Over the years Christmas has become a secular celebration of love and cheer across the globe and many traditions have grown and evolved over time. Many Christmas traditions that we follow, Christian or otherwise, are largely based on customs and folklore from the pre-Christian era.
1. Christmas itself!
Celebrating the birth of Christ was not something the church encouraged for many years. Though the reason to start the tradition of Christmas is still obscure, there are several fascinating theories.
The first nativity scene was created in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223
One theory is that as time passed, the church embraced the need to celebrate the birth of Christ like that of a man’s, to enforce the fact that Jesus lived as a man and was not forgotten. This may be because people had begun to think of Jesus more as a spiritual and mythical entity than a human being who lived among people.
Another tradition that cropped up in 1220’s is the nativity scene, again to remind the masses that Jesus was born as a man and lived among men.
2. Winter solstice and December 25
Mid-winter in the northern hemisphere marks the Winter Solstice which has the shortest day and the longest night of the year. In pre-Christian times, this day was celebrated as the ‘turning of the sun’ or the birth of the sun as the days would get longer from then onwards.
When the church decided to celebrate the birth of Christ, the season might have seemed an opportune time for the ‘birth of the true light’. The first celebration of Christmas on December 25 was in 336AD, a few years after which Pope Julius I officially declared it as Christmas Day.
3. Gingerbread houses
Gingerbread cookies and cakes were quite popular, especially in the holiday season and were believed to have medicinal and warming properties. The tradition of making gingerbread houses is believed to have come from Germany with the story of Hansel and Gretel where, according to the fairytale, two children abandoned in the woods come upon an edible house of bread with sugar decorations.
This started off a whole tradition across Europe of making intricately edible designed structures of gingerbread and this was then taken to the Americas by the Pennsylvanian German immigrants.
There are pre-Christian era customs of using mistletoe for healing purposes. The plant was believed to have mystical powers that warded off bad luck and evil spirits, and was also considered to be a symbol of life and fertility for it grew even in winter.
As per Nordic legend, a kiss under a mistletoe branch meant a boon of love
Being a sign of love and friendship according to Nordic customs, the tradition of kissing under it was popularised after it was brought into Victorian England around the 16th century. One berry off the bough for one kiss is the tradition, but don't try and eat them - these berries are toxic to humans.
5. Christmas tree, holly and ivy
Once again, the tradition of using greenery to decorate homes is a tradition from Northern Europe in the pre-Christian era. Bringing in evergreen trees to celebrate the Winter Solstice and to remember that spring was on its way, was a tradition then.
The first Christmas trees made it into Britain just over 200 years ago in the 1830’s which were then made popular by use in the Christmas celebrations of English royalty.
6. Santa and his entourage
The story of the benevolent St. Nicholas and his act of dropping a bag of gold into a poor man’s house through the chimney for Christmas leading to the concept of modern day Santa is a well-known one. The rotund belly and beard, the reindeer driven sleigh and the elves were all embellishments that came later. The red and white colours are believed to have been taken from Bishop Nicholas’s robes but Santa was also depicted in green. Then of course there is the Coca Cola story.
Getting globally popular by then, this is a Santa sketch from Japan in 1914
The complete description of Santa and his reindeer as shown now was taken from a poem written by American poet Clement Clark Moore in 1823, which then was interpreted by artists like Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and Haddon Sundblom of Coca Cola (1930’s) to create the modern Santa.