One of the things I love about Christmas is its traditions, and knowing that these traditions are a mish-mash of customs from lots of different cultures makes Christmas even more special!
Let's start with the date of Christmas itself:
It may be a surprise for many to learn that the celebration of Christmas on December 25 didn't start until the 4th century. And it was born, not out of an inspired religious fervour, but more prosaically because the early Church wanted to counteract the festivities of rival pagan groups that threatened Christianity's existence.
The Romans celebrated Saturnalia at the winter solstice, and although it was not popular, or even proper, to celebrate people's birthdays in those times, church leaders decided that in order to compete with the pagan celebration, they'd introduce a festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Historians now agree that Jesus' birth is more likely to be 20 May, but the date of December 25 was chosen as the official birthday celebration for Christ's Mass so that it would compete head on with the Saturnalia.
Funnily enough, Christmas was apparently slow to catch on in America because early colonists still associated it with its pagan origins, and in fact, Massachusetts actually banned the celebration of Christmas in colonial days!
The Christmas Tree
This too, owes its existence to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice when nature seemed dead. Green branches were used in magic rites to ensure the return of the sun and light and growing things.
In Norse mythology, there was a belief in a world tree whose branches and roots joined earth, heaven and hell.
And before that, the Egyptians decorated their homes with palm branches to symbolise the end of the year and the triumph of light over darkness and life over death.
During the Saturnalia, the Romans also used branches and foliage as decorations throughout their temples and homes. For our Latin-speaking friends, this was a time of year when everyone practised good will to all men. No battles could be fought, criminals could not be punished and it was the one time when every class in Roman society dedicated itself to the pursuit of pleasure.
So when the Christian church was looking for more ways to make this new religion popular, they need look no further than the existing traditions that abounded.
In 718, St Boniface left England and went to Germany to convert the Germanic tribes, and one of the first things he did was to cut down a sacred oak in the city of Geismar. In its place he planted a fir tree, telling the angry Germans that this was a symbol of their new faith. Whether by design or accident, this took place on what was then Christmas Eve, so the tradition of having a fir tree at Christmas was born.
Martin Luther is credited with starting the modern tradition of decorating trees with lights and then bringing them inside.
The story goes that in 1517, he was on his way home one snowy Christmas Eve, when he was overcome by the beauty of the stars, and wanting his young family to share in this (without the discomfort of dragging his children out into the cold night air) he dug up a small fir tree, took it into his children's nursery and decorated it with candles.
This quaint notion soon spread, and Germans began decorating their homes with trees and candles as a symbol of the deathlessness of the human spirit.
We have Prince Albert to thank for taking this custom to England with him when he married Queen Victoria in 1840, and German immigrants took it to the US when they migrated to Pennsylvania.
Here's another tradition we've pinched from the pagans ... Caught in the middle of a long, cold winter, it's no surprise that people often feared the sun would never return, so they tried to ensure the fertility of their fields and animals by preparing sacred meals. One such was a pudding that was originally made from wheat boiled in milk.
Early Christians adopted this meal to break their fast on Christmas Eve; then it became part of the main feast on Christmas Day and was jazzed up with the addition of eggs, prunes and occasionally meat and was served as a side dish.
Later, the meat was removed and more spices and flavourings were added to make the sweet plum pudding of today.
The coins in the pud have a more macabre background and are leftovers from one of the rituals of the Saturnalia when human sacrifice was called for to ensure the gods would prevent the sun standing still (the meaning of 'solstice').
They decided to leave it up to the gods to choose the sacrificial victim, so a coin was mixed into the pudding and whoever found it was seen as the gods' choice! (And surely that's not why we always hide coins in the children's portions of pudding ...)
Christmas Crackers or Bonbons
It's our French cousins we have to thank for the Christmas bonbon, but an English pastry-cook called Tom Smith is to blame for those corny jokes and cheap gifts!
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the French used to wrap sweets in coloured twists of paper as party favours after a meal, and the aforementioned Tom Smith thought this was a ducky idea, so he started doing the same thing when he returned to England. But he added the jokes, paper hats and other small gifts. Then, on Christmas night, 1846, as he was relaxing by his open fire, he got the Good Idea to try to mimic the sound of the crackling fire with a teensy explosive device inserted into the wrapper ... and voilą .. the bonbon was born!
Again, this dates to pagan times when people believed that evil forces were out to get them, so they had to have protection. The theory was that evil could only be fought with evil, so people wore pointy hats, bizarre masks and other devil disguises to pretend they were also evil and thus confuse the enemy.
Kissing under the Mistletoe
This one comes from the Druids, who regarded mistletoe as the divine "golden bough."
Druid priests, dressed in white robes, used a golden sickle to cut mistletoe, which was then given to members of the congregation to hang over their doors. Mistletoe was believed to keep away lightning and evil; it was also thought that it cured illness and ensured fertility. (And will that make you think twice about pinning a bunch to your hat this year, hmmmm?)
Other Christmas Traditions
There are many more traditions that we associate with Christmas: Christmas Bells, sending greeting cards, baking and sharing Christmas cakes, giving gifts, hanging up Christmas stockings and of course Santa Claus ...