The true date of Christmas is not known, although two dates are today times of great universal celebration, 25 December, Christmas Day, and 6 January, Old Christmas Day. Today the celebrations have absorbed a mixture of rituals with Christmas Day a time of Christian remembrance of the Birth of Christ, with many of the dates around this being associated with Pagan celebrations. The majority of these honour the Sun God and the rebirth of the sun after the Winter Solstice, 21 December, and the Yule festival, an ancient end-of-the-year feast of the dead.
The Christian church identified the date as 25 December in AD 440, the date then of the winter solstice. From the twelfth-century, in ancient Britain, the Anglo-Saxon’s year changed to begin at this time. It was only with the advent of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 that the date of the new year began on 25 March.
‘Saturnalia’ was a Roman festival that ran through December and finished on 25 December. This festival was enjoyed by masters and servants alike, when each swapped roles for a period when just about anything could happen. At this time the temples would be decorated with greenery, and perhaps this one reason why the ‘holly’ or ‘holy-tree’ (See Mystical WWW Plants) and the ivy remain as two popular evergreen decorations. The Saxons were known for using holly and ivy, whilst the former Druids were known to use ‘mistletoe’ (SeeMystical WWW Plants) in the celebrations. It is thought that many of the customs associated with these festivals have lingered on and have been absorbed albeit unknowingly at times into modern celebrations. Not approved of by the church but enjoyed by the parishioners for example since the Middle Ages, is the ‘Lord of Misrule’ role that has been a common sight at English (UK) Folk Festivals and also in traditional ‘Mumming Plays’ at this time, being allowed to manage situations of those around him, including the boss or master. The central theme of the plays focused on the eternal conflicts between light and dark, good and evil, themes again central to the ancient and modern Christmas festival.
Songs and carols became popular in the 1500’s, the earliest known being an English collection published in 1521. The custom of processing door-to-door singing carols is associated with collecting money for the needy and ‘Christmas Box’ (See Mystical WWW Christmas Box). Originally groups would sing ‘Wassailing’ songs for food, drink or money. The term ‘Wassail’ actually means to ‘be of good cheer’ and is on Olde English word. The ‘Wassail Cup’ was a highly decorated cup full of mulled ale used to toast the health and prosperity of friends and relatives at the Christmas Feast. Sometimes people would pay a few pennies to drink from the cup with the money given to the alms Christmas Box. This was also a popular activity on New Year’s Eve.
Today ‘Yule Logs’ and ‘Yule Candles’ are a familiar part of the decorations. These decorations are associated with the ancient rites of the Norse Yule sun festival. The candles and logs are symbolic of the sun festival and of the fire and light that emanates from the sun itself, whilst also indicating thanks for the gifts given by the sun all year round. After the shortest day, December 21, the festival looks forward to the rebirth of the sun.
A Christmas Day that has a full moon is said to be a time when seeing fairies is possible according to folklore. Those hoping to see the spirits of the garden and woods which represent life should look between twilight and midnight.
December 24, Christmas Eve has long been associated with Adam and Eve. Adam is said to have taken a cutting of the sacred ‘Tree of Knowledge’ from the Garden of Eden in Paradise (See Mystical WWW Mystical Trees). Some believe that this is the tree from which the wood was taken to make the Cross that was used for Christ’s crucifixion, which is also remembered at this time.
Many people believe in Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. Father Christmas is associated with St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. The current Father Christmas figure, silver-bearded and clad in red and white, was introduced around the mid-eighteenth century. One very popular tradition that is still common place is to hang stockings out on Christmas Eve. The feast of St. Nicholas, 6 December, is often forgotten, perhaps because it is as Santa Claus or Father Christmas that we know St. Nicholas. In Britain and America St. Nicholas day has merged with Christmas Day and so presents are given on this day. In many Catholic countries children still hang up their stocking on St. Nicholas Eve. In Germany many children are luckier still receiving presents on both dates.
It is thought that this tradition of hanging up stockings is related to St. Nicholas. On travelling to the different homes at this time, he is said to have cast three coins into a chimney as a present for three poor sisters. Rather than landing in the hearth, the coins fell into the stockings of the sisters that had been hung up to dry by the fire. Hanging the stockings up is still thought to encourage small presents and prosperity to appear. The tradition is also thought to be why Father Christmas is associated with entering a house by coming down the chimney.