The History Of The Season

Posted: November 22, 2006 in History
How The Christmas Season Got This Way
Since it is Thanksgiving and the Season has begun, I thought I would publish this short piece I wrote a few years ago.  It is brief, but fun.  Have a great holiday!
Why December 25th?
 Christmas was first established as December 25th somewhere around the year 350 to 400 A.D., possibly to coincide with the pagan “Saturnalia” festival that had been celebrated in Rome for centuries.  At that time, December 25th was established as the date of the Nativity (Christ’s birth) and January 6th was considered the Epiphany (the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem.)  The days between were festival days called “The Twelve Days Of Christmas.”
What was the Yule?
 In ancient Britain, the Anglo-Saxons celebrated a Saturnalia-type midwinter festival called “Yule.”  The celebration included decorations of holly and mistletoe (which were both used in pagan fertility rites) and a great fire around which the revellers gathered, started by a “Yule log.”  In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory “The Great” instructed his missionary Augustine to declare Yule a Christian Christmas celebration.
When Christmas Was The Law
 Around 800 A.D. King Alfred of England, who loved the holidays, made it against the law to work during the twelve days of Christmas.  Battles were lost because the army would not fight during the twelve days.  People drank and celebrated 24 hours a day for a week.  The church frowned on these types of activities during a religious holiday.
When Christmas Was Against The Law
 In 1652 Oliver Cromwell, who had deposed King Charles I, outlawed Christmas.  The Puritans objected to the wild holiday that Christmas had become.  In fact, in Massachusetts it was the law that everyone must work on Christmas Day.  It was ten years later, in 1661, that King Charles II reclaimed the throne and Christmas celebrations were made legal again.
The Beginning Of The Christmas Tree
 In the days before streetlights, lanterns were hung on the trees in Germany to light the way on foggy or snowy nights.  During mid-winter festival, apples were sometimes tied to the trees to celebrate life in the winter cold.  Later, Germans took to decorating and lighting trees in winter, calling them “Tannenbaum,” which means simply “pine tree.”  Eventually the Christmas holiday was tied with them when the Germans (some say Martin Luther) referred to them as “Christbaum,” or “Christ’s tree.”  In 1841, Prince Albert brought the idea home to England and Queen Victoria, where they placed the imported decorated evergreen tree inside the palace instead of outside.  The people of England quickly imitated their queen, and the indoor Christmas tree was born.
A-Caroling We Will Go
 As early as 120 A.D. Christmas songs were sung in Rome to teach people who could not read the story of Christ.  “The First Noel” can be dated at earlier than 1400.  A collection of British Christmas Carols was found in a diary dated 1536.  Poor people would go from house to house singing and receive hot food and drink for their performance.  By 1833 the first “hit” Christmas carol became popular; “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
Sleep In Heavenly Peace
 On Christmas Eve 1818, in Austria, Father Joseph Mohr was surprised to find the church organ infested with mice and unplayable.  Of all nights, Christmas Eve needed music!  Father Mohr frantically hurried over to the house of his organist, Franz Gruber, and together they wrote a song that could be sung with just guitar accompaniment.  An hour later they had written “Silent Night.”
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Catalogue Ad
 “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” did not start out as the song we know today.  In the 1930s an advertising executive for Montgomery Ward’s catalog needed a bit of holiday cheer for the back cover of Ward’s Christmas catalog.  He wrote the “Rudolph” lyrics as a poem to adorn the catalog.  It was not until years later that the music was added.
The Origin Of Santa Claus
 Actually, Santa Claus was a combination of several separate legends.  For instance, in England, Father Christmas, a bearded rotund sort, went from house to house on Christmas Eve distributing grog and ale to the poor (a sort of reverse caroling.)
St. Nicholas
 St. Nicholas of Myra (Turkey) was famous for going from house to house dropping money through windows (or down chimneys) so that poor girls would have a dowry and they could be married.  He eventually earned his own gift-giving holiday, St. Nicholas Day, which was December 6th.  Visiting  Norsemen, believing St. Nicholas to be related to the god Odin, imagined him riding a horse across the sky on St. Nicholas Eve.  Later, probably because there were more reindeer in Norway than horses, the animal in question was changed.
Kris Kringle
 Kris Kringle’s origins lie in the early bonding of the St. Nicholas day festivities and Christmas.  It was said that a bearded, robed man brought presents and a tree to poor households on Christmas Eve.  He was called “Cristkindl,” which means “Christ Child.”  The named eventually metamorphosed into “Kris Kringle.”
Santa Claus
 It was St. Nicholas who provided Santa Claus with his name.  In Dutch, the name reads Sint Niklaas.  When Dutch immigrants in New Amsterdam (now New York) in America celebrated Sint Niklaas, they colloquialized the name into Sinter Klaes.  Then, through the melting pot mix of languages in New York, it became Santa Claus.
Big Red Cherry Nose, Cap On Head, Suit That’s Red, Beard That’s White
 The image of Santa that we have today is very different from the image of St. Nicholas in old times.  Something like our version first appeared in 1822, when a college professor named Clement Moore wrote a poem called “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which was printed in hundreds of newspapers.  Most of us remember it by its immortal first line; “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…”  The accompanying illustrations by Thomas Nast (see the drawing on this page) featured a fat bearded man in a fur-lined suit and holly leaf cap.  Years later, the Santa in the white-trimmed red suit that we accept today as the “official Santa” was designed, based on Nast’s drawings, by an advertising artist for Coca-Cola ads.
The History Of The Season was researched, written by and is ©1986, 1993, & 1996 by Perry Bradford-Wilson. All rights reserved.

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