FROM THE ARCHIVES: Christmas a 17th-Century festival
CHRISTMAS AS A FORMAL observance has been celebrated by Christians since the third century. The word itself means Christ’s Mass, connoting the religious rites that commemorated the birth of Jesus.
Originally, Christmas Day was celebrated on both January 6 and December 25. During the fifth Century, the Western world adopted December 25 as Christmas, with Eastern churches following suit later on.
Because December 25 was already a day in honour of the pagan sun god Mithra, Christians chose that date to honour Jesus as “The Light of the World”.
In many ways, Christmas has served to replace the pagan customs of ancient times. For instance, in Germany, the winter solstice was observed on December 21 by pagans, of many customs of the pre-Christian celebration were transferred to the Christian holiday.
Dramatic enactments of the birth of Jesus, Christmas Carols, and the “manger songs” of medieval times were incorporated into the holiday celebration as time went on, replacing the old pagan customs.
The Christmas tree itself is believed to be derived from the use of palm trees in the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis. During the winter solstice a palm tree with twelve shoots, representing the months of the year, was carried to celebrate the completion of one year and the beginning of another. The palm tree was replaced with a fir tree as the observance extended to northern climates.
The Yule log came into use around the 16th Century and again, this custom had its origins in pagan times. At the time of the solstice, a sacred fire would be lit from a brand kept from the previous year’s log. It is thought that the custom was brought to England by the Vikings. In later times, the Yule log would be brought in with much ceremony on Christmas Eve to light the holiday fire.
The Christmas stocking is originally an Italian custom. Tradition has it that La Befana, a wandering witch, comes on the feast of Epiphany to fill the stockings of good children with gifts and those of bad children with ashes.
La Befana’s name is actually a corruption of the word, Epiphany, the feast that commemorates the bringing of gifts to the Infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men.
The exchanging of gifts dates back to early medieval times and is probably inspired by early the gifts of the Wise Men.
Christmas cards, however, are a fairly recent tradition. The use of cards dates back only to the latter half of the 19th Century. They were an inevitable outcome of the practice of writing to distant friends and relatives at Christmas-time, a custom which came into greater favour on the increasing efficiency of postal systems.
This article was first published on December 26, 1976.