Mary Irvine’s Blog: Christmas Customs and Festivals
Once again the rush is on and stress increases as the day draws near…
I abolished, for myself, the commercialism of Christmas several years ago. It was the year I went to the post office and bought stamps which cost more than double the actual cards being sent. I also considered to whom the cards were going. To people I hadn’t seen in years. Whose only contact with me (and mine in return) was a Christmas card (Some with those terrible letters telling me what they’d been doing all year). Why? I decided at that moment I would, at future Christmases, give the money to Charity which I still do, adding a small amount every year to allow for inflation! I duly informed everyone on ‘the list’ of my intention. I received differing responses. Some said fine, we’ll drop the money into the office/work charity box, others said they chose to continue sending me a card anyway. Others I never heard from again… I don’t go to all the pre-Christmas lunches/dinners to which I am invited. Mostly because I can’t afford it and, OK, I’m not that sociable! I do like giving present but why confine it to once a year. That’s rhetorical, by the way.
However, I am interested in the customs which surround this Christian Festival – yes, it is religious, I believe, and No, I am not a Christian although I do try to follow the teachings of Christ (as opposed to St Paul) and of the Buddha, both teachings being remarkably similar. I shall spend Christmas day with my family. I will enjoy it as I do any time spent with my family.
Many people like to decorate their houses at Christmas with real plants such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. Although there are songs and carols linking these plants with Christianity, they were originally used long before Christian times in the celebration of the winter solstice, a looking forward to the new growth of Spring. Holly was male and ivy female. They were believed to keep evil spirits away.
Rather than stop people using this greenery new meanings were given. Holly was said to represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucufixion whilst the berries represented his blood. Ivy has to have support to live, something to cling to, just as Christians cling to Jesus.
Mistletoe is a parasite that needs a host to survive. The Druids had a ceremony of cutting the mistletoe from the sacred oak (one of many hosts). They believed it had mystic poweres and could defend against evil. As it is green all year round it was also regarded as a symbol of fertility.
The modern idea of kissing under the mistletoe probably comes from Norse mythology but was made popular in the UK in Victorian times. This plant has also been used in medicine, specifically to treat epilepsy as it is claimed to reduce the severity of the convulsions.
Saint Nicholas Day
December 6th is the feast day of St Nicholas, a very popular saint as he associated with the origin of Santa Claus. How? First of all he is the patron saint of Russia and Greece as well as many townsand cities, particularly ports and islands as he is also the patron saint of sailors.
More importantly he is the patron saint of children, which brings us closer to Santa Claus! In some northern European countries children are given gifts on St Nicholas’ Day. Agios Vassili, dressed in red and with a long, white beard, appears in Greece at Midnight on New Year’s Eve to give presents to the children. Father Christmas emerged in the 17th century in England but didn’t become associated with St Nicholas until Victorian times.
We know very little about this saint. We know he was a bishop in Turkey in the 4th century AD and had a reputation as a generous man. In the 11th century, when Turkey fell under Muslim rule,his remains were taken to Bari, Italy, for re-burial. He was popular until the Reformation when only the Dutch remembered him as Sinterklaas who re-appeappeared as Santa Claus when Dutch immigrants went to the USA.
The Winter Solstice – Dec 21st/22nd
This celebration takes place on the shortest day of the year. It was the time the Pagans celebrated the re-birth of the Sun. The days would gradually get longer. They could look forward to warmth and the new life to come which would mean their survival.
This festival, spread throughout Europe, is probably Norse in origin. There is evidence in their written works to support this, although some claim the Romans were responsible with their Saturnalian rites which took place in December.
A Norse word for the solstice festival is Yule and the burning of the Yule log is Nordic in origin. This custom also spread throughout Europe which could reflect the wide rovings of the Scandinavians.
In the Middle Ages, in Britain, a whole tree would be brought into the house and burned, roots first, until Twelfth Night. Oak for choice in England, birch in Scotland. Any not burned would be saved till the following year. The ashes were scattered in the fields.
Once we burned a Yule log on our fires. Now, with central heating being prevalent we tend to honour the custom with a chocolate Yule log!
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