Origins of Christmas
What do holly wreaths, mistletoe, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and Christmas trees have in common?
A man might then behold
At Christmas in each hall
Good fires to curb the cold,
And meat for great and small.
The neighbors were friendly bidden,
And all had welcome true,
The poor from the gates were not chidden
When this old cap was new.
from Washington Irving's The Sketch Book, 1820
Our modern term Christmas comes to us from the late Olde English Cristes maesse, or "Christ's mass". Christian is, of course, derived from the name of Jesus the Christ. A surprisingly recent word out of the 16th Century, the Latin term Christianus later replaced the existing English adjective christen (only to become our noun form Christendom and our infinitive to christen). The name Christ itself was borrowed into Olde English from the Latin Christus, as in "Christus natus est" (Christ is born). Yet this Latin term sprang directly from the Greek Khristós, which literally meant "anointed one", coming from the verb form khríen (to anoint). But this, in turn, was a direct translation of the Hebrew mashiah. Then, in due time, it was to become the source of our modern English term messiah signifying a "deliverer" in keeping with Judaic faith.
Another term referring to this holiest of seasons is Noël, as in modern French's Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) or Nowell out of 17th Century Coventry, England through Wales. This term shares a common lingüistic ancestry with our English word Nativity, along with present-day Italian's Buon Natale (Good Birth) and the Spanish nacimiento ("birth"or manger scene, crêche in French). Feliz Navidad literally means "Happy Nativity". Modern German's Fröhliche Weinachten, literally "Happy Holy Night", is related to the Germanic night and nocturnal, not to the Latin nativity.
The words Nativity and native are among a large family of brother and sister terms stemming from the Latin verb nasci. Meaning "to be born", it was a descendant of the Indo-European base gen- or gn- signifying "to produce". This prefix was to generate our modern English words gene, genetics, genome, generate, generative, degenerate, generic, generation, degeneration, general, generalize, generalization, progeny, progenitors, primogeniture, generous, Genesis, genius, genre, gender, biogenesis, and exogenous. From its past participle stem nat- was formed the adjectival nativus meaning "from birth", applied from the earliest of times in specific reference to the birth of Christ. Other English terms to have derived historically from this Indo-European prefix gen- or gn- , then the past participial nat- are: cognate (co-natus or "born together"), innate, natal, nation, nature, nascent, renascent, native, natural and Noël. To say "birth of a nation" is, lingüistically speaking, redundant. Vía the Old French, our and their term naïve (which is etymologically the equivalent of "born yesterday") ultimately derived from the Latin nativus. Also, from an Old French descendant of vulgar Latin's natalis or "of birth", have been handed down to us our present terms Renaissance (rebirth), pregnant (literally "pre-natal") and puny, implying the diminutive "nature" or size of a baby child at birth.
MEDIEVAL SPAIN AND LATIN AMERICAN TRADITIONS
During the Middle Ages in Europe, Nativity plays called actos were performed in liturgical style honoring the birth of the Christ child and the adoration of Him by the Magi, the Three Wise Men or Kings from out of the Orient. Oftentimes the Star of Bethlehem hovered over these dramatic reënactments. The first Nativity play ever to be written in a Romance language (Spanish) is a small but tantalizing fragment of unknown authorship called El aucto de los Reyes Magos or the "Reënactment of the Magi Kings". This play was written around 1150 A.D. The acto, sometimes spelled aucto, was presented in the beautiful Cathedral of Toledo in Spain and was without a doubt performed there many times at Christmastide. Mostly, biblical characters were portrayed by choir boys in minimal costume (women were forbidden to perform as such) and "stage sets" were oftentimes dominated by a towering radiant star in the East, symbolizing Eternal Light illuminating a world below in darkness. Another liturgical Christmas gem from out of the Middle Ages was The Second Shepherds' Play from Yorkshire, England, which was written around 1385 A.D.
Throughout the ensuing centuries, beginning on December 16th and continuing through Nochebuena or Christmas Eve on December 24th, Las posadas has become a tradition at Christmastime, coming from the Spanish infinitive posar meaning to lodge or to shelter. Having originated in Spain and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, the Spanish word posada, meaning inn or lodging, has its origin in the Biblical account of the nine-day sojourn of Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary (great with child) from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea in search of lodging as they are refused shelter successively for eight nights. The participants in the march oftentimes carry small statuettes or figurines of Joseph and Mary, los santos pereginos or "Holy Pilgrims", with the Christ child or el Niño Dios being accompanied by roaming shepherds of the fields, mules, burros, candles, cows, sheep and other livestock. Outside of each house, the wandering group sings the verses of Joseph as they beg for shelter, while inside the house the host, who plays the part of the innkeeper, sings back his objections in verse. Trailing the procession, someone generally carries the radiant Star of Bethlehem or the Estrella de Belén, followed by the ángel who guides la familia sagrada or the "Holy Family" from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Behind them, most often, follows a musical chorus cheerful in song. On the ninth night or la Novena, a door finally opens for them with welcoming arms, and Joseph and Mary are provided shelter by an innkeeper or posadero, thus allowing the holy couple to spend the night and sleep in a humble stable among the animals. Herein, the Christ child is incarnated thus bringing Light and pure joy from out of that stable and into an outer world plagued by Roman-dominated darkness. It has since been said that the animals in that stable on that first Christmas night had spoken just like humans do after the rooster crowed following the birth of the Christ child.
Yet the true origins of Las posadas stem from a mixture or combination of pre-Columbian, Aztecan indigenous elements meshed with the Christian concept of the aforementioned Biblical account. To the Uto-Aztecan peoples of the valle de México, the month of panquetzaliztli (December) was a celebration not only of the coming of the shortest day of the year in the winter solstice (from the Latin sol stetit meaning "sun stood still"), but it was also an event honoring the coming of their god of war Huitzilopochtli. The Aztec calendar was exemplary of perfect mathematical calculation. Now with the subsequent evangelization and conversion of the Aztecs to the way of the Cross, their god of war soon came to be replaced by a newer, gentler European godhead: José y María or Joseph and Mary, the birth parents of the Christ child.
Now once the majestic procession of knocking from door to door is completed on Christmas Eve, there follows the preparation of a pesebre or manager, then a fiesta replete with food and frolic is followed by the breaking of the piñata. Children are blindfolded and with stick in hand are given three tries to break the piñata, a figurine of papier-maché made from clay and multi-colored shredded paper usually hung outside on a patio. Inside the piñata are stuffed candies, fruits, sweet meats, miniature toys, small gifts, and assorted nuts or chocolates. La piñata, since the time of the Aztecs, has symbolized blind faith or darkness from the true Light. With the coming and eventual assimilation of Judeo-Christian influences into Meso-América, it has come to represent the devil Satanás himself, and his rupture or demise is symbolic of God's triumph over evil. Small bonfires or luminarias, along with farolitos (candles ignited inside of paper bags) were oftentimes integrated into the religious procession as villancicos or Christmas carols are sung. Pastorelas, or shepherd's tales, were further reënactments of the pastoreo journey along the road to see the Christ child. Satanás, the diabolical representation of the devil himself, is often portrayed by a comical baffoon-like figure, a character who tries in vain to dissuade the shepherds and followers of Joseph and Mary en route to Belén (Bethlehem) in the city of David that the wandering couple are robbers and homeless beggars not to be trusted. At the end of the lengthy procession and the breaking of the piñata, the participants celebrate by savoring steamed tamales navideños with hot chocolate. Sometimes fireworks finish off the parade, thus symbolizing the Light and the eternal glory of the arrival of the Christ child into our world. At midnight, la misa del gallo, or the "rooster's mass" (since the rooster was the first animal to crow or truly recognize the Christ child during its birth) is held, thus completing the religious reënactment at a local church. The tradition of Las posadas is still observed and practiced in México, Guatemala, and throughout much of the Spanish-American Southwest including many parts of Arizona, New México, Téxas, California, and Southern Colorado.
Since many adobe houses and domiciles throughout México and Central América have no chimneys, children cannot put out their Christmas stockings for Santa's arrival. So los Tres Reyes Magos or the Three Kings of Orient, who were mathematicians from Media, Persia (Iran), are anxiously awaited by los niños of Latin America. Mexican, Central and South American children believe that if they behave well throughout the entire year, Melchior, Gáspar, and Baltazar will bring them gifts by the morning of January the 6th. Since they know that the Three Wise Men will travel through the streets on camels late into the night while they're sound asleep, they leave their shoes out on the balcony for the Magi (hence our words magic and magician, or magia and mago). Some children leave out a list for the Magi of gifts they have wanted all year. If they have been good, they will receive dulces or treats put inside their shoes as well. Many times, the children of both Spain and the Spanish Américas will leave out straw for the camels' nourishment, for their long journey westward. January 6th, el Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, or "Three Kings Day" (the "twelfth day of Christmas") is also the Feast of the Epiphany on the Christian calendar. The Day of the Kings is also observed in Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Holland, Flanders, in parts of Belgium, and even in certain sections of Switzerland and France today. In the poem below, T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) gives us a stark, raw vision of the momentous journey of the Three Kings of Orient, as envisioned through the eyes of one of them personally:
THE JOURNEY OF THE MAGI
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen the birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In Puerto Rico, there exists an age-old custom known as la parranda, preceded by the asalto. This is when, on Christmas night, the streets are invaded by noisy revelers and merrymakers intent on waking everybody while all are snuggled in bed and sound asleep. This continues with much shouting and laughter ending in the playing of the aguinaldos, a non-material gift of song and serenade. Musicians stroll from one house to the next in the streets of Old San Juan expecting to find hospitality in food and drink to be given them while neighbors open their doors with welcoming, but sleepy faces. The parrandistas break out their guitars, güiros, maracas, sometimes marimbas and literally sing for a supper through the strumming of cuatros, whether for pastries or pasteles, or for sugar-caned rum or ron cañita, or for some strong libation and spirits as they lavish their neighbors with lovely Latin rhythms and melodies. The parranda was a lovely custom that traces itself back to the medieval Provençal troubadours of an earlier France and Spain. This musical gift of the plaintive aguinaldo on Christmas Eve is more suited for a balmy, out-of-doors tropical world of the palm and eucalyptus tree, of warm winter nights, and of enchanting small ocean-sprayed fishing villages on a warm December's even.
Most of us during this most festive time of the year associate Christmastime with Christmas trees, those beautiful evergreens and noble firs of heavenly scent. Yet Christmas trees have no historical nor lingüistic connection whatsoever with "Christ's mass". They predate Christianity by thousands of years going back to the time of the Druids, that priestly class of the Celtic peoples who occupied what is now England and France millennia ago. The Druids, being sorcerers, prophets, priests, healers and curanderos, performed magical feats, cast multiple spells, worshipped Nature, and held secret hideaway meetings in sacred groves. During the time of their winter solstice around December 21st, the Druidic priests decorated trees outdoors with apples and lit candles, then placed them ever so cautiously on the branches out of gratitude to their god Odin for his bestowing fruits upon them. The candles represented the eternal Light of their sun god Balter. The Druids are the first known people to have decorated trees with apples (which represented fertility) at wintertide, and for them it served a religious purpose as well. Much later, the Christians integrated the concept of apples as ornaments upon the fir tree as symbolic of the Garden of Eden, to be associated with Adam and Eve's eternal "fall from grace".
The ancient Romans, centuries later, also put candles on the branches of trees during the month of December in honor of their Saturnalia, a week long party and fiesta in honor of their god of agriculture Saturnus. By adorning their trees with trinkets and handicrafts, the Romans paid tribute to their sun god Solarus, expressing hope and faith that the long days of darkness would become shorter and sunnier. Many historians believe that today's custom of bringing in the Christmas tree is a direct descendant of this ancient Roman tradition, but this is not altogether certain. The ancient Egyptians, too, honored their goddess of harvest Isis, and their mother-of-the-Sun goddess Horus. This also coincided with the winter solstice (due to the Earth's tilt and inclination of 23.5 degrees, thus producing our seasons). During this festival in late December, Egyptians brought palm branches into their homes, perhaps pre-empting Easter's Palm Sunday, used as a symbol of the eternal nature of Life and of the continuance of Egyptian society itself.
But a Christian legend abounds regarding a particular Winfried of England, whose name in the Roman tongue was Bonifacius and who many of his contemporaries called the Apostle of Germany. This warrior and strong voice of the Crusades came to be linked with the advent of the first Christmas tree. He had left his fair home in Wessex, so the story goes, and headed into the black forests of the North to convert the "heathen pagans" to Christianity. Here again, we can see rather clearly how the faith of the Cross can christen pagan traditions so conveniently to appease its followers. According to this legend, Winfried the English missionary was in Germany trying to convert the "pagan rabble". Upon encountering an unruly mob who were about to sacrifice a certain Prince Asulf to their god Thor, Winfried stopped them. This mob had gathered around the sacred oak tree of Odin at Geismar, considered to be sinister by the missionary. Winfried henceforth proceeded to chop down the "blood oak" before their very eyes. As this oak tree fell to the ground, a fir tree immediately sprang from it! This fir tree supposedly grew into a "tree of Christ", thus becoming a symbol of love and human kindness that should be taken inside of everyone's home. This may be where our modern Christmas carol Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree came from, albeit it was a fir tree. Winfried then recounted to the tribesmen the birth of the Christ child, who was destined to become the savior of the Western world.
Other legends abound that are obscured in antiquity's veiled shroud of mystery and lack of written records regarding the origins of the Christmas tree. One such legend is attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546), the 16th Century German leader of church reform and pioneer of the Protestant Reformation. It is said that on Christmas Eve of 1519, the stars shone so brightly that Martin Luther could see his way clearly in the reflected snow on this dark night of December the 24th . As he traveled forth, he went out into the forest and returned with a beautiful fir tree, bringing it into his home so his family could admire its refreshing beauty. He then placed glowing candles atop its branches to emulate the starlight outside, stating that the candles symbolized the shining stars in the heavens above Bethlehem from some fourteen centuries earlier.
Yet our modern custom of bringing in the Christmas greens (and hence, the Christmas tree) stems mainly from Germany, the land of Martin Luther and the Tannenbaum. The very first reference in print to Christmas trees is a forest ordinance from Ammerschweier in Alsace, Germany from 1561. A half century later, another reference to a Christmas tree comes to us from a German book dated 1604. Christmas trees were sparse and scanty in the village households throughout Europe during the following few centuries. And it was largely through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Germany's foremost writer of the Romantic Era and author of Faustus, along with his literary colleagues that the Christmas tree spread to various and widespread parts of Germany.
With somewhat historical irony, however, it was the German-speaking Hessian mercenary soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution who crossed the Atlantic Ocean with their Christmas tree custom. Somewhat legendary perhaps, sick with nostalgia and homesick beyond all measure the Hessians set up Christmas trees in their homes in their newly adopted America, just as they had done during the long cold month of December back home. Yet it's been found in a diary of one Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, dated December 20, 1821, that "a tree with a myriad of decorations" was entered in his pages. This is the first mention of a Christmas tree in the New World, that we know of with any certainty.
In 1737, a writer at Wittenberg made the first epistolary note referring to an evergreen tree with candles on it! The Christmas tree was known in England as early as 1789 though it did not become generally accepted in Great Britain until the 1840s. Finally, by the end of the 19th Century which saw masses from Europe immigrating to the United States, the Christmas tree was brought along with them and, before too very long, one state after another made Christmas a legal holiday. In 1831, Arkansas and Louisiana became the first states to observe Christmas Day as a holiday. This helped to bring the Christmas tree, with all of its lights, decorations, and presents underneath it into the homes of many a family across the United States once and for all. By 1856, Franklin Pierce decorated the first Christmas tree at the White House.
CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS GO UNDERGROUND!
By the 1640s, an official ban on winter revelry, and on Christmas in particular, was begun in England. This was most likely rooted in fear of eternal punishment for worldly over indulgences. This Puritanical prudishness had crossed the Atlantic Ocean with settlers coming to the New World. So the colonies of Puritan persuasion on the North American continent did not celebrate Christmas as a holy day either during the time of the Revolution. A Massachusetts law in 1659 disallowed anyone celebrating the festivity with steep fines and penalties. In 1620, the religious Separatists who later were to become widely known as "the Pilgrims" had hoped "to rid the Christmas curse". The Protestants had all but ignored Christmas and its accompanying celebrations for decades. In 1642, England's Puritan government under the tight-fisted Oliver Cromwell banned Christian celebrations altogether. So on June 3, 1647, Parliament set forth punishments for observing Christmas and other like holidays:
RESOLVED BY THE PARLIAMENT:
That no Observation shall be had of the Five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day: nor any Solemnity used or exercised in Churches upon the Day in respect thereof.
By 1659, celebrants of Christmas sought and found out could be fined up to five schillings in disobedience of Cromwell's ordinance. Therefore, Christmas subsequently had gone underground. This was to result in an almost 200-year drought of Christmas celebrations
in England from Puritanical disapproval. The final outcome of these quite conservative measures was rioting and menacing carousal throughout the streets of England in protest. The Britons, during such austere times, had thenceforth become isolated from the rowdy frolic and revelry that were so characteristic of its contemporary European neighbors: chaotic vandalism and general "misrule" on the streets with brawling, drunken charivari as ruffian villager celebrants wandered in voluminous frolic. Oftentimes a student, a
manservant, or even a beggar from the street was dutifully "crowned" a Lord of Misrule for three days and nights. This chosen individual oftentimes would exchange rôles with his master, the latter becoming his servant during the wintertide observance, resonating with echoes of the Abbot of Unreason from out of Scotland's Middle Ages. Indeed, both personages were mischievous characters of a sacrilegious nature who held sway over mummers and their merrymaking festivities. Our modern Yuletide drink eggnog has been handed down to us from these mummers of yore with their Germanic word grog meaning "any drink made with rum", a new libation for the times to incite further frivolity and chaos.
THE RESTORATION OF CHRISTMAS
After this relatively brief period of prohibition having been imposed and legislated by the Puritans, Christmas was once again restored to practice in England, though the prior splendor and outer pageantry long associated with the celebration had lost its former luster. Christmas forever after would become a much quieter holiday. So by 1660, a much more enlightened King Charles the Second (1630-1685) of England revived the Christmas celebrations by allowing for both public and private worship of Christ. Restoration of the monarchy was soon to become equivalent with the restoration of Christmas itself. And reverence for a Christmas season with its counter celebrations to winter's darkness lingered on throughout the 18th Century.
By the turn of the 19th Century in 1815, Prussian author E.T.A.Hoffmann's (1776-1822) masterful short story of fantasy A New Year's Eve Adventure (Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht) captured the Christmas flavor throughout Prussia, Germany and northern Europe. In this frightening Yuletide tale, Erasmus Spikher makes a pact with the devil Dr. Dapertutto by sacrificing his own reflection in the mirror for the eternal affections of his lost love in Julia. This sinister holiday work of Hoffmann was soon to be followed up with his Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig) in 1816, another darkly nightmarish tale. In this somber and highly imaginative story, a proper young girl named Marie and her brother Fritz experience an extended fantasy world of holiday misrule on Christmas Eve. Marie is relentlessly pursued by her evil horologist and toymaker Uncle Drosselmeier as her world around her turns upside down before her unbelieving eyes. Hoffmann's literary masterpieces of fantasy were soon translated into other languages of Europe. Eventually the Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) used this tale of Hoffmann as a springboard for his now perennially popular Yuletide musical ballet The Nutcracker Suite in 1891. Tchaikovsky then changed Marie's original name in Hoffmann's Christmastide story to Clara in his theatrical spectacle. A competing Yuletide favorite book at the time entitled Kris Kringle's Raree Show was soon forgotten after the Russian composer's magnanimous musical triumph of the holiday season.
So by the end of the19th Century, Christmas trees were
starting to appear in people's homes in Germany, Denmark, Finland, Austria,
Sweden, and Norway. England was slow to catch on, however, and it is of note
that Charles Dickens knew nothing of Christmas trees in English households as late as 1843, the year his most famous work associated with the holiday season A Christmas
Carol was published. In that masterful yet brief work, Dickens
personifies the true spirit of Christmas, reminding us all that it is never too late for our own personal
Redemption. Also in that same year, the first-known Christmas
card was published. It was created for Sir Henry Cole by John C. Horsley and it
"A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You".
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German husband, celebrated the birth of their first son in 1841 with a full Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. Yet England was still held sway under its intoxicating influence of the revelers and their Lord of Misrule from medieval times. It wasn't until 1848 that the London Illustrated News published the first engraving of the royal family of Queen Victoria and her cousin Prince Albert next to a decorated fir tree, thus firmly establishing in the public's mind the tell tale signs of a forthcoming English Christmas.
Following is a poem entitled Christmas in the Heart, written by Garnett Ann Schultz, which exudes and fully encompasses the true spirit of the holiday season:
When you feel a warm contentment
And a twinkle lights your eye,
When you love the rush and hurry
Of the shoppers passing by,
When the mistletoe and holly
Hold a thrill beyond compare,
And your heart can find a beauty
In the nippy wintry air...
When it's Christmas all around you
On the corner of the street,
And you lend a Christmas greeting
To the folks you chance to meet,
Decorations in the windows,
Santa winks a "knowing" eye,
Toylands buzzing with excitement
As December hurries by...
When it's Christmas in the city
Streets of wondrous snowy white,
With a still and magic beauty
In the quiet of the night,
There's a peace and understanding
That the holidays impart,
And 'tis then you know for certain,
It is Christmas in the heart.
Christmas holds a special meaning
And it brings a love untold,
Filled with keen and real excitement
As the season's joys unfold.
Still the hustle and the hurry
Are a very minor part,
For it never can be Christmas
Till it's Christmas in the heart.
HOLLY WREATHS AND MISTLETOE
Our modern term wreath, or corona de flores ("crown of flowers") in Spanish is, curiously enough, etymologically linked to our word wrist with both terms implying a continuous physical circular shape. It came from the Olde English writha, then it transpired into Middle English's wrethe denoting a twisted band or ring of leaves or flowers formed into a garland. The holly wreath goes back to the prehistorically Germanic wristiz, which also produced the modern German rist meaning both "in-step" and "wrist" and its modern variant in today's Swedish's vrist, denoting the same meaning. This was derived from the earlier, lengthy prefix writh- whose wr- sound might have been originally associated with a twisting motion.
In México and throughout many parts of Latin America, la estación festiva or the holiday season begins on December 7th and continues for almost two full months thru February 2nd. In this sense, it is truly a "season" and not simply a "holiday break". On the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, Mexican families serve rosca de reyes (literally "ring of kings"), a traditional wreath-shaped cake pastry filled with spices, dried fruit, and one tiny doll representing the baby Jesús. Whoever finds the doll in his or her slice has to host the next feast or fiestecita, which is not very far off, on Candlemas, which falls on February 2nd. The terms holly (as in holly wreath) and holy are remotely related, distant cousins shall we say. From the Olde English halig meaning "hallowed" or "holy", this eventually through the centuries became the Middle English holie, connoting "wholesomeness", as a circular wreath would indicate.
The Celtic Druids of ancient times are the first society in known prehistory to have worn sprigs of holly and mistletoe. They named this parasitic plant (mistletoe) omnia sanitatem meaning "all healing" and it was prescribed for female infertility and as an antidote against poison. Sprigs of this yellow-green plant with its waxy white berries were also hung in their homes in order to ensure familial harmony and a year's good fortune. The ceremonial gathering of mistletoe from sacred oak trees by the highest ranking Druidic priests was later dramatized in Bellini's opéra entitled Norma. To the Scandinavians, who called the plant mistiltienn, mistletoe belonged to Frigga, their goddess of love, and holiday historians have speculated that the kissing custom was originally rooted and subsequently intermeshed into this romantic association.
The word mistletoe is somewhat of an etymological oddity and mystery, however, to historical lingüists. It may come from an Olde English compound mistletan from mistle, or "twig". It has current relatives such as German's mistil and mistel in both modern Dutch and Swedish. Ironically somewhat, no Victorian Christmas celebration would have been complete without its mistletoe, for the Victorians were rather keen on its sensuality inducing properties. Before the middle of the 19th Century and the popularization of the indoor Christmas tree, decorative winter greens adorned the English Christmas, consisting mainly of the kissing bough. Lighted candles oftentimes caressed the evergreen boughs decorated in holly, ivy, and mistletoe, sometimes with fruit atop its branches thus inviting enamored couples beneath it. Perhaps this is where and whence the origin of the kissing custom under the mistletoe originated.
For these bygone Celtic priests of yesteryear believed that holly,
with its glossy and shiny prickly leaves of green adorned with red berries,
remained green the entire year due to their magical properties. Mistletoe and
holly berries were considered sacred to the Druids. The bright
colors of the holly bush made it a natural representation of life
and rebirth during the cold harshness of the wintry whiteness of northern
Europe. Along with evergreens, these Teutonic peoples traditionally placed
holly plants within their dwellings to ward off unwanted lurking spirits and
menacing winter storms. Curiously, many
speculate that the holly berries have given us our green and
red colors of
Christmas. This same plant was also
sacred to the Romans during their Saturnalia festival. The
Romans exchanged holly wreaths as gifts, with the entailing symbolism of the
circle of the wreath implying Eternal Life itself. Once Christianity took hold in Rome,
however, holly wreaths became integrated with the Christmas holiday, yet mistletoe
still remained "pagan" due to its association with fertility and
"non-virginity". So, in 575 A.D., Bishop Martin of Bracae in Germany
forbade all Christmas greens by condemning them as "dangerous and heathen". Churches were not
to see their likeness again until many centuries later. It wasn't until William Shakespeare wrote, in the 16th Century
Then , heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
that the word holly appeared in writing for the very first
By the 17th Century, holly had become a grander part of the Christmas merriment once again. Soon the lovely verdant plant became Christianized to symbolize Jesus Christ's crown of thorns put atop his head by his Roman persecutors, while the red berries came to represent the blood of Christ (el sangre de Cristo). Holly then came to stand for peace, joy, contentment, and the hearth, yet many farmers in England had planted the holly berries near their homes to ward off witches and evil spirits during the dark chill of wintertime. A sprig of holly tied to one's bedpost often foretold of sweet dreams. A liquid tonic from the holly leaves brewed as a hot tea was said to act as a cough syrup and to have many medicinal properties in preventing the common cold.
Now Christmas is come
Let us beat up the drum
And call all our neighbors together;
And when they appear,
Let us make such good cheer
As will keep out the wind and weather!
SAINT NICHOLAS, SANTA CLAUS, AND FATHER CHRISTMAS
So just who were Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Père Noëlle and other related patron saints? Thousands of years before the time of Christ, Odin had pranced many a time through Scandinavian midwinter skies on his horse Sleipnir bringing tidings of great joy, sometimes rewards, and oftentimes punishment to expectant Viking children. Odin's son-god Thor (where we honor him every "Thor's Day" or Thursday in our English language), the god of thunder, farming, and war, had made his home in the far reaches of the icy North. Armed with his forks of lightning, and dressed in his blood-red winter attire, Thor bitterly fought off the gods of the ice and snow, thus conquering the deep chill of wintertide with his fiery hot lightning bolts. In Germany, a more benevolent goddess named Hertha descended from the wintry skies with her invisible, non-material gifts of good health, peace of mind, and family fortune.
Finally by the 4th Century A.D., somewhere between the years 280 and 300 A.D., there was born in Asia Minor of a well-to-do family a particular boy christened Nicolaos of Pátara in present-day Turkey, the son of Greek-speaking followers of Christ. Nicholas was raised to become a bishop of Myra (related to the resin myrrh) and to serve the church as his lifetime vocation. Legends abound of his kindness to animals and to children, of supposèd miracles he performed, and of his perpetual reverence of Nature and devotion to God. He was later persecuted and imprisoned for his faith at the time of Diocletian, yet he was never martyred. He fasted regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays.
One miraculous account from antiquity states that the bishop Nicholas quelled a storm at sea while on a voyage to the Holy Land of Palestine, restoring a dead sailor on board to life! Based on this one account, he is become the patron saint of sailors in Eastern Europe, Italy, and among many Greeks. On another occasion, a peasant named Shem of a particular township near the Caspian Sea had no dowry for the weddings of his three lovely daughters Sara, Celina and Ruth. He wanted to avoid the centuries-old disgrace of selling his daughters into prostitution. Shem found that Saint Nikolaus the Bishop of Myra had provided the first daughter with a pocketful of silver, the second with a bag of incense, and the third daughter with a sack of gold, which Nicholas had tossed down the chimney top into the wee hours of a winter's night at the bewitching hour of midnight. This third gift, the sack of gold it is said, fell into a stocking wet from the previous night's snowfall that was hung out by the chimney to dry. Saint Nicholas begged the peasant father not to say a thing to anybody of his altruistic deed, but word had begun to spread throughout Asia Minor and the Middle East that Saint Nicholas the Bishop was a miracle maker and healer. This eventually paved the way for Saint Nicholas to become the patron saint of maidens and unmarried young ladies throughout much of Southern Europe.
In yet another miraculous account out of antiquity, an impetuous innkeeper had murdered three young boys in cold blood and, to avoid detection, the man dismembered their bodies and hid the corpses from public view by wrapping them in plastic and burying them in a barrel of pickle juice hidden below his shop in an underground cellar. Seven years later Saint Nicholas not only discovered their remains through clairvoyance after he had entered the shop and interrogated the man and his wife, he reunited their bodily parts together in a Divine healing and Deliverance, restoring the boys to life once again! This particular story had become so popular by the Middle Ages that it was the subject of many a morality play on stage. And tales of Saint Nicholas' ability to raise the dead had flourished throughout the continent as well as in Asia Minor. Thus, he immediately became the patron saint of children around the world for all time to come.
Stories of Saint Nicholas' generosity grew with his impending popularity. Some 600 years later, in the year 1003 A.D., Saint Nicholas was crowned the patron saint of Russia by Emperor Vladimir while he (the emperor) was on a visit to Constantinople. The emperor had traveled there to be baptized and in the process had brought back anecdotes and tall tales of this miraculous patron saint. The great city honored Constantine, who came to power at the beginning of the 4th Century, had conquered Italy by 312 A.D., and ultimately allowed religious tolerance for Christians while promoting and protecting the new religion simultaneously. By 313 A.D., Constantine had issued the Edict of Milán, which recognized Christianity as the official religion of the land. Pagan temples henceforth were converted into churches throughout Europe. These ensuing conversions of the "heathens" to the faith of the Cross ended once and for all society's prior illicit "outlaw" status attributed to the Christians. Primitive pagan Germanic farmers who had believed only in their god of blessing and fertility now found their god of storms Woden (who flew through the winter night skies on a horse while wearing a brimmed hat) gradually being superceded by Saint Nicholas, thus extinguishing in time the former pagan godhead of these Teutonic peoples. But we still honor their god Woden to this very day in our English language on every "Woden's Day" or Wednesday. Saint Nicholas also played a significant rôle in the expansion of Christianity due to the Germanic tribes' subsequent embracing of Greco-Roman culture and civilization, which was creeping gradually northward from Southern Europe and into the more northern latitudes.
On December 6, 342 A.D. Saint Nicholas passed on, and the anniversary of the death of Saint Nicholas came to be observed on December 6th as St. Nicholas Day, ultimately merging into a "seasonal fusion" with "Christ's mass". But in 1037 A.D. the tomba di Santo Nicolás, or the saint's tomb and burial ground, was discovered robbed and emptied of its corpse by a small band of zealous Christian bandits who had feared that Turkish Islamic invaders might destroy the remains. The corpse of Saint Nicholas was ultimately taken to Bari, in Southern Italy, where his remains still lie buried underneath the Basílica di San Nicolás. Once a year during the merry month of May, the statue of St. Nicholas is brought down to the seashore of the Italian resort town and a formal ceremony is dutifully dispatched in remembrance of that extraordinary kidnapping that took place many centuries earlier. Today, Saint Nicholas is still considered to be the patron saint of seafarers, and especially of all children around the world. It has been said that a medicinal oil still flows from the entombed bones of Saint Nicholas' corpse, used often as an ointment in treating various ailments by people of Turkey and Italy.
Saint Nicholas eventually became the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. The Feast of Saint Nicholas came to be celebrated on the vespers of December the 5th when gifts are passed out among family members, especially in the Netherlands (in Holland and Flanders). Finland, with its numerous indigenous reindeer and "helper" elves, came to be associated with Saint Nicholas also, soon to be merging into Sinterklaas by the Dutch. Today, presents given to farmers and to rural folk, as well as symbolic ceremonies with Saint Nicholas marching through snow-packed Scandinavian villages followed by livestock, beasts of burden, and reindeer commemorate lingering traditions and customs of northern Europe's prehistoric past, a history that remains intricately connected with this most enduring of saints the world has ever known.
Yet it was the Dutch settlers who, during the 17th Century, brought their Sinterklaas across the Atlantic Ocean to the State of New York, founding many Dutch colonies there in the upstate region along the Hudson River. This included New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) as well as the townships of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Dutch children were told of a Sinterklaas who sailed from a faraway land called Spain with the assistance of some dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Moorish helpers headed by a youth called Black Peter. They were further told that if they were naughty and not nice, they would receive no gifts in their sabots or wooden shoes from the Christchild other than a lump of black coal. Oftentimes, Dutch children would appease Sinterklaas by putting sugar and hay in their own shoes as an offering for the patron saint's horse, much like Latin American children do to please los Reyes Magos. And upon awakening on Christmas morning the children of the Netherlands would find their shoes having been filled with nuts, candies, and handicrafted trinkets. Many a time, Sinterklaas arrived dressed in a bishop's red robe. He usually resembled the father or oldest son of the household and knew much about little children and their ways. He often carried a birch rod alongside of his presents in case any children had misbehaved throughout the past year. The name of Sinterklaas thus paved the way for English's Santa Claus, that jolly old elf who descends North American chimneys every Christmas Eve.
WASHINGTON IRVING AND THE DUTCH
The United States, with its humble
beginnings entrenched in Puritanical thought, had absolutely nothing to do with
saints or with celebrations of Christmas in its earlier, formative years. So it
was not until after the American Revolution that the customs of Christmas, such
as those of the Pennsylvania Dutch, began to extend out into the broader
communities. And the legends of Saint Nicholas were becoming so seated and localized in the Dutch communities of upstate New York that by 1809,
Washington Irving (1783-1859), considered to be America's first short story
writer along with Edgar Allan Poe, had retold them in his rather satirical work
entitled Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of
New York, from the
Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, later to be
published in 1812. This literary work was
widely read and henceforth popularized Saint Nicholas throughout the United
States. Irving's further Christmas anecdotes, including the roasting and
ceremonious bringing in of the boar's head by the good Squire and Master Simon Bracebridge
Bracebridge Hall (originally a Norse custom at Christmas time), and his accounts of the "merrie disports and rural
games of former
times", were made famous in his prolific work The Sketch Book of
Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published in serial installments from 1819 to 1820.
In his three short stories contained within the work: Christmas Eve,
Christmas Day, and The Christmas Dinner, Washington Irving
creates an imaginary English manor in the countryside where squires welcome
peasants in for a hearty Christmas dinner, thus allowing for the different
social classes to intermix together most effortlessly:
"...all day long, when rich and poor were alike welcome to enter and make merry
with all due disappearance of class distinctions in keeping with the season. "
This story of Bracebridge Hall, with Master Simon's insistence upon observing and practicing the antique Christmas country customs of yesteryear, served as a sober reminder to the British people of the glorious bygone holiday traditions that they were in danger of allowing to fall into total ruin and to disappear into permanent oblivion.
JOHN PINTARD AND CLEMENT C. MOORE
A contemporary of Washington Irving named John Pintard (1759-1844), who was a very prosperous New York City merchant and was an accomplished historian obsessed with past traditions from antiquity, somehow got the idea to honor officially Sancte Clause. So on December 6, 1810, exactly one year after the publication of Irving's History of New York, for the sake of the Historical Society's St. Nicholas dinner, Pintard invited many prominent citizens of New York for the Yuletide banquet. He was deeply concerned about the plight of the poor and the resulting violence and unrest of the holiday season. In his imagination, much like Washington Irving had done, John Pintard resurrected many customs of olden times, celebrations which intermeshed rich and poor alike under one roof. Many of these so-called "customs" never actually had existed before, but he invented them to suit his own purposes and for those of humankind at large. Both he and Irving had expressed a deep longing and nostalgia for more innocent days of wassailing and to rid Christmas of its season of menace from former times past. Before Pintard's introduction of Saint Nicholas as the Historical Society's patron saint, and hence the official protector of the city of New York, there had been no signs or evidence of any Santa Claus rituals within the state at all. Pintard's benevolence pointed toward a need for change and social reform regarding the Christmas celebrations of his day, and in the end, Saint Nicholas Day (December the 6th) became an official observance in honor of the bishop saint from Myra, Turkey due to his (Pintard's) positive, proactive efforts. According to Stephen Nissenbaum's masterpiece of Christmas cultural history The Battle for Christmas, John Pintard is also credited with having founded the New York Historical Society in 1804 as well as helping to establish such national holiday observances as Columbus Day, George Washington's birthday, and the Fourth of July.
Then, in 1822, an Episcopal minister and much learnèd Hebrew scholar and professor named Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863) wrote a poem on Christmas Eve, intended only for his six children and family: A Visit from Saint Nicholas, later to become the world renowned The Night Before Christmas. This famous poem of Moore's, which was partly inspired by the custom of European colonists who celebrated the Feast of Saint Nicholas, did more to paint Santa Claus as fat and jolly with multiple reindeer and an uncanny ability to descend chimneys with presents in his sack, than did any other influence since. Moore's Saint Nick completely lacked any menace toward children who were naughty, and hence never carried a switch with which to punish them. His was truly a loving, benevolent father figure of a Santa Claus. Though Moore had written this destined-to-become classic work on Christmas Eve of 1822, the poem clandestinely made its anonymous début in the newspaper Troy Sentenial of Troy, New York the following year in 1823. Clement C. Moore had deliberately kept his identity a secret due to his religious affiliations. So it wasn't until as late as 1844, some 22 Christmases later, that Moore accepted full authorship of his poem. Unintentionally perhaps, he promoted a more secular Christmas: a holiday which included the Greek Orthodox bishop of Myra. Moore also refers to our patron saint of children informally as "St. Nick" in his poem. This icon was to stick in North American literature, etchings, paintings, and folklore for all time to come. Some historians believe that a Revolutionary War veteran living in upstate New York named Henry Livingston might have authored A Visit From Saint Nicholas as early as 1807, but this has been largely discredited by most historians today.
But the real credit for standardizing Santa Claus visually across North America and Europe goes to Thomas Nast (1840-1902), the son of an immigrant Bavarian musician who played in a German regiment band. Nast was a political cartoonist par excellence who, in 1863, began drawing a series of Christmas drawings for Harper's Weekly. He continued his cartoonist career focusing on Christmas themes and Santa Claus (oftentimes smoking a pipe) with Illustrated London News well into 1886. Nast gave the American and British public a different portrait of Santa every Christmas throughout the following years to come. The artist added new dimensions and aspects to the patron saint's lifestyle, like moving his residence to the North Pole. Nast's original Santa Claus became a combination of Moore's Saint Nicholas and Germany's gnome-like Pelz-Nicol, literally "fur-Nicholas", as he had remembered him from his recent childhood in Germany. Nast painted a rather corpulent, rotund Santa, thus reflecting a growing and abundantly rising 19th Century wealthy upper class. This one artist, with his indefatigable genius for drawing his 19th Century black ink sketches, firmly established our Santa Claus by bringing him into every American household by the late 1890s. A further addition to Santa's wardrobe came about when, in 1923, The Coca-Cola Company hired a Swedish-American artist named Hans Sundblom to do a painting of Santa Claus for a Christmas advertising campaign for the holiday season of that year, and to promote their favorite beverage for America. Sundblom portrayed a Santa drinking the popular soda while clad in a red and white cumbersome overcoat with a matching cap and heavy black boots. This is the image most familiar to our modern children of the United States and Canada today. So Saint Nicholas had undergone a gradual metamorphosis by changing his name over the ensuing centuries, eventually becoming Father Christmas in England, Weihnachtsmann in Germany, Christkindlein in Austria and in parts of Switzerland, and Père Noël in France. In the United States, Kris Kringle is become a corruption of the German Kristkind, having now become almost synonymous with the term Santa Claus itself, thanks in large part to Hollywood's popular 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street. Only Holland has retained his original name of Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus, since, has come to represent and embody generosity, happiness, and the protection of all of our world's children.
In the Southern Hemisphere and the warmer climes of December, Father Christmas is become the patron saint of many a child. A somewhat vague and obscure Father Christmas had long existed in Northern Europe as a folk figure, especially in England, Scotland, and Wales. But dear old Father Christmas was driven asunder by that Puritan ban on Christmas celebrations in the 17th Century, only to rear his contented head again for a brief time during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th Century. Neither the jolly old elf of Santa Claus nor the original ascetic in Saint Nicholas, this Father Christmas of the Middle Ages was a far different figure altogether. Father Christmas not only enjoyed an active rôle in medieval mummers' plays, he was entirely pagan in nature and concerned himself more with fertility rites under the mistletoe for adults, with savoring strong drink and libation, or with indulging in sensuous secular pleasures more so than with pleasing young children around the world with gifts. Father Christmas never was to become a Christian religious figure, but symbolized rather those worldly secular pleasures that came from remoter pagan times out of a more distant pre-Christian past. He is often portrayed with a bowl of hot steaming crab apple punch or is seen beside a burning Yule log. Charles Dickens' Spirit of Christmas Present appears to be an adequate representation of him. His attire, befitting of the warmer temperatures in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa during the Yuletide season, consists of a green robe with a holly or ivy wreath placed atop his head. Other images of him from paintings by Metsu and by the Dutch artist Jan Steen indicate this pagan father figure wearing a brown smock, carrying a torch to illumine his path, or porting a lute.
In old Czechoslovakia, children believed that Svaty Mikulas descended from heaven on a golden cord supported by a benevolent angel. Upon awakening on Christmas morning, Czech children would immediately gather at the breakfast table to recite their prayers of thankfulness, and ask if they had behaved well that year. If they had, Svaty Mikulas rewarded them with a present. In parts of the remote Swiss Alps, the "ghosts of the field" cleared a path for the arrival of Saint Nicholas. Following right behind them was a village townsman wearing a goat's head with another villager masked as a demon with a birch switch, a threatening gesture for the young Swiss misbehaves.
In Denmark, another happy gift-giver named Julemanden carries a sack full of goodies and is drawn by reindeer like Saint Nicholas. This patron saint of Scandinavian children has elves or helpers called Juul Nisse. They are said to have originated from the attics inside of Danish houses or barns in the farm fields. During the night before Christmas, the children of Denmark put out a saucer of milk with rice pudding for the elves. Come morning time, the young children are thrilled to find their plates left empty, having fed the Juul Nisse, thus rewarding them for their annual chore and kindness. Jola Sveinar is the wintertide gift-giver of Icelandic children, while Jultomten is the juvenile patron saint of Sweden.
During the time when the Tudor King Henry
seizing the monasteries, the Abbot of Glastonbury hoped by a tactful gesture to
appease his sovereign. He had a Christmas pie baked wherein he concealed the
title deeds of several of his manors. This tasty holiday pastry he dutifully
dispatched to the King in the charge of his steward J. Horner. It is not
altogether clear whether this Yuletide dessert was a mince pie (which at
the time consisted of minced meat) or was a fruit pie of sorts, for
Christmas pie had been forbidden by the higher authorities at the time. Hence, a
rather ironic, and exceedingly brief anecdotal nursery rhyme appeared shortly thereafter:
Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating his Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, what a good boy am I.
During his sojourn, however, the astute Horner abstracted the title to the manor of Mells in Somerset from the Christmas confection and retained it for himself, in all due humility and civility.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the greatest and most influential Elizabethan playwright and poet of our English language, had this literary observation of this most sacred of holidays:
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
(from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1)
THE 18th AND 19th CENTURIES
During much of the 18th Century, Christmas had fallen into a somewhat chaotic state of affairs with the eventual widening separation in social classes brought on by the Industrial Revolution, with rampant unemployment spreading across the United States, and with uncontrolled racial rioting. So unruly Yuletide frolic and displays of public drunkenness during the darkness of wintertide had become prevalent. Hoodlums and marauders ravaged many streets, thus resulting in Christmas festivities becoming primarily public affairs, not private. At times, the peace and security of respectable households and neighborhoods in both England and America were at stake. At this juncture in history, Christmas had little to do with family from within and all to do with misrule and frivolity from without. Some of this was due in part to the Christmas season having been traditionally held for twelve nights for so many previous centuries. Another part of this was from a natural reaction to the Puritanical banning of Christmas celebrations in England from the century before. Yet due in large part to Washington Irving's The Sketch Book (1819-20), to Clement C. Moore's epic poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas (1822), to Charles Dickens's writing and publication of both Sketches by Boz (1836) and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837), and to Thomas Nast's superior holiday etchings, Christmas was increasingly being cast into a middle-class idiom by its ultimately being integrated into hearth, home, and the domestic limelight. This allowed for Christmas to merge with and to become associated with familial tranquility once and for all, no longer to be associated with public revelry nor outside nuisance and raucous.
In 1828, the American Minister to México, Joel R. Poinsette, brought the first official red and green flowers back to the United States at Christmas time. Due to the colors of the flower closely resembling that of the holly and the ivy, these flowers eventually became christened poinsettias. During the period approximately between 1820 to 1830, Christmas was becoming a holiday to lavish upon children. From 1840 onward, Christmas had become a more colorfully decorous and family-centered affair, with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, holly wreaths, home visiting, and church-going accompanied by new patterns of consumption that both incorporated and displaced the holiday's prior discordant elements.
THE YULE LOG
Up until the end of the 19th Century when fires blazed in open hearths in the English countryside, no Christmas Eve was complete without the bringing in of the Yule log. Like so many other Christmas symbols, this too goes far back into our remote cultural past. According to the sagas of the Norsemen and Vikings of Scandinavia well before the time of Christ, the sun was a spinning wheel of fire, known as hweol, that approached during summertime and receded during the wintry months. Northern Yuletide festivals were grounded in keeping warm inside and safe from the harsh elements outside, from the demons of inclement weather and icy storms. As the days became longer in the Northern Hemisphere come January, huge bonfires blazed to keep the populace warm. Animals were slaughtered and buried under the snow pack for future storage. From the Old Norse name Hweolor-tid, meaning the "turning time of the sun", come our modern words Yuletide and jolly. The Norsemen began to burn a Yule log and kept it burning both day and night during the darkest days of the winter solstice, mainly for light and warmth to counteract the wintry freeze. After having been burned for twelve successive days and nights in festive revelry, the log was finally extinguished in favor of longer days and warmer nights. Then a brand or large piece of the log was saved to ignite the Yule log for the forthcoming winter of the following year. Thus, the rekindled brand symbolized the continuance of life and survival for at least one more year. In medieval times, the log to be burned for the forthcoming year was selected on Candlemas, February 2nd, and was then set out to dry during the coming spring. Logs that were used from ash trees came to be called ashen faggot. Another tree to be used was the oak. The Druids, who had formerly placed candles on branches of trees and cut mistletoe at the winter solstice, burned a Yule log as well. Eventually, with the continued disappearance of the fireplace in the home due to continued modernization in home heating and electricity, the tradition of the Yule log burning was soon to become extinct. Today the Yule log is still a symbol of these former times, often to be found on Christmas cards, in log-shaped cakes and Swiss pastries known as a bûche de Noël, as decorations, and sometimes as ornaments on our modern Christmas trees.
RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER
In 1939 Robert L. May, a copywriter and publicist for Montgomery Ward Department stores, wrote a promotional children's book regarding an ostracized reindeer who suffered from a glowing red nose. In his book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, May turned the reindeer's handicap into an asset for Santa by allowing him to "guide his sleigh tonight" with his "shiny nose" serving much like a searchlight. This allowed Rudolph to fly into the fertile imaginations of millions of North American children and youngsters thereafter. A decade later, in 1949 a theme song on Rudolph composed by Johnny Marks hit the radio air waves and instantly popularized the flying deer throughout America. This song was first performed by the "Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry. Two years later in 1951, a full color cartoon by Max Fleischer animated a needy Santa Claus with his special reindeer Rudolph onto the silver screen. May, much like Moore, had little idea of the impending icon that he had created for many a Christmas holiday season yet to come. In large part due to both May and Moore, Santa's subsequent distribution of gifts to children on a worldwide scale ultimately took presents out of the realm of commerce and into the home and family. Christmas shopping has since become a yearly credit card buying frenzy.
ASTRONOMICAL AND BIBLICAL REFERENCES
Many historians agree that December the 25th originally honored the birth of a Roman pagan god and "savior" called Mithra, an unconquered Persian astrotheological sun-god. This precise wintry date was to become to the Christians the Feast Day of the Nativity. The pagan Roman emperor Aurelian had proclaimed December 25th as Natalis Solis Invicti, or the festival of the invincible, eternal Sun. Yet Mithraism and Zoroastrian thought had much in common with up and coming Christianity: monotheism, baptism, a doctrine of an Intercessor and Redeemer, a future life, and an eschatological day of final judgment with its ultimate redemption in paradise (or Heaven). This same date coincided with Brumalia, the Roman's festival of the winter solstice, which was followed by eleven (plus) days of the Saturnalia, Opalia, and Juvenalia celebrations, the latter honoring children, from whence come our modern terms Saturn, Saturday, opal, opulent, and juvenile.
Much like the Biblical account of Jesus' birth,
Mithra, too, was an infant god born out of pastoral fields. If, as is stated in
the biblical passage of St. Luke that
"the shepherds (were) abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night",
then is must be assumed that these night watchmen could not have done so in the deep dark cold of wintry nights, especially in a Middle Eastern desert. For March and April on our present calendar (as was originally conceived by the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus in 523 A.D.) was the time when the shepherds in Judea were tending their newborn lambs. By 350 A.D., Pope Julius the First, who was head of the church in Rome at the time, formally declared that December the 25th would be celebrated each year as the official date of Jesus's birth.
But come 1582, Pope Gregory, who was fascinated with the precise nature of mathematics and astronomy, introduced corrections to the Julian calendar by replacing it, in all due modesty, with his own Gregorian calendar. This newer calendar proved to be much more accurate in terms of measuring and predicting the progression of the equinoxes and the seasons with more precision than the former Julian calendar had. Based on this transition in calendars, this would then put the birth of the Christ child and the appearance of the radiant Star in the East somewhere between 7 B.C. and 2 B.C. Some modern astronomers have even been so bold as to pinpoint the precise birth day of the Christ Child as April 17, 6 B.C., ironically within the range of Eastertide and the Resurrection mythos.
If the bright Star of Bethlehem had been a planetary conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the biblical eastern skies, it must have occurred sometime between the years 7 and 6 B.C. For the superior German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) had witnessed this very same astronomical event in October of 1604, and his precise mathematical calculations showed that such a planetary conjunction happened every 805 years dating back into antiquity. This would mean that this rather rare event of these three planets "touching together" in the nighttime sky last occurred in 799 A.D., and before that in the months of May thru June, September thru October, and in particular in December of 7 B.C. Though this stellar brilliance must have been visible to most people living at the time, such a multiple planetary transit would have held a special interest and significance to astrologers, which indeed the Magi were reported to have been. Throughout the annals of classical European literature, the Magi have been portrayed as members of an ancient Babylonian court in Mesopotamia and were considered to have been skilled, practiced observers of the heavens. Astronomy and astrology were synchronized into one discipline during that era. Their world view was such that comets were portents of doom or disaster (from the Greek di "malicious" with astron "star", or the coming together of doomed stars in the sky).
Once again, in the biblical
account according to the gospel of St. Luke, we read:
"Lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was."
In keeping with ancient world astronomical paradigms in collective thought (as opposed to our modern view of the cosmos) that the ceiling of the heavens enclosed asteroids or cometary débris or meteoric activity, this biblical description could possibly fit a vision of a comet hanging in the sky over Bethlehem. Indeed, the ancients couldn't distinguish between a star or a planet or "wanderer" at the time. Nor did they have any of our modern notions of stellar magnitude (the brightness of the stars) or angular momentum (the motion of the stars) either. Yet Chinese astronomers during the Han Dynasty had officially recorded such a comet during the spring of 5 B.C. In 248 A.D., the Christian theologian and teacher Origen made reference to this same comet. This poses an alternative theory to Kepler's triple planetary conjunction, though one might think that most people living at the time would have been able to distinguish between a pendulum comet hanging in the nighttime skies and a brighter-than-normal star. This particular comet towered overhead for 70 consecutive nights, about the exact same length of time that it would have taken the Magi, with their fully packed camels, to cross a 900-mile stretch of mountain and sand across the Fertile Crescent and into Bethlehem.
A third theory put forth regarding the Star of Bethlehem, that of a supernova death star explosion having illuminated the path in the nighttime desert skies for the Magi, is generally discounted since the last supernova visible from the Earth to the naked eye occurred in 1054 A.D., again documented by the Chinese. No such spectacular stellar event (Supernova Bethlehem) is known to have occurred during the time of the birth of the Christ child, nor since.
So once Christianity was assimilated into Roman society, any pre-existing pagan godheads soon faded and the birth of the Christ child was put on the Roman calendar in their tenth month of the year: December (from Latin's decem meaning "ten", as in decimal, decade, and decimate), though the month's name had yet to be evolved. By means of some historical association, Jesus' birth date was "fused" or assimilated with that of Mithra's. Multiple scholars have actually calculated the birth of Jesus to have been in the springtime as many Biblical passages would suggest, possibly around March 22nd or thereafter during Eastertide, and not in our month of December at all.
So, just what do holly wreaths, mistletoe, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees have in common? Actually nothing, other than that they all seem to appear together mostly during our northern winter solstice. Much or our Christmas of today is but a blend or mixture of its perpetual dual aspects: the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, the ecclesiastical and the vulgar, the pious and the rebellious. So many other symbols of Christmastide have gone unmentioned in this brief document: the Ukranian Baboushka (meaning grandmother in Russian) who inadvertently misdirected the wandering Zoroastrian prophets or magi from Persia as their caravan passed through her tiny village late in the night. Omitted, too, are the legend of the wintry witch "Lady Santa Claus" La Belfana of Italy (from a possible corruption of the term Epifanía) who refused to help the Three Wise Men because she was too busy doing her household chores, or the miraculous story of the Star in the East over Bethlehem and the ensuing arrival of the Christ child, born of Mary and Joseph. Not mentioned either are wassailing (an old English salutation meaning "Be well" involving the drunken singing of carols to neighbors for a holiday cheer), caroling, games of former times like snapdragon and blind man's bluff, the mummers' morality plays out of the Middle Ages, the Old Norse and Scandinavian custom of the boar's head feast and its accompanying religious rituals, the Lords of Misrule, the Bohemian Good King Wenceslas of Czechoslovakia, and Twelfth Night. Nor are included the culinary ceremonial Christmas feasts of fowl or ham, goose and gander, fish or turkey, or the traditional candlelight ceremonies and vigils held worldwide during each Yuletide season. Much remains yet to be written. May Christmastide continue to bring "Peace on Earth, good will toward all".
"Christmas comes but once a year
Therefore let us be merry"...
"Christmas! Holidays that have
a rosy glow for me. I am a better, finer man than the rest of the year, and
there isn't a single gloomy, misanthropic thought in my mind."
from E.T.A. Hoffmann's A New Year's Eve Adventure, 1815
"If we are going to keep
Christ in Christmas, then let's keep hallowed in Hallowe'en."
"Heap on more wood! The wind is
But let it whistle as it will;
We'll keep our Christmas merry still."
from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, 1808
for more on the Xmas holiday visit: http://christmaspast.info
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Hallowe'en poem: Winds of October
Day of the Dead/Día de los muertos
Origins of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving short story of fantasy: The Ghost of Thanksgiving
Origins of St.Valentine's Day
Origins of Easter
The Indo-European Family Of Languages
Indigenous Languages of Alaska and Siberia
Armand A. Gagnon on "UNIVERSATILE" LANGUAGE
Tales of B'rer Rabbit, as Spun by Uncle Remus
About the Author
Methodologies in Foreign Language Teaching
The History of the Guitar in Spain w/ YOU TUBE video
Essay: Is Academia Purely 'Academic'?
Artificiality in Foreign Language Teaching
Anti Semantic: What's in a Word?
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