The lights are up, Noddy Holder’s voice is ringing in your ears and you’ve already eaten all your advent chocolate in a gluttonous frenzy. Yes it’s Christmas; that time of year reserved for frantic last-minute shopping, burnt turkeys and half-drunk carols in the front room. It’s also the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, of course: and even that bears more than a passing similarity to the ancient god Mithra.
So where did some of the Christmas traditions we take for granted actually come from? The truth stretches back a lot longer than you might think. Here are ten yuletide customs born in the ancient world.
1. Christmas Trees
We might curse the fact that we’re still picking pine needles out of our toes come spring, but the idea of decorating your house with greenery at winter goes back thousands of years. King Tut may never have seen the multicoloured mess we put up with nowadays, but he would have had date palm leaves scattered around his royal abodes on the winter solstice
.Evergreens were celebrated in Egypt as a reminder that, though the winter was harsh and yielded little, spring would come just as inevitably. The palm also spawned a shoot each month, meaning that by December (as it would become known) Egyptians weilded the leaves to show that the year was over. They’d have decorated with entire forests if they ever saw a European winter.
Soon Egypt’s tree-hugging tradition spread north to Italy, during the height of the Roman Empire. Palms were substituted for firs and other native species, on which tapers would be lit and burned in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture and justice, during the notoriously raucous Saturnalia festival. The custom migrated north to Germany and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, resulting in today’s obsession.
2. Christmas Carols
Whether you enjoy strangers caterwauling on your doorstep or not, you can thank ancient pagans and their joyous celebrations of the stars. Song and dance were commonplace at the earliest stone circles of Europe: some think even Stonehenge
was built with acoustics in mind.
As with the trees, special songs would be created for the winter solstice. In fact songs would be sung for each of the seasons, but the Christmas tradition stuck with the newly-created Christian faith, eager to commemorate Jesus Christ.
The first ‘proper’ Christmas carol can be dated back to ancient Rome in 129 AD, when a Roman bishop decreed that a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung during the Christmas service at Rome. Fast forward a few hundred years, and a Greek Orthodox Priest named Cosmas of Jerusalem (or Maiuma) wrote another famous hymn. Soon, the whole of Europe was singing at Christmas. Incidentally the tradition of singing to people whether they want to or not was invented some time around the 17th century. If someone had shown Cosmas he might not have bothered.
Millions of people still think Santa owes his current scarlet clobber to canny ad men at Coca-Cola. But it’s a belief that should have been consigned to the ‘urban myth’ bin many moons ago. The western world’s enduring image of a red-and-white-robed Santa owes more to his ancient ecclesiastical roots then a syrupy soft drink. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, an Ancient Greek town of Lycia, modern Turkey, during the 4th century AD. Popular throughout the Christian world, he’s also known as ‘Nicholas the Wonderworker’ thanks to the large number of miracles attributed to him.
Nicholas’ association with the reindeer-propelled giver of gifts we all know today stems from his propensity for leaving coins in the shoes of those who gave to him (see stockings story below). This grew into a European Catholic tradition, whereby the poor would leave their shoes in church overnight. Coins would then be donated by rich patrons in a homage to Saint Nick’s generosity. Present-hungry kids also can thank Nicholas’ status as the patron saint of children when they’re maniacally tearing open a box of badly-rendered plastic rubbish.
The name ‘Santa Claus’, incidentally, didn’t come until the 19th century, as an evolution of the Dutch colloquialism Sinterklass
. His name may have changed, but Santa still kept the ceremonial red robes of his ancient forebear. However many think the clothing may be an amalgam of Saint Nicholas’ and those of the Norman god of misrule, a red-robed character who would go about causing havoc during the winter solstice period. Santa didn’t always use reindeer to power him from house to house, either: many believe they are an evolution of the eight-legged grey horse of the Norse god Odin called Sleipnir, who could leap huge distances. Middle Ages children would leave out food for Sleipnir, a custom which continues to this day.
4. Yule Log
Like most things associated with Yule, a pagan festival largely attributed to the Germanic peoples of the medieval period, the yule loge can trace its roots back through some of the world’s most successful ancient civilisations. Today the burning of the yule log has become a marginalised affair, and can be carried out pretty much any time leading up to Christmas Day. Yet the log began its life as a yuletide tradition thousands of years back, in the earliest cities of Sumer and Egypt.
Egyptians believed that the winter solstice period marked the death and rebirth of their national god Horus, the god of the sky and the sun. Thus light was shed to celebrate him, and since Egypt was about 5,000 years from electricity a log would be burned for 12 days. This tradition carried into the cities of Sumer and Mesopotamia via the winter festival of Zagmuk, and would later become one of the features of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, when a yule-style log was burned for ten days to usher in the strength of Mithra.
Saxons and Visigoths would latch onto the log as a symbol of good, or light prevailing over darkness, or evil. Ashes were prized for their supposed magical powers. Christians, most likely taking their lines from the Romans, would later adopt the log as a symbol for the light of Christ bringing the world from darkness.
5. Christmas Cards
Christmas cards may only have come into European vogue during the 15th century (thanks to the Germans, again). But their origins go back thousands of years before, to the greetings given in Ancient Egypt via ornately decorated papyrus. Related or not, the ancient Chinese are thought to be some of the greetings card’s earliest fans, exchanging simple messages to celebrate the New Year.
The invention of printing, and the west’s popularising of card-giving, wouldn’t arrive for another 1,500 years or so. You might expect the Chinese, with their longstanding obsession with fireworks (and blowing things up in general) to have invented the Christmas cracker too. Not so: desperate London sweet-seller Tom Smith invented it as an explosive panacea to his ailing bonbon trade, in 1847.
When Tara from IT starts waving mistletoe at you from across the office
with one suggestive eye on the stationery cupboard, you can thank ancient pagans for the group email the next day. Druids
, to be precise: the ancient mystics saw the herb as having magical powers thanks to its evergreenness. Amongst its miraculous characteristics – curing illness, countering poison etc – mistletoe was thought to enhance virility.
Kissing under the mistletoe may date all the way back to the ancient Greeks; no strangers to free lovin’. Traditionally, kissing beneath the magical mistletoe would ensure a couple stayed happy. It was even used as a sort of natural proposal, and hung at marital ceremonies. Saxons then took on the mantle, associating the plant with Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. Men could kiss any woman who found herself beneath a sprig of mistletoe, plucking a berry with each kiss. When the berries had all gone, the kissing was over. One suspects mistletoe was never in short supply at Saxon parties.
For retailers at least, Christmas is the biggest gift of all: whether we want
to or not (boo to those in the latter category) we’ll all be trapsing the high street in search of something we can pass off as thoughtful, with more than half an eye on our wallets. Yet as much as the world hasn’t always been obsessed with Furbies, novelty ties and shaving kits, we’ve been giving and receiving gifts since the beginnings of society. Archaeologists have found evidence of personal decoration as far back as 70,000 years ago – and French anthropologist Marcel Israel Mauss establishes social bonds which establish respect and interdependence – key to social cohesion.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and gift-giving was a key part of Saturnalia, when masters would ceremoniously be ruled over by their slaves. Gifts were also seen as an important way to keep up good spirits during the long, cold winter. Of course Christians point to the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh given to baby Jesus by the three wise men, though it’s worlds away from the capitalist scrums of today. The idea of presents being stuffed down the chimney pot may also have derived from ancient times. Germanic tribes would throw gifts onto fires as sacrifices for the gods. Thankfully my slippers stayed flame-free last year.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without unholy doses of Turkey (or Goose, or nuts), bread sauce, potatoes and, of course, the only batch of Brussels sprouts you’ll eat all year. But, like most Christmas customs, feasting to see in the day has its roots in the earliest civilisations on the planet. The Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk would traditionally involve great feasting, as the height of the winter ended, days became longer and farming could continue once more. Food was one way to usher in the sun, as was the case in Egypt with Horus – and later became part of the Saturnalia festival, a Roman middle-finger to the harsh European winter.
Goose had been used since ancient Egyptian times as the meat of choice for Winter Solsticers, a tradition which continued in Britain until the 16th century. Some credit Henry VIII with having introduced turkeys to our Christmas platters. The Spanish allegedly took on the turkey mantle from their conquered Aztec subjects, who had long domesticated the far juicier bird.
The Romans frequently ate Christmas ham, a custom still followed in many countries today, to celebrate the life of Adonis, god of rebirth and vegetation, who was killed by the tusks of a wild boar sent either by Artemis or Ares. A boar’s head is still roasted ceremonially each year at Oxford University. Though fruits, berries and spices had been used to make cakes in ancient times, the Christmas Pud we all know and love (and hate in equal measure) didn’t enter the annals of history until the 15th century.
There are no steadfast stories as to the origin of the Christmas stocking,
but one apocryphal tale has stood the test of time, true or not. And unsurprisingly it comes courtesy of Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity. A poor man in Myra lost his wife, and was left to bring up his three young daughters alone. He became poor, and worried that he would not have enough money to pay any of his daughters’ dowries, as was the custom back then.
Enter Saint Nick, who, knowing the father would be too proud to accept money for his daughters, surreptitiously threw coins into his house, beside the hearth over a few nights. The family were drying their clothes by the fire at the time, so each day each daughter would wake up to receive a coin in their shoe or stockings. Some stories even say Nicholas chucked coins down the chimney; another reason why we have Santa throwing presents down the chimney nowadays.
10. The Nativity
Pushing the boundaries of ‘ancient’ somewhat, you can thank Saint Francis of Assisi for that heart-in-mouth moment you forgot your one and only line, ‘Sorry no room’, in front of over a hundred parents armed with cameras and pitiful expressions (or was that just me?). The famous Catholic deacon set up a living tableau in memory of Christ’s birth, using the accounts in the Gospels of Luke and John, in Greccio, near Rome, in 1223.
The tradition spread fast, leading to the annual humiliation of children that occurs in nearly every school in the western world, if not more. Catholics in Spain and Latin America also celebrate Las Posadas, a ritual re-enactment of the tribulations Mary and Joseph enduring before giving birth to Jesus. This can take place on any day from the 16th to the 24th of December.
Happy Christmas everyone………
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