Did you know that the celebrations at Christmas might have nothing to do with the birth of Christ? In fact they may well lie in a feast called Sacaea that was celebrated thousands of years before Christ’s birth. Over 4000 years ago, in the region that is now Iraq, a five-day festival with the exchanges of gifts, the staging of plays, accompanied by merry making and processions, marked the end of winter and ushered in the New Year.

Origins

The beliefs spread from the East to central Europe to further north along the Baltic. Most of them centred around seasonal changes and the growing and harvesting of crops. People lit bonfires to revive a dying sun and decorated their homes with evergreen plants like holly and firs to remind themselves that not all was lifeless in the chill of winter.

All this combined with rituals followed in Scandinavia, that honoured local gods Odin and Thor, were later incorporated as Christmas rituals. But perhaps the most important festival to influence Christmas was the weeklong pagan (‘unchristian’) celebrations known as Saturnalia, celebrated by the Romans.

Oh, Christmas!
Oh, Christmas! [Illustrations by Shinod A.P.]

Saturnalia was held in mid December, during the winter solstice or the turning point of the year, when it is the shortest day and the longest night. This day was marked by a sacred festival called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun and was celebrated with general rejoicing.

No precise date is known for the birth of Christ who was born over two thousand years ago. January 6, believed to mark Christ’s baptism, was widely observed as Christmas Day in the beginning. The first mention of December 25 as the birth date of Jesus occurred in 325 A.D. in an early Roman calendar. It could have been the date of the Saturnalia celebrations.

Growth of Christianity

The Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion in 300 A.D. By 1100 A.D., Christianity had become the most important religion in Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was seen by noblemen and their attendants as an opportunity to feast and generally have a rollicking time. The good times lasted until the Reformation, a religious movement in the 1500s.

During the Reformation, Christians in Europe broke away from the Catholic Church at Rome. The largest of the breakaway sects was that of the Protestants. These groups began to consider Christmas a pagan celebration due to the non-religious customs that it included. These sentiments caused Christmas to be outlawed in England and in those parts of America where people from England were settling down during the 1600’s.

But gradually the old customs of feasting and decorating soon reappeared and in time blended with the ritualistic part of Christmas celebration.

Flavours of Christmas

Are you curious about the feasting part? The preparation of special food items is an important part of Christmas celebrations throughout the world. There’s the christmas cake, for example. From roasting boars, pigs and peacocks over large open fires in the early Christmas days to roasting turkey in the oven today, Christmas delicacies have come a long way.

Plum pudding is an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts, and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are ‘plum’, meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, sliced like cake, and topped with cream.

Popular beverages served during especially at Christmas time include eggnog in the United States, a hot spicy drink called wassail in England and grog, a hot punch made with spices, liquors, raisins and nuts.

Of Colours and Carols

Green and red comprise the traditional colours of Christmas. While green symbolises the continuance of life through the winter and the Christian belief in eternal life, red symbolizes the blood that Jesus shed at his crucifixion. These colours feature in Christmas decorations such as the Christmas tree, wreath, holly and mistletoe.

And Christmas carols? Where do they feature in the scheme of things? The word carol comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. By the 1600s carols were mostly sung alone (without accompaniments) and were chiefly Christmas songs. In fact most of the carols sung today were originally composed in the 1700s and 1800s. Did you know that an Austrian priest called Joseph Mohr wrote the words of the famous carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night”, on Christmas Eve in 1818.

Let’s look at a few Christmas-related customs across the world.

St. Lucia Day

Most people in Scandinavian countries honour St. Lucia (also known as St. Lucy) each year on December 13. Light is a main theme of St. Lucia Day, as her name, which is derived from the word lux, means light. The celebration of St. Lucia Day began in Sweden, but had spread to Denmark and Finland by the mid-nineteenth century. In these countries, the holiday is considered the beginning of the Christmas season and as such, is sometimes referred to as “Little Yule.”

Traditionally, the oldest daughter in each family rises early and wakes each of her family members, dressed in a long, white gown with a red sash, and wearing a crown made of twigs with nine lighted candles.

The Norse Custom

Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norwegians, also known as the Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. ‘Yule’ came from the Norse word hweol, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and then away from the earth.

Ever wonder why the family fireplace is such a central part of the typical Christmas scene? This tradition dates back to the Norse Yule log. It is probably also responsible for the popularity of log-shaped cheese, cakes, and desserts during the holidays.

The Evergreen Tree

Guess where the first ‘Christmas trees’ came from? In early 17th century, trees explicitly decorated and named after the Christian holiday, appeared in Strasbourg, in Alsace, Germany. By 1750, Christmas trees began showing up in other parts of Germany. They were popularised by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe after he included a Christmas tree in his novel, The Suffering of Young Werther in 1771. In the 1820s, the first German immigrants decorated Christmas trees in Pennsylvania.

After Germany’s Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he introduced the Christmas tree tradition to England.
In 1846, the royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court immediately became fashionable – not only among the British, but among their trans-Atlantic cousins as well.

Celebrations, celebrations!

Revelries are a big part of Christmas celebrations in Spain. People sing and dance in the streets after the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Most Spanish homes and churches display a miniature Nativity scene called nacimiento. The same display is known as presepio in Italy. Many Italians serve eels, a type of fish, for dinner on Christmas Eve.

In Australia and New Zealand, December is a warm month. Celebrating Christmas at the beach is common.

To Mexicans, the nine days prior to Christmas have a special significance. On each day (collectively called posadas or ‘inns’) Mexicans re-enact the Virgin Mary and Joseph’s search for lodgings on the first Christmas Eve.

Two children carrying the figures of Joseph and Mary lead a procession of people to a particular house. They knock on the door and ask for lodgings. The ceremony is followed with grand feasting and celebrating. Children play a game of breaking the piñata, a brightly decorated paper or clay figure containing candy and small gifts.

All these together with the Santa Claus myth and sundry other titbits form one of the world’s favourite holiday…. No wonder Christmas is so much fun and so utterly exhausting, too!