So this is Christmas…?

Early Christians selected the 25th December in order to ‘overwrite’ earlier festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia. We may have changed the name but not its basic nature!

Turkey In the UK Christmas is the time when we gobble up some 10 million turkeys and chop-down 6 million conifers – despite rising populations of vegans and tree-huggers!
Pounds We spend £835 per household, a total expenditure of some £22 billion – that’s twice the total sum our government contentiously spends on International Development. This is roughly the same amount spent on our limping Local Government and it equates to 60%  spent on Defence and almost 40% of total spend on Education. (source: Institute for Fiscal Studies)

Let’s look at Christmas customs:

FatherChristmas Gift-bringers – The notion of gifts at Christmas harks back to the wise men and their gifts. The custom of giving presents subsequently adopted around the globe, with the prime gift-giver being St Nicholas aka Santa Claus, Father Christmas… In 1931 Coca‑Cola had an artist to paint Santa Claus for their adverts, which shaped much of the jolly fat character that we use today. Santa Claus is a contraction of Saint Nicholas (Dutch Sinterklaas) His saint day is observed on 6th December – the original date for giving gifts in Europe. Yet Orthodox churches celebrate St Nicholas on 17th December.
 Befana In Italy gifts are delivered by an old woman called Befana riding on a broomstick, her name thought to be a contraction from Epifania (Epiphany). She comes down the chimney with presents and children leave her drink and food.  In Spain Santa has a climbing rope or rope ladder – as there are not so many chimneys! Slavic countries have Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) as their Santa Claus, whom he resembles, but he delivers the gifts overtly at the New Year.
 Rudolph Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was the commercial invention of Robert L May in 1939 for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department stores. A colouring book was produced – 2.5 million were sold that first year. May’s brother-in-law wrote the song, performed by Gene Autry. It was  Billboard #1 for Christmas 1949 – selling 25 million copies! Rudolph’s eight colleagues came from an 1823 poem by Clement C Moore A Visit from St. Nicholas – often called ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. ’“…he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name: Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!”
ChristmasCard Christmas cards were invented in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole to boost traffic for the early British Post Office. He had invented the penny post three years earlier and wanted to expand that service. Some two thousand cards were printed and sold for a shilling (5p) each, plus of course these each required penny stamps (40% of 1p). One of these original cards was auctioned recently and fetched over £22,000.
RobinCard Winter and religious illustrations were used from the 1870s and there were often home-made versions – including embroidered cards. Robins first appeared as a joke at the red-tunics of postmen, but became a charming fixture.Despite online e-greetings the Greeting Cards Association indicates that Britons purchased (2013) 30 cards per head of population – 884 million of them, a £1.29 billion business in the UK that sustains 1,000 card publishers and 100,000 employees. The average card price was £1.29.
ChristmsCandles Candles at Christmas – other than their purely functional benefits in pre-electric times, candles were used by the Romans during festivals and on the Jewish menorah celebrating Hannukah. In medieval churches candles were used to signify the star of Bethlehem and later became linked with carol services – and of course the source of many fires!
ChristmasCrackers Christmas Crackers were invented by Tom Smith in the UK around the middle of the 19th century. He was a confectionery maker and the cracker emerged from the development of a bonbon sweet. He added the ‘crackle’ for interest and this meant the wrapper got bigger, so he dropped the sweet for a trinket and a motto. It took on the onomatopaeic ‘cracker’ as competitors emerged. His sons later added party hats.  78% of UK households currently have crackers with their Christmas lunch. The jokes in crackers may be hackneyed but raise a groan!
ChristmasWreath Christmas wreath – this is said to symbolise Christ’s crown of thorns (a bit depressing given this is a celebration of his birth!). Other accounts suggest they are simply celebratory akin to the Greeks use of laurel wreath crowns. Pagan Romans plagiarised much of Greek culture and gave wreaths as gifts, Christians took on the habit. Druids were the first to use holly and ivy sprigs, believing the evergreen nature to be magic.

Christmas Food and Drink:

MulledWine Mulled wine (or Glühwein) – ‘mulled’ meaning to spice and heat. The spicing of wine for aroma and its heating has always been reserved for special events. The Romans certainly did so from the 2nd century. The German nobleman Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen was the first grower of Riesling grapes and created the earliest extant Glühwein tankard, dated around 1420. In 1869 Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management popularised mulled wine in Victorian England.
 ChristmasPudding Christmas pudding – 50% of UK households opt to have a Christmas pudding. It derives from a 14th century soup – made from beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. In the late 16th century it was thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit – beer and spirits were added – popular by the middle of the 17th century, just in time for the Puritans to ban it in 1664. George I re-established its popularity in the 18th c. What we eat today is a later Victorian version. Custom was to insert a silver thru’penny piece (1.25p) in the pudding –  the one to find it was granted luck, or occasionally ended up with a broken tooth!
MincePie Mince pies used Middle East spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, brought back to Britain by 13th century crusaders. Tudor England already had pies that mixed savoury with sweet; they originally mixed minced beef or mutton with fruits and spices. In Victorian times they were reduced in size and the meat was replaced with dried fruits. Some suggest that if you eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas you will have happiness across the following twelve months – or was that hippiness?
Turkeys Turkeys – these festive fowls originally came from Mexico, not Turkey – the first came to Britain in 1526! They were sold in my home town, Bristol, for tuppence (83% of 1p) each. Tesco’s website shows two-kilo bronze turkeys at £35 for 2014 – other stores are available!  By 1720 some 250,000 turkeys were walked from Norfolk to London markets in flocks of 300-1000. They set off in August, fed on stubble fields along the A12, their feet dipped in tar to protect them. In 1930 it took a week’s wage to buy a turkey. Now it takes 1.7 hours of average toil (source: BritishTurkey.co.uk). The UK eats 10 million turkeys at Christmas; Americans eat 60 million of them at Thanksgiving!

Decorating our homes:

Poinsettia Poinsettia also originated in Mexico, the Aztecs using it as a source for clothing dye and medicine. It was said to be a young girl in Mexico who first gave one as a Christmas present. Subsequently the act was justified by suggesting the the star-shaped leaf pattern was a symbol for the Star of Bethlehem, and its red colour the blood from the crucifixion – Christ’s alpha and omega represented in one flower.
ChristmasTree Christmas trees – the first reference to using a tree for this purpose is from Germany in 1570. Despite a growing use of artificial trees there are still some 6 million fir, pine and spruce trees grown and hewn each year as Christmas trees for the UK. To be suitable a tree needs growing time: pine 5 years, spruce 7 years; fir 10 years) – so some 40 million more are already out there being prepped for coming years. Europe consumes 60 million trees each year in celebrating Christmas!  (source: Forestry Commission).
 Holly Holly and the Ivy – these natural items were brought into homes in pagan times and the practice was taken over by Christians. In heraldry holly means ‘truth’ and ivy means ‘eternal life’ – telling the truth for eternity is a big ask that I’m not convinced any of our noblemen have yet achieved!
Frigga Mistletoe – kissing beneath the mistletoe comes from Norse mythology. It was the goddess of love, Frigga, who was associated with the parasitical plant. Sobering to think that mistletoe is spread by birds who eat the berries (drupes) then either regurgitate the seed or pass it in their droppings – go on pucker up!

Christmas singing:

CarolSingers Christmas carols – Greeks, Romans and Pagans celebrated their festivals with songs. In Britain it was known as wassailing. The practice was adopted by Christians from as early as the 1st century, and the canon of songs grew in number from the 8th century. They fell out of popularity but were revived by St Francis of Assisi and later the Protestant Reformation, though in Britain the singing was briefly suppressed by Cromwell. Most of the songs we use today emerged from the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Jingle Bells’ was the first carol broadcast in space, by Gemini 6 astronauts in 1965.
AngelsSinging Angels singing… – angels are mentioned in the Jewish Tanakh, Christian Bible and Muslim Qu’ran – but were never reported to have sung! An angel’s name usually ends in -el, as in Gabriel, Michael, Raphael… – perhaps Lucifer should have taken the hint at his christening?

When precisely should Christmas be held?

Saturnalia December 25th is Christmas Day, chosen because it was the day Jesus was born – right? Many suggest the selected date was in fact more about the Christian church replacing existing festivals  – Roman Saturnalia, Jewish Hannukah , Pagan Winter Solstice.
GuidingStar Epiphany – the arrival of the wise men. This was once the date used to celebrate the baptism of Christ – the 6th January. Spanish-speaking countries celebrate Tres Reyes (Three Kings) on the eve of Epiphany, 5th January, aka twelfth night when Spanish children get presents and we Brits take down our decorations. Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on 7th January – for them the festival continues until Candlemas on 2nd February.
Conjunction December 25th has achieved no scientific validation. An Australian astronomer computer-generated the sky of 2,014 years ago and found a bright ‘star’, the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter – but it appeared on June 17th, year 2 BCE. Scientists’ theories abound, comets and novae postulated, setting the birth date between 6 BCE to 30 CE and arguments vary from June to September as the month of birth.
AlmsBox The big event is followed by Boxing Day on the 26th. But this started only eight centuries ago in Britain (and subsequently its colonies) when poor boxes in churches were opened to disburse alms to impoverished people in the parish. Nothing to do with the post office!
GoodKingWenceslas The 26th is also the feast of St Stephen – when Good King Wenceslas looked out. This is the Stephen claimed to be the original Christian martyr and stoned in 34 CE – but wouldn’t that have made him the second martyr after Christ? However Orthodox churches celebrate St Stephen on the 27th December, Coptics and others on January 8th!

However (or whenever!) you celebrate Christmas – have a good one!

And in the New Year – don’t forget where to get great research done…

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