‘Nephew!’ returned the uncle, sternly, ‘keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.’
So goes the line in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Indeed, all over the world we do all keep Christmas in our own ways and some traditions and countries have some unusual and interesting traditions ‘ pagan origins, unsettled dates, the foods they eat. The following list truly demonstrates the uniqueness and diversity of the Christmas period.
1. 25th December
Many biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not born on 25th December either by the Gregorian Calendar or by any other for that matter. The actual date of 25th December was originally dedicated to the ancient Roman celebration of the Winter Solstice ‘ the Saturnalia. Dedicated to the god Saturn, it was marked with celebrations, banqueting and gift-giving. It was a joyous time for Romans and arguably the most important festival of the year ‘ just as it is today
2. It was Banned
Right wing media in the UK and USA might stir up anger at the idea that this or that group will ban Christmas soon if we met them, but they too easily forget that it was banned in both countries at one point. Far from being Muslim immigrants or secularists, it was actually Christian groups. Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth regime banned it in England between 1647 and 60 and it came back with a vengeance during the Restoration. A number of US States including Massachusetts made it illegal as an ‘unchristian’ celebration around the same time
What we know today as Christmas Carols have very little to do today with what the term originally meant. Carols were popular during the Tudor era, the first really big period when the upper classes enjoyed the frivolities of the period. Carols though, were originally actually a group dance. The religious Christmas songs sung in secular society, monastic and ecclesiastical life were called ‘advent hymns’ ‘ hymns specifically for the marking of the advent period. The first carols as we understand them today did not appear until around the 18th century
4. Germans do it Best
Most of our Christmas traditions come from Germany ‘ the tree and its decorations, mulled wine, gingerbread, spiced fruit cake and the German takeover of the world is almost complete with the spread over Europe of the Christmas Market. They are now all the rage in the United Kingdom especially where they are huge crowd pullers: Bath, Bristol, Winchester, Lincoln Belfast and others. The appeal is in the traditions of food and drink and handmade goods that people want to feel something a little more authentic away from the mad rush of High Street shopping
5. Mince Pies
Why are they called mince pies when they contain no mince (i.e. ground up meat?) That’s because they did originally! Mince pies have been around since the 13th century and were originally made up of dried fruit, spices and minced meat ‘ usually mutton. Believed to be a Middle Eastern recipe brought back by returning crusaders, they were soon adapted for European tastes and available foods. It is said that they taste similar (yet heavier) to modern meat-less pies and surprisingly, the meat cannot be tasted.
6. Spider Webs
Most people in the western world decorate their trees with tinsel, candles, lights and baubles. Some go for fake fruit for a little more rustic feel. In Poland and Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe, trees are decorated with spider webs. There are two reasons for this ‘ firstly it is thought to bring good luck for the coming year. The other reason is that in some traditions it is said that a giant spider spun a web at the entrance to the cave where baby Jesus slept and kept him, Joseph and Mary warm
7. Mistletoe and Holly
Two of the most prevalent plant symbols of Christmas are instantly recognisable. Originally pagan symbols brought into houses to brighten up the atmosphere and to celebrate the birth of the New Year, these plants were banned by early Christians. However, they were later rebranded: the holly leaves were said to symbolise the crown of thorns and the red berries the blood of Jesus. For mistletoe, the meaning is a little more abstract ‘ peace and friendship ‘ two concepts associated with general goodwill and harmony at Christmas time
8. The Anti Claus
Though we tell naughty children today that they’ll go on The Naughty List and won’t get any presents, in traditional Germanic folklore there is one figure that goes one step further: Krampus. Horrifyingly, Krampus steals into houses at night to take away the worst-behaved children, puts them into his sack and carries them away to his lair. Despite concerns about terrifying young children, many parts of Germany still celebrate this tradition around Christmas with people dressing up as the haunting figure. In some traditions, Santa Claus and Krampus travel together
9. Charles Dickens
Though Christmas has obviously been marked in one way or another since the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, our modern and widespread traditions are largely thanks to Charles Dickens and that popular tale A Christmas Carol. It had fallen out of popularity in England until the serialisation of the tale of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge was published; it made people start to think again about its true meaning and raising awareness of the plight of the poorest in society. Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert also made Christmas popular again
10. It’s on 7th January
25th December is only Christmas Day for those in the western traditions (Catholic, Anglican and other Protestant groups). In the Eastern Orthodox churches ‘ Russian, Greek, Coptic etc., Christmas Day actually falls after the day of the Feast of the Epiphany (which both traditions celebrate on the 6th January). The date actually varies in these traditions but the default is usually 7th January. The reason for this is that they still use the Julian Calendar and through that system, the dates remain the same.
There are so many bizarre traditions from around the world that centre on Christmas. Some have been taken fully as part of global traditions and some remain part of the country of origin. Regardless of how people mark their Christmas (Christian, Secular or Neo-pagan) it shows the diversity and adaptability of the period of Winter Solstice.