by Mr. Matthew Betts
As our weekly reflection today falls on Christmas Eve, I thought it would be a good opportunity to write about the origins of some of the Christmas traditions we still enjoy today plus some other interesting facts.
No one knows the actual birthday of Christ, so why was 25 December chosen to celebrate it? Early Christians celebrated Christmas (the Mass of Christ) on dates as widely apart as 1 and 6 January, 29 March and 29 September. The first choice of 25 December was made by Pope Julius I (337 – 352) and certainly since the end of the fourth century has been the date of Christmas.
The choice of date was not as random as it may seem. It was a well thought out decision as mid-winter had always been a season of merriment for many pagans from whom the early church gained its converts. In Rome itself, the 25 December was observed as Dies Natalis Invicti Solis (the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). In addition, the great Roman Saturnalia, a festival of light and fire, began on 17 December and was celebrated for seven days, followed swiftly by the New Year celebrations of Kalends.
In northern Europe, surrounded by icy winter, the solstice of 21 December was celebrated by the festival of Yule with lights, evergreens in the houses, the making of gifts, and white fires blazes in the frosty air to the dark gods, Odin and Thor.
Thus throughout the Roman empire, this period of merriment was long established by Norsemen, Celts or Romans, so it was prudent to celebrate the birth of Jesus at this point of the year.
Each year a few days before Christmas, the Mayor of Glastonbury in Somerset, cuts sprays from the world-famous Glastonbury Thorn which is sent to the Queen for the royal table on Christmas Day. The Thorn is a very famous tree in Christianity. It is said that Saint Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury soon after the Crucifixion to bring Christianity to its people and to found the Abbey. He is said to have planted his thorn staff and it immediately rooted and flowered.
The boar’s head was the favourite meal in England at Christmas for a long time. Later geese, capons, pheasant, bustards, swans, pickled oysters, and especially peacocks, were all equally popular and important. The turkey was a late arrival and by 1542, it appeared regularly on the English Christmas table. Great flocks of turkeys were kept in Norfolk and Suffolk and driven to London slowly as the season approached.
Mince pies were often made with oval pastry crust which was said to represent the manger in which Christ was laid.
The Roman and Norse customs of decorating the house with ever-greens were embraced by the early Christians. It was always seen as unlucky to bring the tree in until Christmas Eve and the tree had to be taken down before Twelfth Night. Decorations could remain in churches until the end of the ecclesiastical Christmas season (Candlemas) but they too had to go before 2 February.
During the eighteenth century, schoolchildren produced Christmas pieces lettered on coloured paper to wish their parents the compliments of the season. Building on this, Sir Henry Cole (1808 - 1882) suggested the idea of a Christmas card to the artist John Callcott Horsley (1817 – 1903) in 1843. A thousand were printed on this occasion, but the dye had been set, and over the next fifty years (helped by the new Royal Mail) it became very popular. Gift giving at Christmas is a survival of the Roman gift giving.
I hope you have enjoyed a little look at the Christmas traditions we still enjoy in 2021.
In all this merriment, we must remember what Fr. Brendan said to us in his recent newsletter that “…the central theme of Christmas always remains the same: God desires and chooses to make a home with us. The heart of our celebration is that God chose to live our human life so that we might find a way through Christ to live God’s life. As an apostle, Saint Jude would never have tired in proclaiming this truth…We could be rather romantic in our thinking about the first Christmas, but the scene is presented to awaken us to faith, to raise up a new hope and to stir what is most authentic within us to a new way of living and a deeper expression of practical loving.”
We wish you all a very holy and happy Christmas. Thank you for your support of the Shrine of Saint Jude this year.