As December finally makes it onto our calenders and as the year draws to a close, the time of year again has come, to relax and enjoy time with friends and family and to participate in everything that constitutes that most wonderful of all holidays and occasions…Christmas!
Yet, despite what we all might think, that Christmas is a time-honoured holiday that’s been around since before the Sun was born, the truth is that the modern Christmas that we have today, with presents and trees and puddings, birds and candles, tinsel and other little nicknacks, has only been around for a relatively short period of time. The Christmas that most of us would recognise today only ever came around about a hundred and fifty years ago during the early Victorian era during which, bit by bit, the various elements of Christmas now familiar with almost everyone, were slowly drawn into the big celebration that we know today.
What and When is Christmas?
Everyone will tell you that Christmas, celebrated on the 25th of December, commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ.
…but it doesn’t.
Because Jesus Christ was never born in December.
Jesus Christ was actually born in the middle of the year, probably during the spring months between March and May.
So if Jesus wasn’t born in December, and if by extension, Christmas therefore shouldn’t take place in December…why does it?
And so begins the first element of the Modern Christmas – Celebrating it in December.
The truth is that what we now think of as Christmas, as being a celebration of the birth of Christ, was actually stolen from someone else, like so many other things in history. But who was it stolen from?
The 17th to the 23rd of December in the Ancient Roman calender was the Midwinter Feast of Saturnalia, where Romans honoured Saturnus, the God of Agriculture. It was during this time that Romans gave each other presents, drank excessively, gorged themselves on food and was the one time in the Roman year where Masters and Slaves were considered equals. But what does this mean for Christmas? Well, just look at it! Booze, food, presents…everyone wants that, right? Well Christians tried to get people to celebrate the birth of Christ…only nobody was interested in that. They all wanted to celebrate Saturnalia instead. So, going with the age-old addage that if you can’t beat them, join them, Christians conveniently moved Jesus’s birth a few months ahead and did a bit of tampering with his heavenly birth-certificate to make it that Christ was born in mid-December…smack-bang in the middle of Saturnalia.
…Which is why we celebrate Christmas in December and not in April.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Aah, Santa. We like Santa. A big, fat guy with a white beard, a red suit and big, black boots who goes around handing out presents, giving cuddles, candy and…coal…to naughty children. But where did Santa and his happy little elves come from?
In recent years, with all kinds of lawsuits being plastered all over this poor old guy, from claiming that he promoted childhood obesity, to saying that his merry laugh was offensive to women, to joking that he liked his job because he knew where all the naughty boys and girls lived…we’ve kinda forgotten where Santa came from. Which is a pty. Because he knows where we all are, right?
“Santa Claus” actually comes from a fellow named Sinterklaas (see the similar names?). Sinterklaas comes from the Christmas traditions of northern Europe, particularly Belgium and Holland. He may also be better known by the name St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. In early December, Sinterklaas would go around Europe, giving children presents and treats while they were asleep, hiding toys and candy in their shoes and socks. The Dutch traditionally celebrated Sinterklaas’s birthday on the 5th of December, and presumably, Sinterklaas decided to pay them back by giving the children little treats, which is why we hang Christmas stockings over our fireplaces today. It was from this European saint that we get the Santa Claus that we know today.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Had a Very Shiny Nose
…and because of that, he was almost never created at all.
Rudolph is famous as being Santa’s annual headlight, who pulls the fat man’s sleigh across the skies during Christmas, delivering presents, guiding the bearded FedEx courier to every house in the world in just a single night. But it may surprise you to know that Rudolph isn’t part of Santa’s original set of reindeer!
In the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (AKA – “A Night Before Christmas”), published in 1823, Santa has eight reindeer – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen! So as you can see, Rudolph ain’t a member of the original Reindeer Clique. So where did he come from?
Rudolph actually came on the scene over a hundred years later! He was born in the brain of a fellow named Robert May, a copywriter for the Montegomery Ward department-store chain. The Montegomery Ward Co. had asked May to create a Christmas story for them, something cheerful and fun and suitable for children. The bosses of Montegomery Ward were going to put it into colouring books and children’s picture-books, ready for Christmas in 1939! And given what happened in 1939, it was probably just as well that Rudolph was created, because people probably needed extra reason to be jolly that year – which might be helped if they had a cute, cuddly little reindeer to read about.
May had gone through several names for Rudolph. His story was about a reindeer who just didn’t fit in with anybody and May wanted a name that was simple but sweet. “Rollo” sounded too cute and playful. “Reginald” (another name May had dithered over) was also rejected because he thought it sounded too British (it’s also the first name of Mr. Wooster’s valet – Reginald Jeeves, and you can’t get more British than that!). Eventually, May selected the name Rudolph. It would work well with the sing-song poem that he was writing for his story.
May tested his new Christmas story bit by bit on his then four-year-old daughter, Barbra May. Little Barbra loved the story and thought it was wonderful…but as always, adults have a way of overreacting to things that kids find cute. The Montegomery Ward fat cats thought that a story about a red-nosed reindeer was terrible! Red noses were for people who drank too much and who got thrown in the holding-cell at the local police-station for being drunk and rowdy! No! It’s terrible!
May was furious about this refusal of his awesome new kids’ story, so he had a word with Denver Gillen. Denver worked in the art department at Montegomery Ward and was one of May’s best friends. Together, the two men went to the local zoo where Gillen sketched some deer to show their bosses exactly what would be seen in the final storybook. Eventually, May’s boss relented and, despite wartime rationing of paper, by 1946, over six million copies of May’s new Christmas story had been run off the printing-press!
The Twelve Days of Christmas
In today’s modern world, Christmas is Christmas. It happens on the 25th of December and that’s it. Right?
Well…actually no. You see, if you told that to everyone, then all the kids would be asking you what the hell happened to all the other eleven days of Christmas. You know, like in that song? With the partridge and the pear-tree and the ducks and chickens and milkmaids and the gold rings and all that.
First off, the 25th of December is not the first day of Christmas.
The very first day of Christmas is actually the day AFTER the 25th…the 26th of December, which is the Feast Day of St. Stephen. The feast lasts for three days, until the 29th of December, which is the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents. That continues until New Year’s Eve on the 31st of December. The 1st of January is the Feast Day of St. Basil. Feasting in honour of various events and saints continues until it finally ends on the 6th of January with the Twelfth Night which marks the coming of the Christian epiphany. And those are the twelve days of Christmas.
The Christmas Tree
Aaah, Christmas Trees. We love Christmas trees. For centuries, people all over the world have loved Christmas trees!
In actual fact, the Christmas tree is actually a rather recent invention. Although it has ancient roots, the Christmas tree that we all know today only showed up in the 1800s! It had been a big tradition in the German countries and states in the middle of Europe for centuries to decorate trees for Christmas. It was a tradition brought to England by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. When a picture of the British Royal Family around a Christmas tree was published in 1848…
…tree mania struck the British Isles. As with everything that celebrities do, everyone else wants to do it too. And within a few years, the annual tradition of Christmas trees had gone from a small, German tradition to an almost worldwide annual event!
The Yule Log
The burning of a massive log at Christmas…the Yule Log…is a long and ancient tradition. The log is so big because it was needed to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas, from the 26th of December until the 6th of January. But where does the tradition of the Yule Log come from?
It’s actually a Viking tradition. Vikings would burn huge logs during their holiday of Yula. Yula celebrated the death of the old year during winter, and the birth of the New year the following spring. As spring is the time for new growth and rebirth, praying for fertility was very important. To ensure fertility, what better way to get good crops, new baby animals and new children, than to set fire to one of the biggest phallic symbols in the world…a massive tree-trunk! The burning of a yule log eventually melded into the other traditions of Christmas that we have today.
Christmas pudding. Made of dried fruis and drenched with booze, it’s sweet, tangy, squeegy and delicious. Eating pudding at Christmas has been a tradition for centuries, but the modern pudding only came around during the Victorian era. Before then, Christmas pudding was something most of us probably woudln’t have touched with a punting-pole!
Christmas pudding has its origins in the 15th century. In the early 1400s, people would preserve their meat by drying it and wrapping it in pastry along with fruit. This is where we get those cute little mince pies that we love eating at Christmas, but it’s also where we get the modern Christmas pudding from.
Eventually, pies evolved to a food called ‘pottage’, ‘porridge’ or ‘pudding’ (from which we get the different versions of the song “Pease Porridge”). Pottage, to use the original term, got its name because meat and fruit were cooked in a cauldron, a huge pot, along with sugar and spices to perserve it. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I, who had a bit of a sweet-tooth, decided to add more fruit to the mixture to make it taste better.
By Georgian times, preserving meat by mixing it with fruit was out of fashion and was also old-fashioned, because by the 18th century, people had figured out better (and more importantly – tastier) ways of preserving meat. It was around this time that the meat element of Christmas pies and puddings started disappearing and by the early Victorian era in the 1840s, the modern Christmas pudding and pie, with its sweet, tender fruits drenched in alcohol (traditionally – brandy) had arrived.
Eat up, everybody!
Christmas is a time for food, drink, family, friends, presents…and those gawd-awful tacky, cheesy, lame, pathetic, yawn-inducing bloody Christmas cards! Sometimes, don’t you wish you could just kill the guy who created the first one?
Well unfortunately for us, Old Father Time already beat us to the mark, because the guy who created the first-ever Christmas card is long dead.
That’s right, there was actually person behind this one, and not just some nameless legendary figure, either. His name was Sir Henry Cole and it was his dubious honour to be named the person who gave us the modern Christmas card! That probably wouldn’t make him too merry today, unlike His Majesty King Cole, to whom Henry was, probably thankfully, not related.
Sir Henry Cole invented the Christmas card, or rather, commissioned the idea of creating them, in the early 1840s. Together with the help of the artist Jon Callcott Horsley, Cole came up with the following:
This is literally the first store-bought Christmas-card that was ever made. It came out in 1843 and it started off a whole new tradition, that of posting Christmas cards to people every December.
When is a Door Not a Door?
Christmas Crackers, another cheesy crazy Christmas tradition. Invented by Tom Smith in 1847, the Christmas cracker had its origins in French traditions. While in Paris in 1840, Smith discovered the French almond candy, the ‘bon-bon’. Smith was a baker by trade, and was always looking for interesting ways to improve his business. He liked this idea of bon-bons, which lovers traditionally gave to each other at Christmas. Smith also took inspiration for the Christmas cracker from the Chinese fortune cookie, which is actually an American invention. He noticed that fortune-cookies had little messages and sayings stuck inside them, and he thought this might be a fun little tradition to do during Christmas.
By the mid-1840s, Smith’s prosperity was growing and legend had it that in 1846, while he was relaxing next to his fireplace, the crackling of the burning firewood gave him an idea! To make little exploding crackers with messages and candy inside them! The idea so-consumed Smith that he spent ages trying to figure out how to create little exploding packages. It wasn’t easy – He nearly blew off his hands in the process! He finally created two strips of cardboard coated with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) which, when rubbed together, let off an audiable ‘bang!’ without blowing your hands to pieces!
With more experimentation, Smith developed the modern Christmas cracker, that lets out a ‘bang!’ when you rip it apart and gives you a horrible, cheap joke written on a piece of paper inside it. By the turn of the century, Smith’s invention had taken the world by storm, and it was around this time that he also started adding not only candy, but also little toys to the crackers as well, and yet another tradition was born.
And there you have it. Santa Claus, crackers, trees, drunken, red-schnozzed reindeer who swilled the brandy that was going to be put on the pudding, and the Yule Log and Christmas card, all the symbols and traditions of the modern Christmas that we have today, during which we celebrate the birth of someone who actually popped into world nine months earlier…
…Merry Christmas, Everybody.