This time of the year has been a season of celebration and festivities for over 4,000 years. For the people of the northern hemisphere the Winter Solstice was a turning point marking the reversal of long cold nights and short days.
The harvests had been gathered and stored for the winter. The beer and wine had completed its fermentation. This was also the time of year to slaughter livestock; for the meat would keep well in the cold temperatures and the smaller herds required less stored feed until the animals could return to their pastures in the spring. With the hard work of the harvest being done and with plenty of meat, beer, and wine it was time to relax and to celebrate.
December feasts and festivities were celebrated by nearly all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere. In Germanic & Scandinavian cultures a large log was brought in to provide light and warmth. This Yule log would burn for many days as the Yuletide celebrations were held. Apples and other fruits were tied to tree branches to encourage the return of spring. For many Northern cultures the winter was a celebration of fertility. The work was done, food and drink were plentiful, and while it was cold and dark outside, indoors was warm and cozy. No better time for a fertility festival!
The ancient Romans celebrated their sun god, Saturn, with a festival that began on the Winter Solstice and lasted through the dawning of the New Year. Roman celebrations included large feasts, exchanging of gifts called Strenae (meaning luck fruits) and decorations of garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles as a harbinger of spring. The Roman “Saturnalia” would begin on December 17th (birthday of Saturn) and concluded with a day of feasting on December 25th (Sol Invictus.) The festival was an invitation to stay in good spirit until the return of spring.
Evergreen plants were revered by many cultures as signs of the return of spring. The Celtic culture of the British Isles decorated their lodgings with green plants; particularly mistletoe and holly, for these were important symbols of fertility.
The Persians and the Babylonians celebrated a winter festival called the Sacaea. As part of the celebration, which began on December 25th, the slaves would become the masters in a temporary trading of places. This play-acting role reversal became a common theme amongst many Mediterranean cultures’ winter celebrations.
As Christianity spread across Europe, the church became upset at the continued merriment of the pagan winter celebrations. At the time, Easter was the most important day of the Christian year; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by early Christians. To avoid persecution the early Roman Christians decked their homes with holly. Telesphorus, the second bishop of Rome (circa 130 AD), declared that the “Feast of the Nativity” should be celebrated during the Saturnalia period. By 432 AD the Christian celebration had spread to Egypt and as far north as England by the end of the sixth century.
The Christian celebration of Christmas more resembled the pagan festivals it was meant to replace. For nearly a thousand years the winter celebration of Christmas was a raucous, drunken, carnival-like festival.
In the early 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers changed the way Christmas was to be celebrated for generations to come. As part of their drive to rid England of decadence, the celebration of Christmas was cancelled. The English separatists, known as the “pilgrims”, that came to America were even stricter in their Puritan ways. In Puritan New England, Christmas was not even a holiday. In fact, a few non-Puritan settlers that did celebrate Christmas were fined. As a result, Christmas was actually outlawed in New England from 1659 to 1681.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell from favor and the wild celebrations of Christmas was halted. In the United States, Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, years after the Civil War had ended.
Christmas as we know it today was invented by the best-selling author Washington Irving. In his 1819 series of stories entitled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. Irving introduced a wealthy squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. The characters in Irving’s story enjoyed a warm and peaceful holiday despite their differences in rank and social status. The events and “traditions” that Irving described did not follow any celebration of Christmas anywhere but in his mind. One might say that Irving invented the “traditional” Christmas by implying that the events he wrote described true customs.
The holiday of Christmas that we celebrate today has been shaped by the large retailers and advertisers and bears no resemblance to the thousand years old traditional celebrations, but plays on our collective thoughts of tradition as presented to us by Washington Irving and Norman Rockwell.
However you choose to celebrate the season, I hope your's is filled with peace, joy, and love.
from Chenille Sisters In The Christmas Spirit
more info: thechenillesisters.com
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from The Therapy Sister’s Codependent Christmas
more info: thetherapysisters.com
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from Dar Williams' Mortal City
more info: darwilliams.com
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from Trifolkal’s (Singer/songwriters Laura Pole, Greg Trafidlo, & Neal Phillips) Songs of the Season
more info: trifolkal.com
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from Toot Sweet’s Celtic Christmas (import)
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