Christmas means the mass of Christ, and so is a Christian festival. But previous cultures had festivals at the same time of year, and some of these traditions have been added to Christmas traditions.
Saturnalia was an Ancient Roman festival in honour of Saturn. It happened for several days ending at the winter solstice. This was a rowdy festival with many parties and feasting. There was a school holiday, small presents were given and informal clothes worn. People would decorate their houses with branches from evergreen plants. Slaves were allowed to be disrespectful, and they might be served a meal by their masters. The parties might have a Lord of Misrule, someone chosen at random to cause fun and chaos, as everyone had to do what he said. The traditional greeting during this time was "Io, Saturnalia!"
Now we can recognise the school holiday, the greenery decorating our houses, the presents and the parties. The Lord of Misrule carried on into medieval (Christian) times. The carol Ding dong merrily on high says "Let steeple bells be swungen, And 'Io, io, io!' By priest and people sungen." Sometime people complain that the modern commercial Christmas has forgotten the "true meaning of Christmas". Perhaps this is because it is more like the Saturnalia!
Yule was a winter festival around the winter solstice which was celebrated by the Saxons and other Germanic and Nordic peoples. It was a time of feasting. A large log would be brought in from the forest to burn during Yle, and this was known as the Yule log.
Today, the Yule log is liable to be a cake, usually a chocolate swiss roll. The spiral of filling makes this look like the rings in a log of wood, and it is coated in chocolate to represent the bark.
Stonehenge is a large prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England. It is famous for being used to celebrate the summer solstice, but there is a theory that it might have been built to discover the precise date of the winter solstice instead. If that is true, then we have been celebrating mid-winter in England for a very long time indeed.
Dating of Christmas
In fact, there is no evidence that Jesus was actually born at mid-winter. The Bible story does not describe the time of year. Perhaps the timing of Saturnalia and Yule convinced the early Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus at the same time of year, to persuade people to convert to Christianity. These are connected to the winter solstice, which is the shortest day and longest night of the year. Solstice means 'sun stand still'. The sun rises at a slightly different point from one day to the next. At the winter solstice, the sunrise is at its southern-most point, so this could be where it is 'standing still'. The winter solstice is around December 21st, which is slightly before December 25th, the usual date for Christmas. This could be because we are celebrating the fact that the days are getting longer again, so you need a few days to notice this.
Eastern Orthodox national churches, including those of Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem mark feasts using the older Julian calendar. December 25 on the Julian calendar currently corresponds to January 7 on the internationally-used Gregorian calendar.
Advent means 'coming'. In the Western Christian calendar, the year is divided up in different parts, and Advent is the time leading up to Christmas, roughly covering December. Outside the church, it is mostly known for advent calenders and advent candles. An advent calender has 24 (or 25) doors and you open one each day leading up to Christmas Day. The original advent calendars just had little pictures behind the doors, but now there may be a chocolate instead. Click here for a computer advent calender (without the chocolate). An advent candle has a mark on the side for each day in December before Christmas. Each day, you burn the candle down to the correct mark, and as the candle gets shorter, you know that Christmas is approaching. Click here for a computer advent candle.
The Church of England has prayers called collects, one for each Sunday of the year. The collect of the last Sunday before the start of Advent (which happens near the end of November) says "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded." One of the most important parts of an English Christmas Dinner is the Christmas Pudding, or Plum Pudding, made of raisins and other dried fruit. This should be made several weeks before it is eaten, and since there are so many ingredients, it is important that it is well-stirred. So this Sunday became known as 'Stir-up Sunday'. Once you heard the prayer in church, you knew it was time to 'stir up' the Christmas pudding, full of 'good fruits'.
St Nicholas's Day
Saint Nicholas was a historic 4th-century saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). One of the stories connected with him is that there was a poor man who could not afford dowries for his three daughters, so they could not marry. Saint Nicholas wanted to help but through modesty wanted to hide what he was doing. So he dropped three purses of gold down the chimney for the girls. But they had washed their stockings and hung them to dry by the fire, so the purses dropped into the stockings. Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus, and now you know why you must hang your stockings up by the fireplace on Christmas Eve! Although Santa Claus arrives on the night of Christmas Eve, in many countries in Europe, St Nicholas arrives on the feastday of St Nicholas instead. This is December 6th. The children might put out shoes rather than stockings.
St Lucy's Day
Saint Lucy (also known as Saint Lucia) is venerated as a saint by Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians. Her feastday is December 13th. Scandanavians celebrate her day with candles, as her name means 'light'. A procession is headed by one girl wearing a crown of candles (or lights), while others in the procession hold only a single candle each. Candles have a strong connection with Christmas as well. Christmas trees used to be decorated with real candles - which could be dangerous! Now we use electric lights instead.
Christmas Eve is the day before Christmas. It is the time for frantic last minute preparation, and for hanging up stockings (or pillow cases) waiting for Santa Claus (or Father Christmas as he is called in Britain). NORAD tracks Santa across the world with a map and pictures. The poem Twas the Night before Christmas was written in 1822. It describes St nick and his reindeer bringing presents.
In some parts of the world, presents are opened on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Sometimes they are open at midnight. Various countries have special meals on Christmas Eve as well. Many Christians go to a special midnight service on Christmas Evewhich may be called Midnight Mass.
The great day itself! (Although see Dating of Christmas for an alternate date.)
The day after Christmas is St Stephen's Day. The carol Good King Wenceslas says "Good King Wenceslas looked out On the feast of Stephen". In Britain, it is called Boxing Day. Tradesmen used to collect "Christmas boxes" of money or presents after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year.
Twelve Days of Christmas
The celebration of Christmas used to last twelve days starting with Christmas Day itself, so the twelfth day is January 5th. Twelfth Night is the name of a play by Shakespeare, because its first performance was as a Christmas entertainment. In Britain, there is a tradition connecting Christmas decorations with the twelve days of Christmas, although people disagree whether the decorations should be left up for the twelve days, or taken down before Twelfth Night. There is a well-known Christmas song called The Twelve Days of Christmas. It adds a line for each day until the last verse says: "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Twelve drummers drumming, Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree!"
New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve, December 31st, is the last day of the old year, and the eve of the new. It is tradition to stay up to welcome in the new year, and people often go to parties. Scotland calls this day Hogmanay, and celebrates it with great enthusiasm. At the point of midnight, people in Britain will listen to Big Ben. The big clock on the side of the Houses of Parliament plays its famous chimes on the hour, and then the big bell called Big Ben strikes the hour. At the first strike, it is the first moment of the New Year, and people will cheer, toast the new year and wish good luck to everyone. (The mobile phone network usually gets overloaded at this point!) Then people cross their arms and link hands to sing Auld Lang Syne.
© Jo Edkins 2011 - index to Christmas index