In the Western Church, we celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25th December. We don't actually know when Jesus was born. The Hebrew people and the Greeks who made up the early Christian church didn't celebrate birthdays. That was a Roman habit. When the Christian Church became the State religion of the Roman Empire, since Jesus didn't have a birthday, he had to be allocated one.
In the early Church, there was no Christmas. The start of Jesus's ministry was celebrated with a feast day on what we now call 6th January. The celebrations were focussed on the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. It's unclear why this day was chosen, but it seems to have been celebrated from the earliest days of the Church. Possibly it's the anniversary of Jesus's baptism. Over a couple of hundred years, the emphasis changed from Jesus's baptism to the story of his birth as given in Matthew's Gospel. (No manger, no shepherds, but wise men - not necessarily 3 - with gold frankincense and myrrh). The baptism celebration was moved to the following Sunday.
When Paul established the Church in Ephesus, there was already an established fertility cult based upon the temple of Artemis, a manifestation of the Greek goddess Diana. Their main celebration was at the vernal equinox - 24th March in the Julian calendar. Paul replaced it with the feast of the Annunciation, later recorded in Luke's Gospel, where Mary became pregnant by divine intervention.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine (born in York - that explains a lot) adopted Christianity as the State Religion, there were a couple of winter celebrations that needed to be replaced. Saturnalia was the feast where you ate and drank too much on 17th December, and the winter solstice on 24th December was the birthday of Sol Invicta, the sun god. So Jesus was allocated a birthday on 25th December (a day later than Sol to avoid confusion) 9 months and a day after his conception. This was based upon Luke's gospel (manger and shepherds, but no stable - that's a far more recent addition). The 6th January celebration continued to be marked with a bit of semantic juggling to get the two very different accounts of Jesus's birth to tally. That gave the Roman Empire 12 days off each winter.
The Orthodox, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Eastern Uniate Churches do not celebrate Christmas on 25th December. They stick to the 6th January feast.
Monday, 20 June 2011
The animistic religion that preceded Christianity in Europe tended to have a different spirit to personify every aspect of their life. When farming wasn’t producing much, you’d go off to the forest and hunt and gather. This was seen as a nostalgic activity so the spirit of the forest was a generous old man who would supply your winter needs. In England and Germany, he was known as Mister Winter Greenery or the Green Man. When Christianity came to Europe many of the old myths lived on and the Green Man became Old Father Christmas. He made regular appearances in mumming plays and Morris dances under both guises. In Georgian England, Father Christmas had developed into an ogre who ate naughty children.
Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was the Bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) in the 4th century. Various stories are attributed to him and he became very popular in Germany and the Netherlands. There’s a famous story about him climbing down a chimney and putting purses of gold into the stockings of some orphaned girls to save them from prostitution. This possibly relates to a different Nicholas since chimneys weren’t invented until over 1,000 years later. In the middle ages, St Nicholas was the one who distributed presents and sweetmeats to children on his feast day 8th December. He was depicted wearing a bishop’s chasuble and mitre – usually in green.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced a number of German traditions to Britain, including being kind to children. Father Christmas was rehabilitated and given many of the attributes of Saint Nicholas. He stopped eating children and took to giving them presents on the night before Christmas. Father Christmas was depicted wearing a long coat with fur trim – either in red or green although red gradually became the norm.
Dutch settlers in America took with them St Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Dutch). Somehow Americans managed to turn him into an overweight elf called Santa Claus who delivers presents to the world’s children on the night before Christmas making use of a flying sleigh and reindeer. Back came the chimney routine – hardly the ideal means of entry for an obese elf. He was depicted wearing a red boiler suit and this was reinforced by the famous picture of him on the telephone in a Coca-Cola advertisement.
Then commerce stepped in. To get people into the shops before Christmas, the US offered a visit to Santa and Britain offered a chance to meet Father Christmas. In the 20th century, the traditions gradually merged.
Many of our traditions predate Christianity and go back to the days when we farmed the woodland margins. During the summer, there was plenty to eat. During the winter, crops were scarce and your animals were down to the breeding stock, so you resorted to hunting and gathering for our midwinter fare. For meat, we would catch boar and assorted wildfowl. We would also gather nuts and winter fruit such as hawthorn (haws), blackthorn (sloes) and wild rose (hips). That’s the origin of “Here we go gathering nuts and may.”
Winter fruit is nourishing, but tough. It generally went in the pot and stewed in front of the fire for days on end. You chucked in some stale bread and the hard fat from the animals you’d caught and you finished up with a sticky pudding which kept you going through the winter.
The English were immigrants from Germany. Out in Saxony, the weather became extremely cold for a couple of weeks after the winter solstice and survival was difficult. The solution was to gather in a roundhouse with a huge fire in the middle and eat and drink as much of the winter fare as possible. For the next couple of weeks, you’d sleep it off, nibbling at left-overs if the overindulgence of the solstice wore off. Does any of this sound familiar? The air in the roundhouse became foul, but they found they could improve matters if they brought in evergreen branches like fir, holly, ivy and mistletoe to sweeten the air. You also had the option of chucking them on the fire if the log supply ran out. These rituals were brought to these islands by the Saxons and later purloined by Christianity.
Years later, we had the crusades. Many English knights joined the wars in the Middle East (not much changes). One of the foods they discovered there were samosas – spiced meat or vegetables wrapped in pastry. When they returned, their cooks tried to reproduce what they described and mince pies were the result. Some were filled with meat and some with the sticky winter pudding. For some reason we’ve abandoned the meat version but still refer to the filling as mincemeat.
Even later, we got a taste for dried grapes. These are not a particularly winter fruit, but they keep for months so they are available all the year round. Sultanas are dried white grapes, raisins are dried black grapes and currants are from miniature Greek grapes known in French as raisins de Corinthe. These were far more appetising than hips and haws so we substituted them in our Christmas puddings and mince pies. Christmas cake was another combination of much the same ingredients.