Christmas Traditions and the Little Known Historical Facts About Them (That May Surprise You)

Christmas is the time of year that millions of people come together to celebrate a plethora of wintry traditions and, not least among them, the traditional birth of Jesus.  But mixed into it all, there is gift exchanging, Christmas trees, caroling, and the typical holiday headache known as the hanging of the lights.

Behind all of these traditions, the running about, the last minute shopping, and the long commutes to see family, are the little known facts about this season that are often forgotten, yet worth remembering. For example, did you know that historically, Jesus was not born on December 25th?  And did you know that at one time ghosts were associated with Christmas?  There is also that pesky little fact that at one time, in the United States, Christians did not celebrate Christmas—some places even banned its celebration all together!  Well, here are some of the details in list form because, as it goes, we Americans love our lists.

1. Christmas on the 25th?

In fact, nothing in the New Testament suggests that Jesus was born in winter at all—none of the Gospels or epistles or pastorals suggest this.  To the contrary, it is often suggested among scholars that Jesus was born in the spring.

In the Gospel tales of Jesus’ birth, particularly in Luke, there is mention of the shepherds living out in the fields tending their flocks.  This would not be occurring in the winter (nor does Luke or Matthew suggest it is occurring in the winter).

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In addition to this, Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem to be recorded in a census, which would have only happened during a warmer time of year given the lengths at which people traveled for census taking.  Having this occur in the winter months would be too treacherous even for the officials conducting the census.

You’re probably asking yourself: ‘Why do we celebrate Christmas—the festival commemorating the birth of Jesus—in December rather than May?’  The answer may surprise you.

2. The Convergence of Sol Invictus and Christmas

The earliest church fathers from the second-third centuries do not indicate that the birth of Jesus was celebrated as a feast day.  Initial dates proposed by the Eastern church fathers for the date of the birth of Jesus, the earliest coming to us at the beginning of the 3rd Century, range between the months of March through May.  Though there were some sects to the East which placed the celebration of the birth around the month of January, at this time the predominant view in the church had been that Jesus was born in the spring.

Around the 4th Century, our earliest recorded evidence exists from Rome that the celebration of Jesus’ birth starts to get a little hairy.  According to the manuscripts of the Chronography of 354, the celebration of the birth is in January (it follows from the statement ‘natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae mense Ianuario’ or ‘Birth of Christ in [Bethlehem?], Judaea, in the month of January’).  But also found is the scribed, ‘Hoc cons. dominus Iesus Christus natus est VIII kal. Ian. d. Ven. luna xv’ or ‘When these were consuls, Jesus Christ was born 8 days before the kalends of January [December 25th] on the day of Venus’.  After this point, we start seeing a standardization (in the Western Church) of the feast day of the nativity on December 25th.

Some scholars have postulated that this is because the Christians were trying to merge their traditions with that of the celebration of Sol Invictus (‘The Unconquered Sun’), a festival which celebrated the victory of the sun over the darkness of winter (especially of the Solstice).   Aurelian dedicated the festival to Sol in 274, well before the first calender evidence of Christmas being celebrated on december 25th.  Incidentally, however, it is hard to pinpoint specific influences in tradition.  Yet there is some indication that the change from April to December was instigated by some of the members of the early Church to better insulate Pagans from the change when, during Constantine’s reign, the Christian religion became a legal religion of Rome (and a few decades later when Theodosius made Christianity the official imperial religion, all official festivals were made Christian ones) .

In other words, the tradition of a feast day on December 25th was not an early one.  Yet through the process of cultural exchange, and perhaps a little bit of help from Constantine in 313 CE, the feast day was established in the winter months of the calender.  By the time of the first records of a December 25th Christmas feast day, Christianity had existed in some form for about 300 years.  That is longer than the amount of time America has existed as an independent nation.

3. Laurel and Evergreen Wreaths: A Greco-Roman Tradition Honoring Gods

While evidence exists of early Jewish practices involving evergreen branches being carried on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and used during Sukkot (to build a Sukkah), there is no real reference to the use of wreaths in religious ceremonies.  And it seems as though the practice of hanging wreaths was generally frowned upon by early Christians.

Christmas_Wreath_-_geograph.org.uk_-_639554

C/o Wiki Commons.

For example, the early church father Tertullian remarked on the Roman practice of decorating with evergreen and laurel branches and wreaths made of bits from laurel and fir trees thus:

You will now-a-days find more doors of heathens without lamps and laurel-wreaths than of Christians. What does the case seem to be with regard to that species (of ceremony) also? If it is an idol’s honour, without doubt an idol’s honour is idolatry…. Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn:  to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple. I have said too little. If you have renounced stews, clothe not your own house with the appearance of a new brothel.

Seems rather harsh, doesn’t it?  So where did the practice originate and for what purpose?

The wreath for Romans had been a multi-purpose symbol; as it signified power and authority, it originated with the Etruscans, but it also symbolized life and renewal. On the former Lucretius, a Roman naturalist philosopher living in the 1st Century BCE, wrote:

Enter the brute herds, as our Ennius sang,
Who first from lovely Helicon brought down
A laurel wreath of bright perennial leaves,
Renowned forever among the Italian clans.

The latter significance seems to date back to the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo.  Apollo, son of Zeus, loved Daphne, but Daphne did not share that sentiment so she fled and begged the river god Peneus for help.  He turned her into a laurel tree and so the tree became a sacred to Apollo.  There is even a Delphic ritual associated with the laying of laurel wreaths, found in Livy’s History of Rome:

After reading these words translated from the Greek verses, he went on to say that, on coming out of the oracle, he had at once made offerings to all those divinities with incense and wine;  also that he had been bidden by the high-priest of the temple, just as he had come to the oracle and also conducted the rite while wearing a garland of laurel, so also to wear the garland when he boarded the ship, and not to lay it aside until he should reach Rome.  Further, that he had carried out with the utmost scrupulosity and care all the instructions given him, and had then laid the wreath upon the altar of Apollo at Rome.  The senate decreed that at the first opportunity those rites should be duly observed with prayers.

There is even a Greek word for this sort of wreath: εἰρεσιώνη (eiresionè).  An εἰρεσιώνη, according to the LSJ:

An branch of olive or laurel wound round with wool and hung with fruits, dedicated to Apollo and borne about by singing boys at the Πυανόψια and Θαργήλια, while offerings were made to Helios and the Hours, and afterwards hung up at the house-door.

But also:

A crown [of laurel] hung up in honour of the dead.

The festivals of Θαργήλια (Thargelia) and Πυανόψια (Pyanepsia) happened during the Greek calender months of Thargelion (modern months of May/June) and  Pyanepsion (October/November).  The carrying of these εἰρεσιώνη seems to be related to the notion of the changing of the seasons.  Plutarch seems to suggest that by the time he is writing, the carrying of these votive wreaths are now being done at festivals honoring Theseus, which he discusses in his work of the same name:

At that feast they also carry the so-called ‘eiresione,’ which is a bough of olive wreathed with wool, such as Theseus used at the time of his supplication, and laden with all sorts of fruit-offerings, to signify that scarcity was at an end.

How this symbol came to become an embodiment of Christmas seems to be focused on the use of it during the Fall months; when the weather was harsh and the crops had died, the wreath seemed to signify the acceptance of death but the hope for life.  That the wreaths came to be used (for Romans) during the time of the festival of Saturnalia is interesting as the merrymaking of the festival fell into December 23rd, and Saturn was widely regarded as the patron of agriculture.

It seems as though some point in late antiquity, the convergence of Christmas around December 25th and the end of Saturnalia on December 23rd led to a conjoining of these two traditional festivals–especially the laying of wreaths .

4. ‘O Tannenbaum!’ The Germanic Tree Tradition We Cherish

Did you also know that the origin of the Christmas Tree is based upon a conflation of Pagan and Christian traditions?  Probably, if you use the internet a lot or you’ve been following along with the theme of this article.  But for those of you who might still be surprised about this, the modern Christmas tradition of picking out a pine tree and decking it with globes and ornaments and lights and tinsel is actually not associated with an early Christian practice.

Bonifacius_by_Emil_Doepler

The felling of Thor’s Tree.

In fact, there is a proclamation directly from God in the Bible that outright condemns the decoration of trees and those who might want to do this (Jeremiah 10.1-5, RSV):

Hear the word which the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:

“Learn not the way of the nations,
nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens
because the nations are dismayed at them,
 for the customs of the peoples are false.
A tree from the forest is cut down,
and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.
Men deck it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so that it cannot move.
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Be not afraid of them,
for they cannot do evil,
neither is it in them to do good.”

While it’s ancient origin is still debated, some have suggested that is it a symbolic gesture towards Thor’s Oak (apologies for using Wikipedia, but they provide a primary source and translation). But whatever its original origin in Nordic traditions, it does have some ancient Christian heritage.

In fact it may be a converging of two separate ideas: the decorating of a paradise tree (a tree meant to symbolize the tree of knowledge from the Book of Genesis, generally had during the feast day of Adam and Eve–on December 24th–starting from the 11th century) and the honoring of the trinity tree, possibly also related to the conversion of Germanic peoples to Christianity at the behest of Saint Boniface in the 8th Century.

According to the lore out and about, the trinity tree–a fir tree which has a triangular shape that Boniface thought accentuated the trinity–was used to replace the oak celebrated and worshiped by the Germanic tribes throughout Europe.  The paradise tree, also a medieval symbol, seems to have morphed with the trinity tree at some time prior to the 17th Century (probably in part due to the closeness of feast days celebrating Adam and Eve on the 24th of December–the originators of sin–and the tradition of the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December–the salvation from sin).

More on this below.

5. Christmas Banned in America!

And I don’t mean this was done under President Obama (which, I know, is the current fad these days to claim).  As it happens, just under 400 years ago the first Christmas ban was put into place.  Not by atheists or a secular government, but by other Christians.

For Baptists throughout the colonies of America, and the Quakers of Pennsylvania (among others) were dead-set against the celebration of Christmas.  They aptly found no Biblical support for it and for them December 25th was just another day.  But for the Puritans, under the watchful eye of Oliver Cromwell, they not only didn’t celebrate the feast but flat-out banned it from being celebrated.  You could be jailed for even attempting to do so.

PuritanChristmasBan

One of the publick (sic) notices alerting everyone that the celebration of Christmas is ‘forbidden’.

And even following the Revolution, Christmas was not a big for New Englanders until 1850!  As it goes, back in 1647, the New England colonies were under British rule.  When the law was passed by King Charles I which banned the celebration of Christmas (as well as Easter!), New England followed suit.

But the onus of the banning shouldn’t be placed upon Great Britain alone.  New England, a strictly Puritanical society, viewed Christmas as an abomination against their set of beliefs, their holy mission, and their Christian way of life (and if you haven’t discovered by now, many traditions associated with Christmas have little to do with Jesus or Christianity, at least in their earliest origins).  And this staunch anti-Christmas spirit led non-Puritans living in the northern colonies to avoid Christmas celebrations of their own well into the 18th Century.

Incidentally, this attitude towards Christmas was a benefit to the colonies during the American Revolution; had it not been for the rare combination of anti-Christmas mentalities of the New Englanders, the Enlightened command staff under General Washington, the Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware by General Washington would never have happened because, like the Hessian soldiers the Continental Army caught off-guard, they would have been just as drunk and in merriment and perhaps the war itself would have been lost.

Following the American Revolution, even though Great Britain had repealed the law banning Christmas in 1680, Americans were wary of anything having to do with British traditions.  As a result, many of the men and women of British, Scottish, or Irish descent stayed away from celebrating Christmas.

But not everyone was so anti-Christmas.  In fact in areas heavily settled by German Moravians and German Lutheran and Reformed congregations, Christmas was practiced and observed.  In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for example, one of the first trinity tree/Christmas tree crossovers can be found in 1747; it was made when a wooden triangular base was made and evergreens were laid over it.

It would not be until the years preceding the Civil War, in the 1840’s, when the much-loved Queen Victoria ruled in England and tensions between the British Crown and the United States were cooled, that Christmas began to filter in through regular society (in part due to her upbringing thanks to her mother being German-born and also to her husband’s German heritage).  Once Queen Victoria did something, it was emulated throughout England and then eventually into America culture.

6. Abraham Lincoln and his Soldier, Santa Claus

Did you ever hear about that time when Abraham Lincoln used Christmas as an early form of psychological warfare?  No?  Well he did!

civilwarchristmas (1)

One of the few early depictions of ol’ Saint Nick was drawn up by staff illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast, on request from President Abraham Lincoln.  Nast’s print helped to solidify feelings towards Christmas by having Santa distribute gifts to Union Soldiers.  Note that Nast has included a sleigh pulled by reindeer?

The image had the desired effect.

One must remember that during this time, Christmas was becoming a staple of American tradition.  For about twenty years, American families in the North and the South had been decorating their homes and exchanging gifts.  But the Civil War brought about rationing, shortages of supplies; homes were divided and families torn.  Property had been ransacked or destroyed especially in the South but also in Maryland and West Virginia–states that sat on the border.

While the North continued to live in relatively strong economic prosperity, even during the war shortages and rationing, the South became downtrodden.  Children would ask where Santa Claus was; why wasn’t he delivering the presents?  Parents would comfort their children with tales about how Santa couldn’t make it through the Union blockade; some Newspapers even suggested that the African American was really the culprit (seriously, they blamed it on people of color), as if it were their fault.

The first Nast cartoon pictured above did have an emotional effect on the Southerners; the image portrays Union men lining up for gifts like socks (Southern soldiers were going around barefoot and this portrays a Yankee soldier getting socks!) and other small parcels.  Of course there was a purpose behind it.  It demonstrated the might of the Union war machine, the industrial crank of supply and demand.  The South had limited supplies and stockpiles and at this point, the statement being made is clear: We’re going to win, we have the means and you don’t.  This image really did the trick.  But it didn’t end there.

Nast also made another Christmas image for Lincoln.  One that had a more inspiring message:

Minolta DSC

Here Lincoln welcomes Confederates to dinner.

In this image, Nast portrays Lincoln at a banquet of the ‘Union’ to which he openly invites Confederate soldiers to join him at the table.  It is actually a very nice sentiment, one that also had the desired impact.

7. Christmas Becomes a National Holiday!

Because of how Christmas had impacted the troops during the Civil War, along with images like the ones that Nast had produced had impacted the place Christmas had taken in American society, Ulysses S. Grant, upon becoming president of the United States after the war, would make Christmas a Federal Holiday in 1870 as a means to help solidify this newly reformed Union.

And this is where we come full-circle.  From 1647 to 1870, Christmas in America was mostly fleeting but seldom there.  Even when it started to become more popular between the 1840’s-1860’s, it would not be until 1870 that America had a definitive Christmas tradition–and one that took off almost 30 years later following the famous letter to the editor of The Sun newspaper by 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, in 1897.

8. Ghosts on Christmas?

We’ve come to it at last.  Probably the one reason you’ve stuck around this long, am I right?  Yes, there is definitely a tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.

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Back in the Victorian period, there existed a fantastic tradition on Christmas where everyone gathered after supper and told tales of dreadful ghosts.  There was something about the winter chill and the heavy snows that brought about the telling of ghost-tales to the holiday.

This is evidenced in popular Victorian holiday stories like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) featuring the haunting of Scrooge by three spirits, but also preserved in the musical lyrics of Andy Williams’ ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’: “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

It may seem strange now to think that Christmas–a time when people want to believe in magical elves, flying reindeer, an elastic Santa, and mythical snowmen that come alive–could have anything to do with the supernatural (like ghosts! That’s a Halloween thing!); but it does indeed. Ghost stories and hauntings on Christmas probably go back as far as the seasonal appeal to such narratives.  This time of year brings bitter snow storms, the death of crops, trees appear lifeless, the chilly air, and the darker and longer nights.  Undoubtedly, these images will lead to the belief that these were days when ghosts were the most powerful.  It is one of the reasons why the Romans hung wreaths after all.

9. The Snowball Fight that Helped Fuel the Patriot Cause of Revolution

This has nothing to do with Christmas, but who doesn’t love a good story about snowball fights?!

boston-massacre-17731

In Boston, amid tensions following the Stamp Act and Tax Act, previous riots, and provisions in place under parliament, troops had been stationed to keep order in and around Boston.  When additional soldiers arrived to relieve the current guard, a crowd of angry protestors gathered.  Some started making up snowballs and chucking them at the British Regulars.  After a short time, rocks were being mixed in with the snow and being thrown with enough force to injure some of the Regulars.  At that point the crowd was ordered to disperse and when they refused to do so, the Regulars opened fire killing five colonists.

The Regulars who fired the shots were locked up but defended by John Adams, a prominent lawyer in town, who successfully got them acquitted of wrong-doing.  Regardless of the event and the reasons for its happening, the newspapers throughout the country picked up the story which further enraged settlers in the colonies against the Crown and as a consequence, war broke out a few years later.  But this event would never have happened when it did if not for some snowballs.

10. The Great Snowball Fight of the American Civil War

This one is also for fun.  Did you know that perhaps one the largest snowball fights in American history happened during the Civil War?

casler_photo1

During the winter of 1863, a snowball fight started between two companies of men along the Rappahannock while the Confederate army camped out at Fredericksburg, VA.   It didn’t take long for the fight, probably between about 60-100 men, to envelope Longstreet’s whole Corps (several thousand men!).  According to one eyewitness account:

snowballing

William Andrew Fletcher, Rebel Private Front and Rear (pp. 52-54)

Like the movement or order of battle, cavalry was used to flank, skirmishes to stall advances, flanking and maneuvering of infantry at the orders of generals–it was the perfect way to break the dullness of camp, to warm the soldiers from the frosty chill of February, and keep discipline and drill in the ranks.

11.  Santa Punched a Guy.  Seriously!

This wraps up the list, but why not go out with a BANG!?  Did you know that St. Nicholas actually is said to have punched a heretic?  According to Candida Moss:

According to tradition Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. During the proceedings a priest named Arius, subsequently declared a heretic for his views of Jesus, stood up in order to be better heard. Enraged by what Arius was saying, Nicholas grabbed Arius by the beard and punched him in the face.

Yes…grabbed a guy by the beard and knocked him out.

Nicholas-Icon-Meme-2

He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you profess the consubstantiality of the son with the father.  So you better watch out, you heretic!

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One response to “Christmas Traditions and the Little Known Historical Facts About Them (That May Surprise You)

  1. Pingback: Bringing Back Ghost Stories on Christmas |·

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