Merry Christmas!

Ah, Christmas. The season of gluttony and debt. Once a religious festival, now just a glorification of consumerism.

That’s been my jaundiced opinion of the festive season for some years now. I outgrew the schmaltz and fake snow, the forced happiness and tawdry tinsel some time ago, but then I don’t have children. Christmas is really a time for the little ones, before the magic gets tarnished by the reality.

Disliking the overly commercialised aspects of Christmas doesn’t stop me being fascinated by it. Where do all those “traditional” elements spring from? Why are some pre-Christian traditions still stubbornly followed, some 200 centuries after the events supposedly commemorated this time of the year? Then again, there are some superstitions and traditions that have fallen by the wayside. There’s more to Christmas than the goose getting fat and plum pudding.

The Christmas festival of today is a confection chiefly cooked up by the Victorians, with a fair measure of early 20th century Americana thrown in. However, the roots of what is essentially a midwinter festival go back an awful lot further than that.


In the beginning

On the shortest day of the year, a little after sunrise, a sunbeam begins its journey along the stone passageway of probably the most impressive prehistoric structure in Europe. Even though the passage of Newgrange, a spectacular monument that sits on a ridge overlooking the River Boyne, north of Dublin, is slightly twisted, eventually the sun reaches about 25m to the far end. The beam touches the front edge of a stone basin, which is set below intricate carvings of spirals and solar discs. The soft light illuminates the basin, thought to be the inner sanctum of the tomb, where the cremated remains of ancestors may have been placed, for about a quarter of an hour. Then the sunlight retreats and darkness returns. This event is repeated for a week or so either side of the winter solstice, then leaving the stone basin in the chamber in darkness for the rest of the year.

Newgrange is about 5000 years old, older than Stonehenge by some centuries. I think we can safely assume the careful observation that lets the winter solstice sunlight touch the resting place of the ancestors predates the monument’s construction by some time. Indeed, it is now thought that Stonehenge also has stones set specifically to observe the winter solstice sunset, as well as the more obvious and famous midsummer sunrise. Observing, following, venerating the change of the seasons is deeply rooted in humankind.

Particular emphasis seems to have been given to those seasonal changes when the nights began to get shorter, and the weather would get better again. The symbolism of death and rebirth was not wasted on the ancients. When you could never be certain you or your family would make it through the winter alive, marking important points in the calendar, and making offerings to ancestors or gods to help you through the remaining dark days to spring, could be crucial.

Marking the midwinter point, therefore, is deeply ingrained in our civilisation. So deep that many of the customs and traditions have managed to survive a millennium and more of Christianity. It also seems the original Christian observances were eventually shifted to closer match the deeply ingrained winter festivals in date. December 25 as a day of celebration can apparently be traced back to the Romans, for example. It is said December 25 was the culmination of either the feast of Saturnalia or possibly Dies Natalis Solus Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun). Saturnalia, it seems, is responsible for the festive merrymaking and giving of gifts, and the Roman new year has left us with decorations and acts of charity.

Whose birthday is it?

Christ’s birth date is not given in the New Testament. According to some scholars, Jesus was conceived around the time of the spring equinox, which popularised the date for his birth as December 25 in the AD 220s. Despite this, celebrating birthdays, even of gods, was rather frowned upon, so it seems Christmas was not a feast at this time.

Early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany, which falls on January 6 in the Gregorian calendar. This really emphasised the baptism of Christ. It wasn’t until the revival of Catholicism towards the end of the 4th century that Christmas itself began to be promoted. Even so, Epiphany continued to be the more important celebration.

Orthodox Christians still use the old Julian calendar to place Christmas. This is why they appear to be kicking off their Christmas Day celebrations on January 6, the day when we in the west are pulling all the decorations down and looking forward to the rest of January in gloom.

Christmas Day itself became more prominent after various monarchs decided to hold their coronations on December 25, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror being just two.

It took until the Middle Ages for Christmas to really take flight. It’s around the 12th century the idea of Advent occurs, which eventually gave us the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 to January 5. Advent marks the first day of the liturgical year, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day, which is why your Advent calendar tends to cover the whole of December, although in 2010 Advent started on November 27…

Eventually, all the feasting and merrymaking became so lavish and elaborate that puritan Protestants began to strongly condemn the celebration as a Catholic invention. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, the new Puritan rulers, seeking to remove the remaining Pagan elements of Christmas, banned the celebration in 1647, despite protests and folk openly continuing to celebrate.

The ban was ended in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy. However, by 1820 some writers worried that Christmas was dying out. Authors began to look back to earlier times, such as the Tudors, when the season was full of celebration. Efforts were made to revive the traditions of Christmas, helped no end by Charles Dickens publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843. If our modern Christmas has a beginning, the tale of Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas must surely be one of the prime candidates.

So much to tell

Rather than get side-tracked by all the religious kerfuffle surrounding Christmas, let’s take a quick look at the other traditions that mark Christmas in the modern world. I will cover some in more detail in future posts.

From pre-Christian times, we get the use of evergreen plants to decorate our homes. Holly, ivy and mistletoe all had mystical significance, as I mentioned earlier. Christianity has added further layers to decorating homes with evergreen plants, but that can wait for another time.

While decorating trees is a long-established tradition in parts of northern Europe, it only really became fashionable in Britain after it was introduced to royal family celebrations by Prince Albert in the 1830s. Now, it’s big business, as are Christmas cards, another Victorian innovation made possible by a reliable and inexpensive postal service. The tradition of pulling crackers is another Victorian invention.

The Yule log is a northern European tradition, albeit a remnant of the original Pagan celebration. The fire used to burn the log is always started from a remnant of the log that burned during the previous year’s festivities, and the log should burn for twelve days. Nowadays, a Yule log is frequently a cake or pastry of some kind.

Let’s not, of course, forget Father Christmas, Santa Klaus, or St Nicholas. St Nick is the patron saint of Christmas Day, and had a reputation for the giving of secret gifts. Santa comes to Britain via the Dutch Sinterklaas, a soupçon of Nordic pantheon, and a hefty dose of 19th century Americana. Santa, his history and evolution, is worthy of an entire essay of his own!

The modern Christmas is a complex beast. It mixes ancient traditions with modern habits. It’s evolved from a celebration of the turning of the year into a something of a commercialised monster: it’s been calculated that about a quarter of all personal spending over a year happens around Christmas. I am planning a short series of articles about specific features of the season, so watch this space.

Whatever you think of it, and whoever you plan to spend it with, have a very merry Christmas!


This article was first published at


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