Family and friends gathering together on a day of exchanging gifts, eating themselves to food stupers, laughing and singing, and getting blitzed on grandma’s eggnog, are just some of the traditions that have been around long before the concept of commercialism.
Various cultures have been celebrating the shortest day of the year on the northern hemisphere for thousands of centuries. Pagans in the Scandinavian regions a.k.a Vikings, would have fire festivals to encourage the sun to return and to pay tribute to Thor. Yule; depending on the year of the Gregorian calendar, was and currently celebrated sometime between December 21 to 23. A Yule or Juul log would be brought into the home and burned in the fireplace. Pouring wine on the log to add a sweet smell when burning or adding other chemicals onto the log to give the flame a certain color became part of the traditions of Yule. The log would be burned until there were nothing but ashes and then collected. Some people would throw the ashes out onto their fields for good luck. Others would keep the yule log ashes as a charm or use them for medicine. Sometimes a piece of the log that remained from the fire would be kept for goodluck and used for next years celebration as kindling. The Yule tradition lives on even today in Europe and North America.
The Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice by honoring Saturnus the god of agriculture, liberation, and time. Saturnus was the inspiration behind the naming of the planet Saturn and also Saturday. During the celebration of Saturnalia laws were ignored and slaves were temporarily freed. Drinking, singing and gambling became open in the public view with no fear of getting busted by the authorities. Orgies, feasts, gift giving, and sacrifices were also common traditions during the festivities. Cookies shaped as humans were baked and given as presents that would be later consumed by the recipients. The statue of Saturnus would be unbound from its woolen shackles connecting it to its base and carried through the streets of Rome and placed in a public courtyard while the public wines and feasts to celebrate the liberated god that is amongst them.
The festival started off with a tradition known as the “Lord of Misrule”. The leaders of the Roman communities would select a criminal or slave and free them. They would allow them to sit at their table as an honored guest and wine and dine them. At the end of the festival the honored guest would be sacrificed as a representation of vanquishing evil from society. How much of this practice is true or was even commonly practiced is uncertain. However, one of my sources stated that Gaius Petronius Arbiter; a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero, wrote about an incident that involved a slave who was allowed to sit at the table of his masters. After heavy consumption of alcohol the slave started to mock emperor Nero and the slave’s master joined in and encouraged his impudence. Towards the end of the dinner party, the master and his guests circled the slave and brutally murdered the foolish man for acting like the emperor.
Also known as “Nikolaos of Myra”, was a fourth century Greek Orthodox saint who was born in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey. Nicholas was born into a well-to-do christian family. His parents died from an epidemic and Nicholas inherited a great fortune. Nicholas was then raised by his uncle and the Greek Orthodox church and became highly educated. Later becoming an ordained priest himself, St. Nicholas developed a strong reputation for being a generous and kind man.
Legend has it, a very poor man had three daughters who were going to be forced into prostitution due to their father not having any money to pay dowries towards potential husbands. Once Nicholas got wind of this, Nicholas visited the man’s home and threw in a bag of gold coins through an open window to pay for the eldest daughter’s dowry. Later Nicholas came back to do the same thing for the other two daughters. The poor man caught Nicholas in the act the third time and was so grateful, even under Nicholas’s advisement not to, the poor man announced to the public about Nicholas’s kindness and generosity. St. Nicholas’s acts of kindness spread greater than the own man’s deeds themselves and later ended up making him the Patron Saint of Children and Sailors.
The Nativity of Jesus
The discussion of Jesus’s birth didn’t appear until after 200 years of his persecution. The telling of Jesus’s birth originated from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Neither gospels mentioned a date or the year of Jesus’s birth. The first date that was documented was from Clement of Alexandria and he stated that Jesus’s birthdate was on Pachon 25 (May 20th). Other religious scholars have placed the date on March 21, April 15, April 20, and April 21. It wasn’t until around the fourth century when Pope Julius I set the date on December 25th. The first staged nativity scene occurred on Christmas Eve night in a town of Greccio, Italy in 1223. St. Francis of Assisi was inspired to create the live nativity scene due to his disgust with the greed and materialism that plagued Italy. It was to serve as a reminder that Jesus didn’t come to us a rich king but as a poor child.
The First Christmas Tree
Germany has been credited of starting the Christmas tree tradition sometime during the 16th century. It is believed that Martin Luther, a renegade catholic priest who became a Protestant reformer, was the first to add lighted candles to a tree. Supposedly Martin Luther was walking home one night and was bewildered by the stars in the sky twinkling behind the backdrop of the evergreen trees in the forest. According to the story, Martin Luther chopped a tree down and brought it to his house. He set the tree up inside his home decorated the tree with the first homemade wired set of candle holders. Martin Luther wanted to share his previous experience in the woods with his family by lighting the candles that were draped around the tree that represented the twinkling stars in the heavens.
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