“Christmas” comes from the old English Cristes masse, meaning ‘the festival mass of Christ’. Christmas as people know it today is an incredible mixture of customs and traditions from many different times and places. Some come from the Romans and others from different parts of Europe. Some even come from pre-Christian times.
Why December 25?
We know from several writers from the third century onwards (including Hippolytus and Augustine) that arguments like these were being put forward in attempt to decide on the dates of the birth and death of Jesus:
‘The spring equinox is March 25, and it must also have been the first day of creation.’ ‘The first Good Friday, the day when Jesus died, was on March 25, the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan.’ ‘Jesus must have been conceived on the same date as his death.’ ‘If March 25 was the date of the conception of Jesus, he must have been born on December 25. He was therefore conceived at the time of the spring equinox and born on the winter solstice.’
Although this kind of speculation seems unconvincing to people today, it’s very possible that it was convincing to many in the third century, when this style of argumentation was widely accepted.
The period of four weeks leading up to Christmas marks the beginning of the Christian year. The Advent wreath originated in America. This circular wreath, made out of evergreens, carries four candles, with a fifth in the center. One is lit on each of the four Sundays of Advent, and the fifth on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
It is traditional to ring church bells on Christmas Day to greet the birth of Jesus, and at midnight before New Year’s Day to ring out the old year and ring in the the new.
People originally lit candles during the mid-winter festival to represent the light and heat of the sun. A pagan practice. Later they were given Christian meaning, and were regarded as symbolic of Jesus, the Light of the World.
Believe it or not, these originated in the Middle Ages, with a strong rhythm and refrain. They came to be popular songs sung at church festivals, especially at Easter and Christmas.
These date back to the time when the Penny Post was started in England in 1840. Cards were first produced in larger numbers in 1860, and they soon took the place of the traditional New Year cards. They became even more popular when, from 1870 onwards, cards could be sent in an unsealed envelope for a halfpenny. The custom soon after spread to other countries.
The nativity crib or better known as “Belen” in our vernacular. As far back as the eighth century there had been a permanent crib in the Church of St. Maria Maggiore in Rome, where the pope would celebrate Mass at Christmas, using the manger as an altar. But it was St. Francis and his followers who made the idea of the crib so popular. He set it up in a cave on a hillside outside the town of Grecchio in Italy on December 24, 1224 using an ordinary manger filled with hay, real people and animals.
Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
This character has evolved over a long period of time. Gathered new elements, a number of times changed radically as it travelled from one country to another. It turns out that “Father Christmas” who represents the spirit of Christmas, had no connection whatsoever with St. Nicolas (a.k.a. Santa Claus).
The original St.Nicolas was the Bishop of Turkey during the fourth century. He came from a wealthy clan and used his fortune to help the poor-but only in secret ways. (That’s why Santa shows up when everyone is sleeping! 🙂 ) After his death, the secret of his generosity was revealed and that started off the custom to give presents secretly on St. Nicolas Day, which is December 6. He later became the patron saints of children, especially that of the orphans. As it later evolved, Sinta Klaas was taken from New Zealand to the United States where his name became Santa Klaus. He now has evolved from the original Bishop to someone who rides a sleigh pulled by reindeers with names to boot, who travels yearly from the North pole.
The custom of gift giving at Christmas goes back to the Roman times of exchanging gifts during the Saturnalia feast. It was a feast when the rich give out money and clothes to their poor and lowly neighbors, and they received in return garlands, tapers or some grains of incense. That’s how the present day got the idea of exchanging gifts. But during the Roman Empire, Christians probably refrained from practicing that tradition as it was associated with a pagan feast.
Many present day religions abhor the tradition of Christmas because of the many pagan practices it has originated from. Fact remains that even as Jesus declared victory when He rose from the dead, there is nothing that the devil can claim to be his in this world. We do the tradition of Christmas in remembrance of Christ’s birth period. It’s a celebration in itself even as it leads to His death on the cross thirty three years after. Because it signifies man’s Saving Grace being here at last. So why not reclaim what were used in the past for whatever feasts of whoever gods to glorify God? 🙂
Origins of Things About Christmas, Part 2 will cover the origins of mistletoe, stockings, Christmas tree and the wreath.