Ostensibly, Christmas is the occasion when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ; its origins, however, aren’t Christian at all but Pagan.
It is no coincidence that Christmas should fall just after the Winter Solstice on December 21st, which is the shortest day of the year. From that point on the days lengthen into ‘a fine stretch in the evening’, as we optimistically portray it in Ireland on December 22nd!
The importance of the occasion in pre-Christian Ireland is demonstrated by the orientation of the ancient passage tomb at Newgrange, which predates Stonehenge and even the pyramids. The entrance is aligned with the sun rise on the days around December 21st: sunlight floods into the inner chamber through a roofbox located above the entrance to the amazement of the lucky few that have managed to squeeze in.
Attendance has always been a golden ticket affair confined to an annual lottery, but due to pandemic restrictions no crowd assembled at all this year for this symbolic moment of renewal.
It has been suggested that when Pagans converted to Christianity, they maintained many of their traditions, switching from a veneration of the sun to a new born son. There is no Biblical evidence for December 25th being the birth date of Jesus Christ.
So what of the other traditions that grew up around the event?
Wherever Christmas is celebrated there are different traditions, and even individual families have developed their own idiosyncratic rituals. The standard Western Christmas includes decorative trees, stockings, wreaths, advent calendars, puddings, baked goods, and of course Santa Claus or St. Nicholas; we also find the nativity portrayed in cribs, present-giving and midnight masses. The switching on of municipal lights – to the constant refrain of ‘it gets earlier every year!’ – on prominent shopping streets is also popular. And of course, the Christmas dinner is also a major part of the tradition.
Oh Christmas Tree…
The practice of putting up and decorating a so-called ‘Christmas’ trees – usually an evergreen conifer – can be traced to the pagan worship of Ancient Rome. Evergreen wreaths were brought into Roman homes during the Saturnalia celebrations (a festival for the god Saturn).
Non-Roman peoples of the time – barbarians to Roman sophisticates – also brought branches of evergreen trees indoors at this time of year. The evergreen plant was a symbol of fertility and enduring growth. Beliefs of course varied across different cultures and times. For some it symbolised eternal life. Because of its triangular shape it eventually came to represent the Holy Trinity for Christians.
Decoration of the Christmas Tree as we know it in modern times first began in earnest in sixteenth century Germany. Trees were decorated with coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel as well as sweetmeats and other foods. It has been suggested that candles first appeared when the Protestant reformer Martin Luther hung them from an evergreen tree. The fairy lights are the electrical descendent of these candles, and, happily, less of a fire hazard..
Over time traditions spread throughout Europe and the New World, initially through multinational Royal families and other noble castes.
Artificial or Real?
Artificial trees are an increasingly popular option for those who don’t relish hoovering up needles and disposing of the heavy load of a real one. So what are the pros and cons of each?
A benefit of an artificial tree is that it can be stored it in their attic from year-to-year, which should make it a one-off-investment. On the other hand, it is made from fire-retardant, but not fire-resistant PVC plastic, and we could do with producing a lot less of this, especially in an era of climate change. Moreover, unfortunately most artificial trees will eventually end up in landfill – hopefully after many years of service – which takes many years to break down.
On the positive side of using a real tree, while they grow they convert carbon dioxide to oxygen through photosynthesis and are of course recyclable, although the wood would have to be seasoned for at least a year for it to be used as fuel.
The variety generally used in Ireland, Sitka spruce, is a non-native species, and plantations have a seriously damaging effects on the environment, so their continued use is certainly not ideal.
One approach could be to grow a tree in a pot and bring it indoors for Christmas, or why not get creative and use loose branches to construct an alternative ‘hipster’ tree!
Who was the Original Santa Claus?
Not much is known about St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, who was born in Asia Minor in what is present-day Turkey. He was known for his secret gift-giving and generosity, and became bishop of Myra where one still finds spectacular rock-cut tombs. In the Middle Ages merchants from the city of Bari in Southern Italy plundered his bones and enshrined them in the Basilica di San Nicola.
Santa Claus is based on of this legendary figure, honoured annually during the Feast of Sinterklaas on the 6th of December in some countries. This feast is celebrated with the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas’ Eve (5th of December) in the Netherlands and on the morning of December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, in Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France.
There are countless invocations of Santa in songs and poems. Perhaps the best known is ‘The Night Before Christmas/ A Visit From Saint Nicholas’, by Clement Moore, also known as ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.’
Previously depicted wearing tan or green, it has been suggested that Thomas Nast, a German-born American caricaturist, created the modern American version of Santa’s suit that featured in the December 25th, 1866 edition of Harper’s Weekly Magazine. He drew Santa in both red and green, but the new red version proved enduring.
Beginning with 1930’s advertisements, Coca-Cola has been responsible for the modern version of Santa we are now familiar with. The company created the image of the jolly, bearded, present-giving man wearing his distinctive red and white robes. The artist responsible was an American artist of Finnish and Swedish descent named Haddon Sundblom, who created the legendary figure wearing red with white trimmed fur.
The tradition of present-giving is likely to have originated in the Roman Feast of Saturnalia, and the legends around St. Nicholas. Notably, the Roman god Saturn was associated with generation, dissolution, plenty, wealth, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation. The feast took place on December 17th of the Julian calendar, and lasted until the 23rd of the month. This consisted of feasting, role reversals where slaves and masters would swop positions for the day – similar to the medieval ‘festival of fools’ – free speech, gift-giving and general revelry.
Christmas in Other Monotheistic Faiths
The Nativity is the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ, and is fundamental to the Christian celebration. At Christmas time many churches incorporate nativity scenes near to the altar. This typically involves Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a manger, assorted farm animals and the three wise men hovering outside with their gifts. The nativity scene is also a theme for school plays coming up to the Christmas holiday.
The story comes from the New Testament, specifically, the gospels of Luke and Matthew, but how are Mary and Jesus depicted in other religions?
In Islam, Mary(Maryam) is the only woman mentioned in the Qur’an. She is an honoured figure. The story is essentially the same: Mary becomes pregnant through the will of God – a divine conception – and gives birth to Jesus. However, other parts of the story differ.
A palm tree is mentioned in the Qur’an, as well as a voice urging her
Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee; And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.
There is also an account of the baby Jesus prophesising from his cradle of his being brought to a temple. It is also agreed that she remains a virgin throughout her life. She is referred to as the daughter of Imran and the sister of Aaron, but is also associated with a range of other titles.
In Islam, Jesus’s story is similar to the Biblical tale: he is born of Mary (Īsā ibn Maryam: ‘son of Mary’), performs miracles and is seen as a prophet of God/Allah, who has been sent to guide the Children of Israel. Jesus is followed by disciples, and rejected by the Jewish establishment. Eventually he is raised to heaven. However, unlike in Christianity Jesus isn’t crucified, and nor does the Qur’an refer to him as the son of God, or God incarnate.
As regards Judaism, Mary does not appear by name in the Talmud, and doesn’t have an exalted status as in other religions. And there are even suggestions of adultery in Jewish traditions.
Toledot Yeshu, ‘The Generations of Jesus’, a medieval parody of the New Testament, (author and date unknown), reconstructs Mary’s adultery and her son’s tainted paternity. Mary’s husband is referred to as ‘Pappos ben Judah’; Jesus is called the ‘Son of Pandera’, or the ‘Son of Stada’, ‘stada’ refers to a deviant or unfaithful woman.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, at certain times the Catholic Church censored the Talmud for blasphemous references to Jesus and Mary.
The Christmas meal varies considerably from country to country. It is either eaten on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. The contents also differ considerably. The most popular meal in English-speaking countries include turkey, ham, roast potatoes, gravy, stuffing, and ‘Brussel’s’ sprouts, with a ‘kalettes’ a trendy edition to the repatoire. The dessert include mince pies and so-called Christmas cake.
The Christmas meal reflects how the U.K. was once a global empire with many dominions. It is not clear exactly when the tradition for all ingredients of the meal began. The turkey first appeared in the U.K. in the seventeenth century under King Henry VIII. However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that it took over from goose as the dominant dish for carnivores. As the nursery rhyme puts it:
Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!
One unpleasant-sounding ritual that grew up around goose was in response to the tuberculosis or ‘consumption’ circulating widely in Ireland until the 1950s. According to one account:
When Christmas time came you’d put on the goose. Goose was cooked then for Christmas dinner. Your father would make up the goose grease and rub it into your chest going into school. All over your chest and around your back. It was as good as an overcoat to you.[i]
Christmas meals often give rise to considerable waste, and unfortunately this year it is more difficult to make donations of food directly to those in need. Thus, it might be an idea to avoid stocking up as if World War III was about to commence, and make a charitable donation instead.
The way in which we give presents could also definitely do with a makeover. I shudder to think of the scale of unwanted gifts that will be discarded, along with reams of wrapping paper, and cards that will be consigned to the bin. Let’s try to recycle wrapping paper, make our own cards, and only buys those that include a charitable donation; reusable gift bags and donating unwanted toys to charities are other worthwhile ideas.
Presents from Santa and Parents?!
That a child should receive a gift from both Santa and their parents (which could easily mean another two presents) is a remarkable feat of marketing that increases costs during an already expensive season. It is surely sufficient for Santa alone to give a present! For families with older children, a Secret Santa or kris kingle works fine, and reduces the expense and stress of having to buy for everyone.
In recent years in Ireland the Catholic Church has made a big effort to attract families with young children to Christmas services. As a child, it always seemed to go on forever – with all those toys at home left unplayed with – but it was still a part of Christmas. Most attendees would be dressed in their fine new clothes, or in festive jumpers that have grown more outrageous with the years. This year’s restrictions mean the embarrassing show of inebriation witnessed at some midnight masses in the past is unlikely to be repeated.
Some Christmas traditions from around the world are more unusual than others, and wonderful in their own way. Every December in the Philippines the Giant Lantern Festival is held in the city of San Fernando. Light is highly symbolic for Filipinos: the star is a sign of hope and the most important symbol of the Christmas season.
Elsewhere, Ukrainians prepare a traditional twelve-course meal. But before everybody sits down to it the youngest child in the family is told to watch through the window for the evening star to appear, which is a signal for the feast to begin.
Some countries have more sensible traditions than others. Jolabokaflod is the Icelandic tradition of giving books to a loved one on Christmas Eve. It translates as ‘The Christmas Book Flood’.
A distinctive tradition that has grown increasingly popular in Ireland is for people to swim in the sea on Christmas day. The most famous spot for doing so is the Forty Foot in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin. ‘Swim’ is however an exaggeration for what is really an immersion for most people, followed by a hot chocolate from a thermos flask or something stronger!
This article has only scrapped the surface of the many Christmas rituals that survive in Ireland and around the world. There are some we could safely dispense with, especially the excess, but there are others that serve a need that people feel to come together at the darkest time of the year.
[i] Quoted in Ronan Sheehan and Brendan Walshe, Dublin: The Heart of the City, The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1998 and 2016, p.30