The Origin of Christmas
Christmas is a time of the year that we’re all familiar with, as a religious or cultural event it is recognised and celebrated by billions of people around the world. But what are its origins? Its existence is to celebrate the birth of the prophet Jesus, but did you know that no-one actually knows when he was born, and that the date was only guessed at by the church early in the 4th century? They fixed the date for the 25th December which at the time was the winter solstice in the Roman calendar, although for some eastern religions, that date actually occurs in January!
Christmas was seen as a pagan festival by some, and its
popularity did decline at times. During the Victorian era in Britain, not
everyone could or chose to keep Christmas, whether through religious or
financial considerations. But the stories of Charles Dickens undoubtedly influenced
the way Christmas was seen and celebrated, and since his famous work ‘A
Christmas Carol’, the festive season has never been in any danger of dying out.
Giving of Gifts
The traditional giving of gifts at Christmas may have a number of origins, the earliest possibility from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This late December festival honoured the god Saturn, and involved public holidays and the giving of gifts, but it also involved the rather un-Christian-like offering of a sacrifice.
The story of the Three Wise Men, who reputedly brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, could well be thought of as the very first Christmas presents.
There are also connections with the ancient Greek Saint Nicholas, who was renowned for his apparent working of miracles and the habit of giving gifts to children who had been well behaved during the year. He was the patron saint of children and his naming day on the 6th December is noted with gift exchanges in various parts of the world, celebrating the festival of Saint Nick, Sinterklass, Santa Claus, and of course, Father Christmas!
Originally Saint Nick was shown as being dressed in Bishop’s robes, but the image was gradually changed by cartoonists in America in the late 1800s into the red clothed figure we know today.
Christmas decorations possibly began around the 15th century; houses in London were decorated with holly and ivy, with the ivy apparently representing the ‘crown of thorns’ worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.
The Christmas tree was first adopted in Germany, with the origin of the fir tree as a religious symbol possibly attributed to Saint Boniface, an English missionary in the 16th century. The tribesman who inhabited the area at that time, were pagans who worshipped the Scandinavian god Thor and the sacred oak tree. Boniface had the bravery to cut down an oak tree, and was said to have pointed out that a triangular shaped fir tree was more worthy of being seen as sacred as it pointed to heaven. The popularity of fir trees, which later became decorated with candles and then stars, gradually spread throughout the world, with the term first appearing in Britain in the early 1800s.
Songs in praise of Christmas can be traced as far back as the fourth century, though they would bear little resemblance to the carols we know today. In the 12th and 13th centuries, monks such as Adam of Saint Victor and Saint Francis of Assisi began to adapt popular music and lyrics into something closer to what we now know, with some of the first ‘Christmas carols’ appearing in the English language in the early 1400s, attributed to John Audelay who was a Shropshire priest and poet.
Now a multi-million pound industry, the first commercially produced Christmas cards were the work of British inventor and civil servant Sir Henry Cole. He not only created this icon of the festive period, but is also credited with helping in the production and design of the world’s first postage stamp in the ‘Penny Post’.