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Where does the modern tradition of exchanging gifts from Christmas comes from? I've heard that it's inspired by a similar tradition the Ancient Romans had on one of their festivals, is that true?
Most recently? From the 1840s, at least in England.
Christmas has many fathers, as traditions like gift-giving and feasting have periodically risen and then been suppressed over the centuries, and then revived with newly Christian significance retroactively applied to what might have originated in a secular or pagan custom.
The most recent father of our modern idea of the Christmas season in the "Anglo-Saxon" world, is the Victorian era, with certain customs developing independently in England and in the United States. Christmas trees, Christmas cards, turkey dinners, and caroling were all popularized in the mid-19th century. This is thoroughly covered in J.A.R. Pimlott's The Englishman's Christmas: a social history (harvester, 1978).
Gift-giving was, as in many cultures, originally a New Year's Day custom; the Scots have Handsel Monday and the French the étrenne. The latter term derives from the Latin strena, a term for both the gift and the gift-giving of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and attests to its ancient origins. In addition to gifts to each other, medieval Europeans were to offer gifts to the sovereign; the 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris writes of Henry III extorting gifts from his court.
The heathen custom was rationalized into Christianity by associating it with the gifts of the Magi described in Matthew 2 (observed on Epiphany, January 6 in the Western Chruch) and with the story of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who was said to have given away his entire inheritance to the needy (observed on December 6). Saint Nicholas, of course, is the origin of the name "Santa Claus," and some of the associations of Santa Claus. Still, it was frequently suppressed, notably by the Puritans, and Christmas was not a particularly special holiday for centuries.
The gift-giving custom was revived in the Victorian age. It was an era where there was strong interest in reviving old customs (real and imagined), but as the popularity of Christmas grew, it displaced New Year's; Prince Albert called Christmas "a day for the exchange of presents, as marks of mutual affection and good-will." This image of Christmas was popularized by Charles Dickens in a series of Christmas season stories published from 1843 to 1848, the most famous of course being A Christmas Carol.
I'm not saying this is The Truth®, but here's the argument typically given for the Ancient Romans you mentioned.
Nobody is really sure exactly when Jesus was born (even the year, much less the exact day). The biblical authors do not seem to have felt it was particularly important information. The earliest two Gospels don't even mention Jesus' birth at all. The first time somebody deigned to come up with a date for it was two centuries later, and that date was May 20. March 21, and several different days in April have also been used. The earliest reference we have that uses December 25th is from 200 years later (400 AD). So it seems highly unlikely this date was decided upon due to certian knowledge that it is correct.
So why this particular date? Well it just happens that the Romans had a big solistice festival called Saturnalia. Of course the solistice happens a few days earlier, but Roman practice at the time was to have a week-long celebration, culminating in the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun, on December 25. Saturnalia was a very popular festival amongst the Romans, and involved gift-giving.
So the logic for the Roman origins is that the Christians settling on the same day for the Son of God's birthday as the Roman's Birthday of the Unconquerable Son is not a really weird conincidence, but rather a purposeful attemmpt to co-opt for Christianity what was otherwise an inconveniently popular Pagan holidy. So the gift-giving came over from Saturnalia.
The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity
In the 1840s and 1850s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised a new way of celebrating Christmas. This engraving from 1840 shows the two monarchs surrounded by children and gifts around a Christmas tree. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
For many, it’s unthinkable to celebrate Christmas without a beautiful evergreen fir in the living room decorated with sparkling ornaments and wrapped presents. Like most Christmas traditions, including the celebration of Christmas itself, the origin of the Christmas tree can be traced to pagan traditions. In fact, were it not for Queen Victoria, the most powerful monarch of her time, decorated fir trees might have remained an obscure custom that only a couple of Germanic and Slavic countries practiced. Here’s a brief rundown of the Christmas tree’s intriguing history.
Pagan origins of the Christmas treeAncient Egyptians used to decorate the temples dedicated to Ra, the god of the sun, with green palm during the Winter Solstice. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Long before Christianity appeared, people in the Northern Hemisphere used evergreen plants to decorate their homes, particularly the doors, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. On December 21 or December 22, the day is the shortest and the night the longest. Traditionally, this time of the year is seen as the return in strength of the sun god who had been weakened during winter — and the evergreen plants served as a reminder that the god would glow again and summer was to be expected.
The solstice was celebrated by the Egyptians who filled their homes with green palm rushes in honor of the god Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a crown. In Northern Europe, the Celts decorated their druid temples with evergreen boughs which signified everlasting life. Further up north, the Vikings thought evergreens were the plants of Balder, the god of light and peace. The ancient Romans marked the Winter Solstice with a feast called Saturnalia thrown in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and, like the Celts, decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Saturnalia was the most important celebration in Roman life. It was a week-long lawless celebration held between 17 and 25 December in which no one could be prosecuted for injuring or killing people, raping, theft — anything usually against the law really. But although a lot of people blew off steam by taking advantage of the lawlessness, Saturnalia could also be a time for kindness. During Saturnalia, many Romans practiced merrymaking and exchange of presents.
Sounds familiar? In the early days of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was set at the last day of Saturnalia by the first Christian Romans in power to approach pagans, even though scholars assert Jesus was born nine months later. It was a clever political ploy, some say, which in time transformed Saturnalia from a frat party marathon into a meek celebration of the birth of Christ.
While a lot of ancient cultures used evergreens around Christmas time, historical records suggest that the Christmas tree tradition was started in the 16th century by Germans who decorated fir trees inside their homes. In some Christian cults, Adam and Eve were considered saints, and people celebrated them during Christmas Eve.
During the 16th century, the late Middle Ages, it was not rare to see huge plays being performed in open-air during Adam and Eve day, which told the story of creation. As part of the performance, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a “paradise tree” hung with fruit. The clergy banned these practices from the public life, considering them acts of heathenry. So, some collected evergreen branches or trees and brought them to their homes, in secret.
These evergreens were initially called ‘paradise trees’ and were often accompanied by wooden pyramids made of branches held together by rope. On these pyramids, some families would fasten and light candles, one for each family member. These were the precursors of modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments, along with edibles such as gingerbread and gold covered apples.
Some say the first to light a candle atop a Christmas tree was Martin Luther. Legend has it, late one evening around Christmas time, Luther was walking home through the woods when he was struck by the innocent beauty of starlight shining through fir trees. Wanting to share this experience with his family, Martin Luther cut down a fir tree and took it home. He placed a small candle on the branches to symbolize the Christmas sky.
What’s certain is that by 1605, Christmas trees were a thing as, in that year, historical records suggest the inhabitants of Strasburg ‘set up fir trees in the parlours … and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.’
During these early days of the Christmas tree, many statesmen and members of the clergy condemned their use as a celebration of Christ. Lutheran minister Johann von Dannhauer, for instance, complained that the symbol distracted people from the true evergreen tree, Jesus Christ. The English Puritans condemned a number of customs associated with Christmas, such as the use of the Yule log, holly and mistletoe. Oliver Cromwell, the influential 17th-century British politician, preached against the “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.”
The modern Christmas Tree
It wasn’t until the time of Queen Victoria that celebrating Christmas by bearing gifts around a fir tree became a worldwide custom. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. German immigrants had brought the custom of Christmas trees to Britain with them in the early 1800s but the practice didn’t catch on with the locals. After Queen Victoria, an extremely popular monarch, started celebrating Christmas with fir trees and presents hung on the branches as a favor to her husband, the layfolk immediately followed suit.
Across the ocean, in the 19th century, Christmas trees weren’t at all popular, though Dutch and German settlers introduced them. Americans were less susceptible to the Queen’s influence. However, it was American civic leaders, artists, and authors who played on the image of a happy middle-class family exchanging gifts around a tree in an effort to replace Christmas customs that were seen as decadent, like wassailing. This family-centered image was further amplified by a very popular poem written by Clement Moore in 1822 known as the “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. The same poem conjured the modern picture of Santa Claus.
It took a long time before the Christmas tree became an integral part of American life during this faithful night. President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House, during the mid-1850s. President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.
Though traditionally not all Christian cultures adorned their homes with evergreens and presents, the influence exerted by the West and rising consumerism has turned the Christmas tree into a ubiquitous symbol. In fact, many people of other faiths have adopted the Christmas tree (See Japan for instance).
Porta cenere e carboni
ai bambini cattivoni
ai bambini belli e buoni
porta chicchi e tanti doni!
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all broken
With a dress in Roman style
Up, up with the Befana !!
She brings ashes and coal
To bad nasty children
To the nice good child
She brings candies and many gifts!
The Christian Tradition
This was the feast that the children used to wait for throughout the year, in the times when Babbo Natale (created in Coca Cola colors, the fat and joyous symbol of wealth imported from America, where he was derived from the figure of St Nicholas, who in Southern Italy used to bring gifts to children in past centuries) was unknown in Italy. The bony, ragged old lady was much nearer in spirit to the poverty of Jesus, and was the only gift-giver for children. The gifts she delivered were reminders of the gifts that on that same night the Magi following the star had offered to the Divine Child, born in a poor manger in Bethlehem.
In the pre-Christian calendar solstice rites used to celebrate the cycle of the sun, and were slowly merged with the cycle of the life of man and the generations, following one another. This eternal cycle was represented by symbols to exorcise anxiety. In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive and pedagogical figures of Santa Claus and the Befana. As a testimonial of this connection, here is an old Italian lullaby that goes
who will I give this child to
if I give it to the Befana
she will keep him one whole week
if I give it to the Bogey Man
he will keep him one whole year
but if the child goes to sleep
then his mother will him keep"
The Epiphany in the folk Traditions
In the Romagna region Epiphany was a pagan festival when the Ancestors (symbols of a worship of the dead connected to agrarian symbols of fertility) brought a good omen of abundance to the living. From that take origin the Befanotti (representing the ancestors) going from home to home singing the "Pasquella", and also the Befana coming down through the chimneys.
In Abruzzo, as in other Southern regions of Italy, the children's most beloved festivity was called Pasquetta, possibly to remind of the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem to homage the Child Jesus, or for the songs and music in the streets accompanied by tambourines, cymbals and flutes, especially before the mansions of the rich, requesting gifts and food.
Widespread in Abruzzo is the worship of little statues of Child Jesus. There is a beautiful tradition in Lama dei Peligni on the evening of the Epiphany. The villagers, especially the children, go to the church to kiss the statue of Gesù Bambino, kept inside a precious silver urn, and dressed in apparel and with a head cover of the year 1759.
If an olive tree leaf, thrown into the fire, took long to burn it was a sign that the wish would be fulfilled, if instead it burned quickly, the opposite. Girls (see Finamore in "Credenze, usi e costumi abruzzesi") used to pray before going to bed wishing for their future bridegroom to come into their dreams. And under their pillow they placed three broad beans: one full, one without peel, the other half-peeled. Then in the morning they caught one: the full one meant the groom would be rich, the unpeeled one he would be poor, the half-peeled one something in the middle.
On the morning of January 6th sacristans would go from house to house leaving the "Bboffe water", which was kept for devotion or used to sprinkle the rooms to keep witches away.
A non-conformist Befana
Nowadays there is an amusing, non-conventional re-evaluation of the Befana:
The Befana is Alternative because:
1- She is an Ecologist, since she travels on a broom
2- She is an Animalist, since she does not exploit poor reindeer
3- She is a Proletarian, since she dresses in non-fashionable clothes
4- She is a Justice Bearer, since she rewards only deserving ones
5- She is Tolerant, since her punishments are very mild, just ashes and coal
6- She is not Exacting, since in exchange for all her work she only takes some bread soaked in wine or milk.
Why We Should Bring Back the Tradition of the Christmas Orange
’Twas the Saturday before Christmas, and all thro’ the malls, people were queuing, to purchase last-minute hauls.
Or so says Bloomberg, which reports that this year, U.S. shoppers will make the Saturday before Christmas the country’s biggest single shopping day of the year. “Super Saturday,” as some are cringingly calling the dystopian shop-a-palooza (“Panic Saturday,” another name thrown around for it, at least scratches at the existential terror of the situation), is expected to rake in $26 billon according to current forecasts.
But if you’re looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer that isn’t the typical corporate schlock, consider taking a page from history. You can eschew the mall madness in favor of sticking a humble orange in your Christmas hosiery.
The orange became part of Christmastime tradition in the 19th century, in concert with the rise of hanging stockings near the fire. According to Emily Spivack, who wrote about the origin of the Christmas stocking for Smithsonian.com, the tradition of hanging holiday hosiery dates back to at least 1823, when it is mentioned in the classic poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” later known as “The Night Before Christmas,” which notes that Santa Claus “fill’d all the stockings” before exiting stage left via chimney.
Placing an orange in the toe of one of these Christmas stockings may have had something to do with the legend of the three balls (or bags or bars or coins) of gold that the Bishop of Myra, the real Saint Nicholas, gave to three poor maidens to use as dowries. Saint Nicholas, who was born at the end of the 3rd century—and whose life is amalgamized with another Saint Nicholas, who lived in Sion in the 6th century, according to some digging by Maria Alessia Rossi, a Kress postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University—is said to have saved the three impoverished women from being sold into slavery with the gold.
According to some tellings of the story, Saint Nicholas threw the gold bags into their house through a window in the dead of night, and one ever-so-conveniently landed in a stocking drying by the fire. “From this legendary incident the custom grew for the older members of the family secretly to place gifts in shoes, stockings or some kind of receptacle for the children, who, finding them on the following morning, were quite willing to give St. Nicholas the credit,” according to a journal article by William Porter Kellam published in the Georgia Review.
That custom also may have birthed the reason people started putting an orange—a much more affordable alternative to gold—in the toe of the stocking—a budget-friendly nod to the so-called “Miracle of the Dowries.”
At the emergence of the Christmas stocking tradition, there was still something very exotic about the gift of the citrus fruit in wintry Europe, which speaks to another theory as to why the orange ended up embedded into the story of Christmas.
"At the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, when the custom of gift giving for Christmas had spread, the orange was a rare and expensive fruit," explains journalist Dominique Foufelle in The Little Book of Christmas. The fruit was a special treat if you didn’t come from a family of means, and was likely purchased from merchants who brought the citrus from places like Valencia, Spain, or Ivrea, Italy, (where there’s a longstanding winter tradition of pelting one another with oranges)."Oranges became a luxury for families of modest means who reserved them as a gift for their children,” Foufelle concludes.
It was during the Victorian era that the concept of Christmas was also transforming from a purely religious celebration to one dominated by gifts. As Lorraine Boissoneault charts for Smithsonian.com, “Several forces in conjunction transformed it into the commercial fête that we celebrate today.” One of these factors was the Industrial Revolution, which led to a new surplus of goods and products that advertisers were now tasked to sell to a flush new class of consumers.
The orange in the Christmas stocking may not have been a tradition born in the marketing department, but it certainly didn’t hurt that oranges were being aggressively sold to the public come the early 1900s. Citrus scholarship has actually traced the origins of the mass marketing of oranges to 1908 when the California Fruit Growers Exchange began a massive sales campaign for its Sunkist label. “[N]early 1,500 Manhattan retail stores and soda fountains had bright orange advertisements plastered in their windows. At Christmas, a cartoon Santa Claus offered an orange as the “most healthful gift,” writes Tom Zoellner in a piece about the orange industrial complex for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The California Citrograph, a monthly publication “devoted to the interests of the citrus industry and to the promotion of subtropical agriculture,” unsurprisingly, embraced the Christmas orange tradition with gusto as part of its sales pitch (though advertisers also took pains to clarify that oranges should be enjoyed year-round as well). In one January 1921 dispatch from the Citrograph, the editor opined, “’A Christmas orange for the toe of every Christmas stocking’ is a wish that the Exchange would like to see fulfilled this year.” The article went as far as to suggest that the “Christmas stocking is really not properly filled without an orange in it,” and, in fact, “it is wise Santa Claus who gives this fruit to his small believers rather than filling their stockings with cheap, artificially colored and oftentimes injurious candy.” The hard sell may sound hokey today, but the gist of the advertising rang true throughout the early 20th century—especially when the Great Depression hit.
As U.S. households tightened their belts, the orange was seen as an affordable luxury and played an important role in the Depression-era stocking. Considered the “fruit of the Great Depression,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the special treat became a ubiquitous accompaniment of the Christmas stocking. "An orange was a big thing because you couldn't afford one during the year,” as Richard Grondin, 85, of Medina, Ohio, told the paper in 2008.
For those who couldn’t get their hands on it even during Christmas time, the appeal of the orange became even more heightened. According to historian Douglas Cazaux Sackman’s book Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden, the scarcity of oranges in places like Oklahoma during the Great Depression led to a folk song that “spoke of Santa Claus and oranges in the same breath, wondering if they were real.”
In today’s day and age, where you can pay to have a chunk of glacial ice flown in from Alaska just to chill your cocktail, the appeal of the gift of a fresh orange might not seem so special. In a tongue-in-cheek note to Santa in 2011 published in the New York Times, a writer recounted his disappointment with finding an orange in his stocking as a child. “For Christmas?” he asked. “Did you think we didn't notice that the white glass bowl in the kitchen was filled with fruits that looked exactly like the ones in our stockings?”
But such naysayers should look back at history. In Perfume, Postcards, and Promises: The Orange in Art and Industry, art historian and critic Helen L. Kohen beautifully charts the story of the orange. Part of the appeal of the fruit, she writes, might be its mystery. Citrus experts have yet to identify where, exactly, citron, the progenitor of modern citrus came from, though northeast India seems the most likely candidate. The orange has been linked throughout history to luxury goods, and it was something Europeans lusted after before they had even cultivated an edible version of the fruit.
Today, Kohen writes, "[t]he orange still means something philosophically.” But just as the citrus business has changed dramatically in the past century, the idea of the orange has also germinated, today falling “into the preserve of nostalgia.”
So if you tuck an orange in the stocking this year, remember it’s not just the gift of a fruit, it’s the gift of what came before. And, hey, at least it beats another pair of socks.
About Jackie Mansky
Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.
Equally important was the material forming the wreaths &mdash the evergreen tree. Evergreen trees were a species looked upon with awe and admiration, since they, unlike most living things, survived the harshness of winter. The trees appeared in abundance in northern and eastern Europe, and people brought them into their homes. &ldquoThat was a symbol to them of power, of resilience, and in a way, of hope,&rdquo Collins says.
Together, the circular shape and the evergreen material make the wreath a representation of eternal life. It is also a representation of faith, as Christians in Europe often placed a candle on the wreath during Advent to symbolize the light that Jesus brought into the world. A German Lutheran pastor named Johann Hinrich Wichern is often given credit for turning the wreath into a symbol of the Advent, and lighting candles of various sizes and colors in a circle as Christmas approached.
In that tradition, there are four candles in total&mdash one for each week of Advent. In his book, Collins says that three of the candles, usually purple, represented the Christian values of hope, peace and love. &ldquoThe final candle, most often red in color, symbolized the joy of new life gained through the gift of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,&rdquo he writes. At times, a white candle was lit on Christmas eve and welcomed Jesus’ birth.
The tradition of the Advent wreath, along with many other Christmas traditions from northern and eastern Europe, was adopted by the masses beginning in the 19th century. Collins says that the marriage of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, to Prince Albert from Germany opened the door for Christmas traditions of other regions in Europe to become popular in England. In turn, British culture influenced American culture. Literature such as Clement Clarke Moore&rsquos A Visit From St. Nicholas also fueled the growth of Christmas traditions such as decorating with wreaths.
Despite its widespread popularity today, the wreath started with humble beginnings. &ldquoWe live in a throwaway culture,&rdquo says Collins. &ldquoThe wreath was born out of not throwing things away.&rdquo
According to the New York Times, fruitcake dates back to a food enjoyed by ancient Romans called satura — a mix of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts, and raisins held together with honey. Some speculate that this dish was invented as a way to preserve fruit.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, fruitcake gained popularity as a dish for special occasions in the 18th and 19th centuries, when its ingredients were expensive and harder to come by, making it a rare delicacy.
Today, people love to hate fruitcake, but it remains a classic part of Christmas cuisine.
Christmas Giving and Sharing
Certainly Christmas is a time of giving and sharing with those around us, but that sharing is not limited to those that we love and care for. It is also for the person that we have never met and will never see those that are not so fortunate in their lives as we are and that could use a helping hand.
It Feels Good to Give
I would like to digress just a little here with a story from our past that is pertinent. Long ago, my wife&aposs grandmother was the pastor at the local Salvation Army church, and every year the church gathered toys all year long to give out to the needy at Christmas. We always helped staff the store, repairing toys, setting the store up, and displaying the toys.
It fell to me to check off the people entering the store (you had to be on the list to receive any toys), and it was often not a pleasant task. I watched as some people took the bag we gave them and simply walked the aisles scooping toys until the bag was full what they took was immaterial as long as they got "their share" of free toys. Others were downright nasty, as the line was always long and the most prized toys went first.
One lady, though, came in with her daughter of perhaps 4 or 5. After receiving their bag, they carefully went down the rows of toys, choosing for each family member and thinking to leave some for the next person in line. Finished (although their bag was only half full), they headed for the exit when the little girl suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, handed the special doll she had chosen for herself to her mother, and dashed back towards me with her pigtails flying.
Frightened at her own audacity, she nevertheless threw herself at me, and with a whispered "Thank you so much!" gave me a big hug, planted a kiss on my cheek and dashed back to Mom. That 30-second episode more than made up for the long days in the store and the offensive behavior of some patrons. It was the most wonderful experience of the joys of giving I&aposve ever had. That was 30 years ago, and I&aposve never forgotten that little blond girl in her plaid dress.
Nor does the giving stop with the adults. The little ones love to put coins into the Salvation Army buckets where bell ringers ask you for help. They quite understand what it is about and wish to be a part of helping others. They learn giving here, and can that be a bad thing?
Christmas is a great time to introduce the concept of giving to children.
Teaching Children Generosity
The younger members of our family, beginning at 4 or 5 years old, participate in choosing and buying gifts for siblings and others. No, the gift won&apost remain a secret, and it is usually something they want, but they are starting to understand giving and wish to participate. A great time to introduce the concept to them.
Christmas is a time of generosity and sharing for us. It can be throwing a few coins into the bell ringer&aposs bucket it can be giving our time and work when we would rather be home, warm and comfortable or it can be sharing our own Christmas. We often invite someone without nearby family to share our enjoyment of Christmas dinner and the camaraderie of the day. It all adds to the wonder of Christmas, and we are never poorer for doing it.
Helping to decorate the house, this little guy found a particularly intriguing decoration.
The history and origins of Christmas traditions - Where does Santa Claus come from and why do we eat turkey on Christmas Day?
They&aposre the essential bits of Christmas. Squeezing a fir tree into your living room. Eating an odd-looking bird. Welcoming an intruder who breaks in by coming down the chimney. Gazing at your fifth mince pie of the day and finally wondering what on Earth might be in it.
How many of us stop to think how it all began? Dennis Ellam did. and today he explains where our festive traditions come from.
Where did Father Christmas come from?
Red robes, white beard, waist-slapping jollity and booming ho-ho-hos. He&aposs been around for ever, hasn&apost he?
Well, actually only since 1935, when Haddon Sundblo, a Madison Avenue advertising man, created Santa Claus for a Coca-Cola campaign.
In previous lives he was thinner and paler, a character based on a 4th Century Asian bishop called Nicholas, who became the patron saint of children in most of Europe.
It was in Holland, where they called him Sinterklaas, that he earned his reputation for giving stuff away. A small pair of wooden shoes would be left by the fireplace and he would fill them with sweets. No question of trying to fit in a fashionable bodkin, let alone a Nintendo Wii.
History of Christmas
Different countries still have their own variations on the theme, but that fat bloke in a red suit has pushed them all to the cultural margins.
What about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer? Debt-ridden shopworker Robert Mays invented him in 1947 as the hero of a bestselling book that made him a fortune. The song, written by an adman and a professional composer, came two years later. Who says Christmas isn&apost magical?
Have a homemade Christmas
Why do we have Christmas crackers?
The mastermind behind the Christmas cracker was a London sweetshop owner called Tom Smith. In 1847, after spotting French bonbons wrapped in paper with a twist at each end, he started selling similar sweets with a "love motto" inside.
They were so popular as a Christmas novelty that Tom made them bigger and included a trinket. But the real flash of inspiration came when he poked the fire and a log exploded with a sharp CRACK! That gave him the idea for a package that went off with a bang.
He launched his "Bangs of Expectation" with top-of-the range gifts such as jewellery, ivory carvings, perfume and miniature dolls. By 1900 he was selling 13 million a year.
But we can&apost blame Tom for the corny jokes and paper hats. They came later.
Christmas things to do
Why do we kiss under the Mistletoe?
Kissing under the mistletoe really took off a couple of centuries ago, but the plant&aposs racy reputation dates back much further than that.
In 300BC, the ancient Druids cut sprigs of the climber from the trunks of oak trees with a golden knife. They believed it had sexual powers and, boiled with the blood of a pair of sacrificial white bulls, that there wasn&apost a finer aphrodisiac.
Its reputation lived on. By the 18th Century mistletoe balls, trimmed with ribbons, hung in the best hallways, where demure young ladies could stand waiting underneath, lips puckered.
The magic wears off, though. After each kiss, the gentleman should pull off a berry until there are none left, after which the rest of it should be ceremonially burned, otherwise it&aposs 12 months of bad luck and celibacy.
Why do we eat turkey?
Goose was the popular choice for Christmas dinners for generations. Middle-class families with lots of relatives might go for a boar&aposs head, while the seriously rich showed off with a swan.
The turkey didn&apost arrive until the 1600s, when merchants brought it back from America and marketed it as an exciting new festive taste - if you stuffed it with sage and onions and laced it with cranberries, that is. And ignored its natural dryness.
It really took off with the Victorians after Charles Dickens had Scrooge ordering a turkey in A Christmas Carol.
Nowadays a turkey isn&apost just for Christmas. It&aposs for sandwiches well past Twelfth Night. Followed by curries if you&aposre not careful.
Christmas 2019 food and drink
Why we eat Mince pies
Strictly speaking, it&aposs illegal to eat them on December 25, so watch out.
Feasting at Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell in 1647 as "lewd behaviour" and that particular law has never been repealed.
Mincemeat at first meant what it said. There were bits of shredded meat among the dried fruits and spices.
The first recipes were probably brought back from the Middle East by the Crusaders.
But it was the Victorians who realised the concoction might taste better with the meaty bits left out.
Christmas Dinner 2018
Where did Christmas pudding come from?
A close relative of the mince pie. And just as challenging to the waistline.
It first appeared on the table in the 14th Century when it was more like a porridge made of beef and mutton, with currants, prunes, raisins and spices stirred in, plus a liberal lashing of wine, thickened with breadcrumbs and egg.
In the 1700s, minus the meat, it became a fruity end to the Christmas meal. And in the 1830s Eliza Acton - the Delia of her day - included a Christmas pudding recipe in her cookbook.
For a humble pud, it&aposs shrouded in superstition. You&aposre supposed to stir it in an east to west direction, representing the journey of the Three Wise Men.
A silver coin hidden inside brings good luck to whoever finds it. Unless, of course, he swallows it.
Christmas trees and decorations
Why we have Christmas trees?
So who DID suggest cutting down a huge piece of shrubbery, dragging it into the house, covering it with lights, then sticking a model fairy on top? Then leaving it there until it drops needles all over the floor.
Blame a German. The Romans had hung up the odd bit of green branch, but it was evangelist Martin Luther from Saxony who first decorated a whole fir tree.
That was in 1510. The idea finally spread to Britain during Queen Victoria&aposs reign when her German-born husband Prince Albert had one sent over to remind him of his own childhood Christmases.
A drawing of the Royals and their children standing around their perfect tree appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1846 - and next year there was a rush to copy them.
Artificial trees were invented in the 1930s, by the Addis Company, who turned them out using spare machines in their, er, toilet-brush factory.
Why we send cards?
Not surprisingly, the custom of sending Christmas cards didn&apost start until there was a postal service to deliver them.
The first were sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, boss of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was far too busy to write letters so had an artist design 1,000 cards, illustrated with a festive family scene on the front and printed with the greeting, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You".
Horrified at being caught out, all his friends sent him one back the next year.
In 1880 cards had become so popular that the public were warned for the first time to post early for Christmas. A few of them might still be at the bottom of a mailsack somewhere.
Why do we have Tinsel?
The first mass-produced Christmas decoration, it was made in Europe in the 1600s from sheets of silver alloy hammered until they were paper-thin and cut into strips.
The idea was to reflect the light from candles and fireplaces. Problem - after a few Christmases, the silver turned black. A cheaper, throwaway tinsel made from aluminium-based paper swept the festive market in the 1950s. Problem - it went up like a flash when it caught fire.
Now we have a modern tinsel made from PVC that won&apost discolour and won&apost burn. Problem - it&aposs toxic and can&apost be recycled. Over to you, Greenpeace.
Tale Of The Peppermint Pig&trade: A Saratoga Christmas Tradition
The tradition of the famous Peppermint Pig&trade started ages ago in the 1880s with candy makers in Saratoga Springs, NY. It's a festive way to celebrate the holidays, and the tradition is even more popular today than when it was originally released.
In Victorian culture, the pig represented good health, happiness, and prosperity. Inspired by this symbol, old-fashioned candy makers in Saratoga started to create Peppermint Pigs&trade each year during the holiday season. These sweet treats were made of hard peppermint candy - similar in taste and texture to a candy cane - and appropriately colored a very festive pink.
When families gathered together at Christmas for the holiday meal, the tradition was to break the Peppermint Pig&trade after dinner (inside a small cloth pouch) using a miniature hammer. All family members would then share in eating the sweet candy pieces, hoping for good fortune in the coming year.
Today, the Peppermint Pig&trade remains a fun and heartwarming tradition at holiday tables all around the nation. They currently come in three sizes: small, medium, and large.
Why Does Santa Come Down the Chimney? Here's the Origin Story
Here's how history and folklore gave us our chimney climbing Claus.
There's a certain magic that surrounds Santa Claus. He rides in a sleigh led by reindeer, he makes toys at his workshop in the North Pole with the help of elves, and he comes down the chimney to deliver gifts to good children. But why does Santa come down the chimney to leave those presents instead of using simpler means, like the door? We went back more than 500 hundred years in history to find out.
The legend of Santa Claus, who's based on the Christian bishop Saint Nicholas, dates back centuries, but the modern depiction of Santa—chimney and all—started to take form in the 19th century. Specifically, our current Santa came to life courtesy of Washington Irving. In his 1809 book Knickerbocker's History of New York, the U.S. writer and historian describes Saint Nicholas as a man who is seen "riding jollily among the tree tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites."
But Irving didn't get the idea to have Santa drop gifts down chimneys out of thin air. The concept that magical creatures enter homes through chimneys actually comes from the 1400s, when there was a widespread belief—and fear—that witches could pass through solid objects to enter any residence, according to Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of Witchcraft in the Middle Ages.
In 1486, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote Malleus Maleficarum, which is considered to be one of the most thorough books on witchcraft. To help ease the public's anxiety, Kramer and Sprenger wrote that witches instead entered houses through chimneys or windows.
Since then, the chimney has become a common symbol within European folklore, linking the earthly world with the supernatural. In Scottish legend, the brownie is a creature who enters through the chimney and aids in household chores while families are sleeping. In Irish lore, there's the bodach, an evil creature who slips in through the chimney to kidnap children. And in Italian folklore, there's La Befana, who rides on a broomstick to deliver candy to good children, entering their homes through chimneys.
As stories were passed down over the centuries, it became common for mythical creatures to enter homes through the chimney—so Irving's decision to include Santa in the long list of chimney-climbing characters wasn't so unusual.
And it didn't take long for Irving's legend to stick—especially with the help of Clement C. Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"), which was inspired by Irving's book. "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care / In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there," Moore famously wrote of the jolly old figure we know and love today. And for more on the legend of Santa Claus, check out Why Santa Gives Naughty Kids a Lump of Coal on Christmas.