass held by Jesuit missionaries in Yamaguchi prefecture in 1552, although some believe that unrecorded celebrations were held before this date. In the UK, during the early 17th Century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, removed Christmas. However, by popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and with him came the return of the holiday.

Meanwhile, the Pilgrims – English separatists who came to America in 1620 – were more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America and, after the American Revolutionary War, English customs such as Christmas fell out of favour.  Christmas was finally declared a federal holiday on 26 June 1870 and has since then only grown, with 2017 predictions suggesting the average American will be spending $967.13 on gifts. As empires also expanded, so did the popularity of Christmas. Being a British colony until 1947, many British traditions stayed on in India, leading to Christmas being a state holiday despite Christianity in India being a minority with a following of only 2.3% (of 1.2 billion).

One of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas, the Christmas tree, is a 17th Century German invention introduced to the UK by Prince Alfred in the Victorian era. The popularity and importance of Christmas trees has also spread, despite its rocky relationship with the church (Christmas trees are discouraged by Jeremiah 10:1-5, and the five-pointed star decoration traditionally atop a tree derives from beliefs about elemental nature, adopted by the church to represent the Star of Bethlehem). Decorated Christmas trees, either freshly cut or artificial, were introduced to Canada in 1781, originally by German soldiers stationed in Quebec during the American Revolution. The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree has been an annual gift to the people of Britain by the city of Oslo as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.

Other Christmas traditions, such as Christmas cards and decorations, stem largely from Victorian Britain and the industrial revolution, when ornaments could be mass produced. The introduction of turkey as a Christmas dinner staple can be attributed to North America. Other traditions, such as Yule logs and mistletoe, came from Scandinavian mythology. The big man himself, Santa Claus, can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas, born sometime around 280 AD in Patara, near modern-day Turkey. The name Santa Claus evolved from Nic’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas. Similar figures are popular worldwide, with Kris Kringle believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. In Scandinavia, an elf named Jultomten delivers gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children’s stockings with gifts, or coal, depending on behaviour. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. In Russia, it is an elderly woman nicknamed Babouschka. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.”, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas which, in 1881, was used by Thomas Nast to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa. With his use in advertising, most famously by Coca Cola, Saint Nic has been immortalised.