PoliticsSocietyCultureBlogNausicaa LabCultural Association

Tales of Christmas customs

22 December 2010
Published in Society
by Christina Kolyva

More than any other holiday, viagra Christmas is the time of the year when we all aspire to be with our families and loved ones. Whether we observe the religious side of the celebration or not, sick during the weeks leading to Christmas we will make ourselves very busy with all sorts of preparations, from buying gifts and stocking-fillers to decorating the house and planning the festive table like a military intervention! But where did the customs that shape a traditional British Christmas celebration today, come from? There is no mention of mince pies, fir tree or Santa Claus in the Nativity story, is there? A one-sentence answer would be that long before December 25th was marked as the birthday of Jesus, it fell right in the middle of pagan festivities honouring the rebirth of the Sun after the winter solstice and therefore elements of these early traditions survive into modern customs after being combined with the teachings of the Church. However, the long answer is far more interesting, I think! Here is a mixture of the most popular legends, historical facts and folklore about the origins of some Christmas customs, put together for those who love Christmas and like to read tales by the fireplace…

Everybody knows SANTA CLAUS. He is a cheerful, ‘well-nourished’, white-bearded old man, wearing a red coat and trousers trimmed with white fur, half-moon glasses and black leather belt and boots. What is less known is that this much-loved figure originated by combining elements from the tales of Saint Nicholas, Odin and Father Christmas.

Saint Nicholas was Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. From the far-away land of ancient Lycia in the east Mediterranean, his reputation soon spread out as that of a remarkable person who was infinitely generous to those in need. The anniversary of his death is commemorated on December 6th. It is his gift-giving and child-loving trait that probably led to the fusion of the tales surrounding this historical figure into the character of Santa Claus. According to legend, there was a poor man who was unable to afford dowries for his three daughters, meaning that they would consequently remain unmarried and be destined for a destitute life of hard labour or prostitution. St Nicholas heard about the old man’s plight and, wishing to remain anonymous, under the cover of night he tossed a purse full of gold through an open window on the night before each of the girls came of age. The story goes that there were stockings hung by the fireplace to dry and the purses ended up inside. True or not it is impossible to establish, but it makes a nice story!

More elements of the Santa Claus character are found in the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (meaning Saint Nicholas in Dutch). A staff, long white beard, red bishop’s robes and a red mitre featuring a big golden cross constitute his trademark look. He rides a white horse and on the evening of December 5th he brings gifts to well-behaved children and takes away to Spain the naughty ones. According to tradition children leave a shoe with a carrot, sugar or straw for his horse near the chimney at night. There is an obvious connection to Saint Nicholas, but there are also features that might be derived from Odin, the Norse god who brought gifts or punishment across the winter world flying on his eight-legged horse. Wearing a blue cloak and with a beard long and white, he was inseparable from his spear and his black ravens kept him informed of what was happening around the world. Children liked to leave food for his horse by the chimney. It is not at all unlikely that after the christianisation of the Germanic peoples, some of the features of Odin were transferred to Sinterklaas.

Father Christmas is a British holiday figure dating back to the 17th century. Emerging as a reaction to the Puritan disapproval of the Christmas feast, he was the personification of the spirit of Christmas joy and benevolence, and advocated the merry celebration of Christmas; a celebration during which people could gorge themselves, drink alcohol, dance and sing to their hearts’ desire. Notably there is no mention of gift giving. Father Christmas makes a famous appearance in Charles Dickens’s novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ as the Ghost of Christmas Present, a genial man with sparkling eyes “…clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice…”.

All these traditions crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and after a lot of mixing and adding and stirring, for which America offered the ideal fertile ground, the figure of Santa Claus was born. The rest is history!

Santa Claus has a taste for MINCE PIES and it is customary for little children to leave him a glass of sherry and a mince pie by the chimney on Christmas Eve. The predecessors of what we call today mince pies were already a popular Christmas dish during the Tudor times, but giant evolutionary steps have been made since then! Centuries ago a mince pie would have been a large pie filled with a mixture of meat, dried fruit and spices, possibly a Middle Eastern influence brought back home by the crusaders. Various meats were used, such as lamb, veal, partridge, pigeon, hare, pheasant, rabbit and mutton. The addition of spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg is said to be symbolic of the offerings of the Three Wise Men. Mince pies originally had oval shape to represent the manger where baby Jesus slept and a small doll made of pastry was placed on the top. Over the years the pies became smaller, round and the meat was completely replaced by fruit mince. They are often star-topped, representing the Star of Bethlehem.

The number of legends surrounding the origins of the CHRISTMAS TREE is so overwhelming, with word of mouth blurring the facts and many tales fiercely contradicting each other, that it is tempting to follow a pragmatic approach and close the topic by saying that evergreen trees had a central role in winter celebrations long before Christianity. However, in the spirit of narrating tales and Christmas approaching (Ebenezer is not my second name!), here is the most popular early story relating to the Christmas fir tree. At the beginning of the 8th century a missionary was sent to Thuringia to convert the population to Christianity. This monk, no other than St Boniface, cut down the tree of Thor near Geismar (an oak tree sacrosanct to the Germanic people) as an act of challenging the old gods. According to legend, a fir tree sprouted from the roots of the oak tree and St Boniface declared it to be a holy tree. As for the first decorated outdoor Christmas tree, there was a delightful story on the news about it the other day. Apparently there is an ongoing debate between Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia about the first Christmas tree. So this year the mayor of Tallinn sent the mayor of Riga a small Christmas tree to congratulate him on the 500th anniversary of the Riga tree, with a reminder that the Tallinn tree is celebrating its 569th anniversary. So I choose stay out of this and stick to the St Boniface tale!

Every year millions of CHRISTMAS CARDS are exchanged in the UK alone and they are an integral part of our Christmas festivities. It came as a surprise to me that this is a relatively new custom. The first commercially available Christmas card was sent by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 and was designed by John C. Horsley. Sir Cole was a prominent and multitalented civil servant, best known today for his instrumental role in the development of several landmark establishments in South Kensington, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Perhaps, trying to comply with the custom of the time, Sir Cole found it impossible to send Christmas greetings to all his friends and acquaintances with individual hand-written messages (I would completely sympathise!). Or perhaps he was eager to promote the newly-established cheap “penny post”. In any case, he commissioned a London publisher to print him a batch of Christmas cards, which just needed to be signed and sent. Greeting cards had already been in use for hundreds of years before, but not Christmas cards. The card was a triptych, with pictures of feeding the hungry and clothing the poor on each side and a happy family around a festive table toasting the card recipient in the central panel. The leftover cards were sold for one shilling each and my guess is that nobody at that time could possibly foresee how keenly this custom would be embraced by the future generations!

KISSING UNDER THE MISTLETOE is a Christmas custom with pagan origins. Admittedly, there is nothing romantic about mistletoe as a plant; it is a lazy shrub that prefers to survive by growing roots on the barks of host trees and feeding from them. The Druids considered mistletoe growing on oak trees blessed and sacred, and integrated its use into their rituals as we find out from Pliny the Elder. Because of its mystical powers, it was believed that mistletoe could bring good luck to a household and ward off evil spirits; this is how the custom of hanging a branch over doorways and windows started.

What does this have to do with the kissing tradition, you ask? There are stories for every taste out there, but my personal favourite comes from Norse mythology. After Balder, the favourite son of Odin, started having dreams of death, his mother and goddess of love Frigg tried to protect him by extracting from all living and non-living entities on earth the promise that they would never harm her son. She omitted the mistletoe though and the story goes that Balder was in the end killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. Everyone was devastated by his death and Frigg’s tears became the white berries of mistletoe. In a typical happily-ever-after style Balder was brought back to life through divine intervention, and Frigg declared that from then on only a kiss, as a token of friendship and love, and no harm would await anyone who stood under mistletoe.

With Christmas falling so closely to major pagan sacred days, it is no wonder mistletoe became associated with Christmas celebrations, despite the banning of the early Church. When the custom of kissing under the mistletoe found its way to England, a proper etiquette was established (of course…), requiring a berry to be picked every time a kiss was exchanged and the kissing to cease when there were no more berries left.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Comments are closed.