By Gianna Stanley
How Did Christmas Start?
Originating in Europe, the first ideas of Christmas began as a celebration of light and a way of rejoicing during the winter solstice in an attempt to keep hope throughout the darkest days. Going back to early Europe, there is evidence of our modern Christmas traditions engraved in Germanic and Norse celebrations.
Odin, the pagan God for knowledge, wisdom, healing, and, you guessed it, Christmas, was honoured by the Germans during the darkest days of winter. He was considered to be the ‘Yule Father’, and legend has it he would visit every house within the tribes to the people who respected him. Does this legend ring any bells? Odin could be viewed as the first inspiration for Santa Claus, which is still arguably one of the most famous legends to date. However, the magic does not stop just yet. Very much like St. Nick, Odin had his own gift-making elves who were famous throughout Norse mythology for being the creators of wondrous things such as Thor’s hammer. ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good’, and Odin definitely did. He would send out his two ravens to collect news from the Nine Worlds, whilst he would walk the Earth and make a judgement of his own.
We can thank early Europeans for Mama’s special Christmas dinner.
If you’re wondering where the 12 days of Christmas came from, it originated in the Norse tradition. They celebrated the Yule from the 21st of December, the winter solstice, until January. The men of the family would bring home large logs and burn them for 12 days, and they would feast each day until the logs burnt out. Gibraltarians know how to feast for the whole of the Christmas holidays, so we can thank early Europeans for Mama’s special Christmas dinner. Some Christians actually thought this tradition was too barbaric, which is why it is not practiced today, except in some Scandinavian cities.
Saturnalia, one of the most popular Roman pagan celebrations, is dedicated to the Roman God Saturn, and it has massively influenced the Western idea of Christmas. In short, this can be described as the best Christmas party you have ever been to – times a thousand.
Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing on for a whole month, Saturnalia was the liveliest festival of the year. It started as a farming festival where farmers would offer gifts to the Gods, namely Saturn; the God of Agriculture. As more and more people began to celebrate it, it soon became a major festival. All work and business were suspended, and moral restrictions were eased, giving the Romans almost a free pass to do whatever they wanted. Food and drink became plentiful, similar to the Norse feasts, and social order was ultimately turned upside down. Slaves were temporarily freed and peasants were no longer defined by their wealth; everyone was allowed to join in the festivities.
You are probably wondering how this lavish Roman party links to the Christmas that we know. Well, we can trace the roots of Boxing Day back to Saturnalia. Traditionally, on Boxing Day, servants and slaves received gifts from their masters, and they often sat at the head of the dinner table. Perhaps, this could be viewed as an early source of Christmas charity giving. Additionally, people often decorated their homes with wreaths, greenery, and lights, whilst wearing their best attire (togas) to impress the party-goers. On the last day of Saturnalia, known as the Sigillaria, many Romans gave their friends and family small terracotta figurines as a sign of love and sacrifice. It is interesting to see how a capitalistic society has exploited Christmas into making it about the gifts, and not the meaning. Remember ‘ho, ho, ho’? Santa got his famous catchphrase from the traditional greeting which was ‘Io Saturnalia’, and people would run across the streets yelling ‘io io io’.
However, by 312AD, the Romans began to shift away from Pagan Gods and Saturnalia due to the growing influence of Christianity and soon changed from celebrating Saturn to Jesus.
The best Christmas party you have ever been to – times a thousand.
The Christian Christmas
Did the Christians steal Christmas? Whilst we celebrate Jesus’ birthday on the 25th December, the bible gives no date for his birth, and many people believe it happened during Spring. After all, why would farmers be herding in the middle of winter? Puritans, later on, used this argument to cancel the festivities – the Grinch really did steal Christmas, huh?
It was Pope Julius I that decided to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, and it is widely accepted that they did this in order to dissolve the pagan festivals, such as Saturnalia. By celebrating Christmas at the same time at the winter solstice, the Christians decided how and when it should be celebrated in an attempt to replace the Pagan religion. This ultimately worked – the ‘new’ Christmas was first called the Feast of the Nativity, which spread to Egypt by around 400AD, to England throughout the sixth century, and even Scandinavia by the eighth century. In its early celebrations, Christians would attend Church and then indulge in lavish parties with a drunken and carnival-like atmosphere – does this remind you of Saturnalia? It was also a day where social order was removed, with the poor going to the rich and demanding the best food and drink – another borrowed idea.
The Grinch really did steal Christmas, huh?
Christians also celebrate the Epiphany on the 6th January – or the day every sweet-tooth Gibraltarian looks forward to. Some Christians in the East celebrate the baptism of Jesus, but the West associate it with the visit of the Three Wise Men. However, the origins of this celebration are also borrowed. According to Italian tradition, on this day, Befana (an old Italian witch, also a pagan figure) will bear gifts and sweets to all good children and coal for the bad ones. In Egypt, a Pagan feast for the sun God was also celebrated on this date. On the previous night, the pagans of Alexandria commemorated the birth of their God Aeon, who was supposedly born of a virgin. They also believed that on this night, the waters of rivers would turn into wine. It is possible that these beliefs may have influenced the birth of Jesus and the tradition of drinking wine to commemorate his sacrifice.
However, Christians also have their own traditions. The nativity is often retold and is a way to celebrate Jesus’ birth; this tradition is very popular here in Gibraltar. Some Christians might start Christmas Day with a midnight mass, and it signifies both Jesus’ birth and his sacrifice.
The Cancellation of Christmas and its Rebirth
Yes, you read that right – sadly, there was a time when some Christmas celebrations were cancelled. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they promised to rid the decadence and lavishness of England, thus cancelling Christmas in this process. Shops and markets were ordered to remain open on 25th December, and in the City of London, soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas celebrations. Bah humbug!
The pilgrims that left for America had even stricter and conservative beliefs. In 1659, the Puritan government of Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Christmas. The Puritans felt that such occasions were unnecessary and wasteful, arguing that it would threaten Christian beliefs and encourage immoral acts. They also felt that the holiday’s pagan origins would constitute idolatry if celebrated.
Contrastingly, the Georgetown settlement continued celebrating Christmas with Captain John Smith reporting that the festivities were thoroughly enjoyed. Whilst Cromwell may have banned Christmas – this didn’t stop people either, the festivities went underground. Some secret services were held to mark the nativity, families had secret celebrations, and continued to sing carols in secret as a way of keeping the festive attitudes.
The restoration of Christmas only came in 1660 through the restoration of the monarchy. After the American Revolution, English customs soon diminished, and Christmas was finally declared a federal holiday in 1876.
Origins of the Christmas Tree, Carols, Santa, and Mistletoe
The Christmas that we know is a fusion of traditions from many cultures, with both pre-Christian and Christian elements. As I mentioned before, the legend of Father Christmas has very strong links with Odin; the ‘Yule Father’. Odin was known for taking many forms, but his most common was that of an old, white-bearded traveller in a cloak and a hood – very much like our St. Nick. These ideas were passed down and the modern idea of Santa was established through the fabulous reinvention of Coca Cola in the 1920s along with ‘Twas the night before Christmas’, which depicted the typically large man with a much-overgrown beard.
Now, I don’t know about you, but what certainly gets me in the Christmas spirit are the carols. There is definitely something magical about playing these songs during the countdown to Christmas. This tradition started out with the Norse singing Yule Carols – children would also dress up in masks and go door to door singing carols. Christmas and New Year are probably the main holidays where alcohol consumption is rapidly increased, and we can thank Norse Vikings for this tradition. They would often drink, for nights on end, mead, and specially brewed ales from animal horns.
They would often drink specially brewed ales from animal horns.
Ever kissed someone under the mistletoe? This display of love originates from when Loki murder Baldr with a spear made of mistletoe. Baldr’s death was supposed to represent rebirth. The mistletoe berries later became a symbol of love, hence the tradition of kissing under it. However, best not think about that story if you ever find yourself under the mistletoe…
Germany can be credited with the tradition of Christmas trees. In the 16th century, devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes, and some built Christian pyramids out of wood and decorated it with evergreens and candles. Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, is said to have first brought in lighted candles to a tree, as a reminder of the twinkling stars amongst the trees. German settlers then brought this tradition to America throughout the 19th century, and so it became a yearly tradition. In 1846, Queen Victoria was sketched decorating a Christmas tree, and as she was very popular with her subjects, the tradition also spread throughout England. So much so that by the 1890s, ornaments were arriving from Germany. The invention of electricity brought about Christmas lights, allowing trees to glow for days on end. This brought the introduction of Christmas markets and trees in town squares – making the city just as festive as the home. However, it has to be mentioned that the first origin of the tree was also a pagan idea – with the Vikings decorating their trees with food, gifs and small carvings.
The Christmas Truce
Whilst I have spoken about how Christmas came to be, I thought I would end this article mentioning one unique way in which it was celebrated throughout history. The Christmas truce can be seen as an example of peace on Earth – even throughout the toughest times. It shows people coming together despite their differences and celebrating the cause of goodwill – which I think is the moral of Christmas. On the 25th December 1914, a ceasefire spread across the whole of the Western Front, with soldiers putting up trees, candles, and singing carols. The opposing sides gave each other gifts like cigars and alcohol – even postcards to write to when the war was over. There were many accounts of football matches across no-mans land. These events portray the true meaning of Christmas, which has been passed down for centuries. It is about rebirth, forgiving, acceptance, and love.
And there you have it – the history of Christmas.