THE CELEBRATION OF CHRISTMAS
A brief history
Celebrations in mid winter
predate Christian times by
millennium and whilst
Christmas became a
Christian festival many of
the original superstitions
of pagan times are still
Evergreens were cherished because
they symbolized the season to come.
Greenery featured prominently in mid winter décor.
Four thousand years ago, the
Egyptians (3110- 30BC)
celebrated the rebirth of the
Sun with a festival that lasted
12 days to reflect the 12
divisions in the sun's calendar.
Palms with 12 shoots were
used to decorate their
The Babylonians (1750 – 529
BC) celebrated renewal of the
year and the same festivities
were later adopted by the
Persians (529BC - 637AD).
The Romans continued the
The Festival of Saturn
In Roman times people decorated their
homes with greenery but the usual order of
the year was suspended and grudges and
quarrels forgotten. Wars were interrupted or
temporarily set aside and merriment of all
The Roman mid-winter ‘festival of misrule,’
when social order was temporarily subverted
and masters and slaves exchanged places.
The same practice continued throughout the
Middle Ages during other festivals such as
The Festival of Fools.
Saturn and Mithras
The 25th December was used to honour
Saturn (God of Harvest), and Mithras,
(God of light).
Pagans prepared special food, decorated
their homes with greenery, and joined in
singing and gift giving.
Once Christianity became the religion of the
Romans, the celebrations and pagan
customs became part of the Christian way.
The Festival of the Dead
According to Celtic myth Lugh, the Sun
God was defeated by his dark side and
become the Lord of Misrule. Good folk
needed the comfort of their own kind
and protection from the evil forces of the
The Festival of the Dead (Samhain) was
celebrated on three levels. It was a time
of plenty as the live stock were returned
from the hills before the severe winter
ahead; it was a time of great kinship, as
the hill dwellers came to the gathering;
and was the time of year when the
darkness of night prevailed over the
lightness of the day.
Festival of Light
Samhain was an unreal time, when
one year turned into another. A twilight
zone where the spirits of the dead and
those not yet born, walked freely among
the living. Halloween or the beginning of
the Festival of the Dead and Hogmanay ,
the end as beginning of the New Year.
Many rituals and superstitions from that
time still prevail and are incorporated
into modern Christmas customs.
Christmas was called the Festival of Light
in the Western or Latin Church. Lighting
candles and lamps helped return the
light and warmth as well as chasing away
the spirits of darkness.
The Birth of Christ
Christmas was not observed in Rome,
until about 300 years after Christ's death.
In 274 C.E., the Roman Emperor Aurelian
established a feast of the birth of Sol
Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on
December 25. Christmas.
There is no evidence to support Christ
was born on December 25, but it is
generally agreed as the date was already
popular in pagan religious celebrations it
was a deliberate compromise.
Christians have celebrated
Christmas Day since AD 336 and the
earliest known Christmas Day
celebration in England was in the
city of York in AD 521 by King
By the twelfth century Christmas
had become the most important
religious festival in Europe. The
obsolete feasts of antiquity were
gradually adapted to the main
events of the life of Christ.
Merriment and religious devotion were not
associated in the early church, ultimately
they were incorporated due to political
The Three Wise Men
‘Now when Jesus was
born in Bethlehem of
Judea in the days of
the King, behold, there
came wise men (Magi)
from the east of
Unlike the modern interpretation
of the Christmas Nativity, it
appears only shepherds were
present immediately after the
Most of the nativity scenes were
painted in the 15 & 16th centuries.
Gerard van Honthorst (1590 –
1656), The Adoration of the
Christmas cards depicting the
nativity become popular only in the
Twelve Days of Christmas
To promote universal
celebration of Christ's birth
the main churches
eventually agreed to accept
Twelve Days of Christmas.
In the Western Church this
ran from Christmas Day
Until Epiphany, (January
Puritans banned Christmas
In 1644 the English Puritans forbid
any merriment or religious services
by Act of Parliament.
Consider to be heathen practice,
The Puritans ordered Christmas to
be kept as a fasting day.
Charles II revived the feast, but the
Scots adhered to the Puritan view
and did not celebrate Christmas for
Queen Victoria enjoyed the German
style decorated tree and insisted in
having one in Buckingham Palace at
Christmas. She and Prince Albert
decorated it for the Royal children.
The Royal couple were so popular
loyal subjects took to the new
Christmas custom and every home
in England had a Christmas Tree
Initially the trees were decorated
with flags of the Empire but when
Woolworth's offered coloured
lights, these were used instead
Scots and Christmas
The celebration of Christmas was
banned in Scotland after the
Presbyterian ministers visited their flock
to check they had no festive foods in
Many viewed Christmas as an attempt to
emulate Hogmanay. Cynics viewed it as a
time for Victorian ‘do good’ers’ to exercise
charity to the less privileged.
Christmas was just another day with
Faint echoes of bonfire ceremonies,
More related to pagan sun worship than
celebrating the birth of Christ.
Christmas in Scotland did not become a
public holiday until 1958.
At first Christmas was a time for colonists to
link with their homes and families.
Scottish tea planters in the east ate plum
puddings and turkey dinners long before
their relatives gave recognition to Christmas
The first official Christmas celebrated in
Australia was Dec 25, 1788 at Sydney Cove.
No Christmas cheer was shown to the
prisoners on that day with the exception of
Michael Dennison who had been sentenced
to 200 lashes. In the spirit of the season the
prisoner was given 150.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree come from
Germany when St Boniface was
converted to Christianity. After he
came upon a group of Pagans
worshipping at an oak tree he cut it
down and when a fir tree sprung up
from the roots this was taken as a
By the 16th century fir trees were
brought into the home and it is
Reputed Martin Luther was the first
person to decorate the tree with
The lights which decorate the Christmas
tree was a remnant of paganism.
Electric Christmas Tree
German settlers are thought to
have taken decorated trees to North America
when they emigrated.
In the early 1800s when the first lit tree was
erected outside a church, many parishioners
Protested because they felt the action was
The introduction of electricity meant it was
much safer to illuminate the tree. Soon every
town community council had civic displays, all
trying to compete with each other.
Horns and bells were traditionally used to
decorate the trees. Later these ornaments
took on a Christian message i.e. heralding
the birth of Christ.
Originally fairy like figures were used on
the trees but these later became angels.
The common belief a spider spoke to the
baby Jesus is thought to be the reason why
tinsel was commonly used as a tree
A spider's web on the Christmas
tree was thought to be a sign of
Carols (songs of joy)
Families sang carols and clapped
their hands to keep warm. The
custom started in England and most
carols were written in the nineteenth
These scenes were graphically
depicted in the works of Charles
Dickens’. For the first eight years of
the author’s life it snowed in
London. This was quite unusual but
clearly left a lasting impression with
The English enjoyed Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day
whereas many European countries feast on Christmas
It is thought King Henry VIII may have been the first
English monarch to have turkey for Christmas although
goose was the predominant roast until the Victorian
For Catholics fish pie became popular after the
Reformation and later ham also enjoyed common.
Wartime rationing meant sausages became usual
Christmas far. Post war the rising cost of goose saw
chickens and turkey rise in popularity
Christmas pudding dates from medieval England.
The Yule Log
Pagan festivals included many superstitions
which eventually became part of the
The Yule log was a Norse custom and
burning of the Yule was a celebration of the
sun during the winter months.
According to tradition it was extremely
unlucky for a barefooted woman or a squint
eyed man to see the yule log; and a flat
footed visitor to the house whilst the log
Was burning was a very bad omen.
Superstitious people kept a piece
of the log from the previous year
as a lucky talisman.
Christmas crackers were an attempt to
make a log shaped novelty similar
to the Yule log. They first appear in the
mid 19th century.
At first cracker bon bons contained sugar
almonds and love messages were placed
on the table. Later the 'snap' was
Invented to emulate the sounds of a
These became popular and were used in
all manner of celebrations but later they
became exclusive to Christmas.
The first Christmas cards appear in England
(1843). Sir Henry Cole, director of The
Victoria and Albert Museum in London,
became weary of hand penning Christmas
greetings and commissioned illustrator John
Callcott Horsley to design a printable card.
The card caused an uproar and cost about
one week’s pay at one shilling.
The postal act of 1840 brought about the
Penny post, which allowed mail to be sent
anywhere in England for a penny.
Cards became even more popular in the UK
When they could be posted in an unsealed
envelope for one halfpenny.
Religious themed Christmas cards
"If you do not give a new pair of shoes to a poor
person at least once in your lifetime, you will go
barefoot in the next world."
This belief may be the reason why Christmas
gifts were exchanged by the middle classes so
as to avoid poverty. Many people gave presents
to the poor and miniature shoes became
popular gifts for good luck from the 18th century
One reason why miniature shoes were given
instead of the real thing might be because
superstitious people believed if you give a friend
new shoes then they would walk away.
During the Feast of the Dead
(Hogmanay) Druid priests cut
down mistletoe from sacred
oaks with golden sickles.
These were used to help
Infertility and may explain
why, to this day, we kiss
under a sprig of mistletoe.
Trolls, Kallikantzartoi and