Thursday, December 6, 2012

The History of Christmas, a summary

I put this together for the boys the other day, mainly because we were discussing Viking traditions and festivals, and because I couldn't find one site that I felt summarized below topics in a satisfactory manner. Some parts of this text are from Wikipedia and/or various other general sites on the history of Christmas, and some are from our History of the World, our Usborne Encyclopedia of the History of the World, and The Story of the World.

Ancient and Pagan mid-winter traditions

Many early cultures held mid-winter celebrations; in Mesopotamia, Persia, Babylon, Ancient Greece and Rome. 

The Romans celebrated a winter feast that entailed masquerades in the streets, big festive meals, visiting friends, and the exchange of gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). The Romans also “decked their halls” with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles.

In Scandinavia, the Vikings celebrated jólablót, or midvinterblot (mid-winter blood), which was a sacrificial feast held on the darkest day of the year (look up: 'solstice'), to honor the return of light – or the rebirth of the sun. In some areas people tied apples to branches of trees to remind themselves that spring and summer would return. According to some traditions, children would during this celebration place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar near the chimney for Odin's 8-legged flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. To do this, he would enter homes through chimneys.

The name jól probably comes from Jólner, which was one of Odin’s many names (in Sweden, Christmas is still called jul, remember?).

Christmas as a Christian tradition

The story of Jesus Christ's birth is told in New Testament's gospel of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, but the actual date - December 25 - is not mentioned anywhere. In 350 AD, Julius I, a bishop of Rome, chose December 25th as the observance of Christmas, and in 354, Liberius the emperor established the holiday. The December date for the holiday probably arose from a desire to provide an alternative to the Roman and pagan mid-winter feast.

Traditionally, Christians would fast seven weeks before Christmas (as before Lent) which meant they were not allowed to eat meat. The Swedish tradition of dipping bread in ham broth on Christmas eve is a remnant of this.

The word Christmas comes from the Old English 'Cristes Mæsse,' meaning the 'mass of Christ.' 

By 1100, Christmas had become the most important religious festival in Europe.

The origin of Saint Nick – Santa Claus

The origin of Santa Claus begins in the 4th century with Nicholas, bishop of Myra (now Turkey). He was known as a generous man, particularly devoted to children. His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims that he could perform miracles.

According to legend, a nobleman grew despondent over the death of his beloved wife and foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three young daughters without dowries and thus facing a life of spinsterhood. The generous Nicholas, hearing of the girls' plight, set forth to help. Wishing to remain anonymous, he rode his white horse by the nobleman's house and threw three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney, where they were captured by the stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry.

After his death around 340 AD, St. Nicholas was buried in Myra, but in 1087 Italian sailors stole his remains and removed them to Bari, Italy, which greatly increased St. Nicholas' popularity throughout Europe. Sometime around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honor; the feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.

After the protestant reformation, celebrations of St. Nicholas faded, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where St. Nicholas - Sint Nikolaas (in Dutch) transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes.

Dutch colonists brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the name of Santa Claus emerged. 

In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, published as The Night Before Christmas as a gift for his children, portraying Santa Claus in a way not quite seen before:

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, …

As the years passed, Moore's description of Santa Claus evolved further in popular culture into the legend we see today.

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