A question I am often asked, is about Christmas traditions; I don’t mean Grandad starting food fights with the mashed potatoes when Nana isn’t looking. Nor do I mean your Aunty having one too many Babychams with her turkey, then hanging her spectacles off the tree while she dances badly around the room to Cliff Richard before passing out in the armchair, where she proceeds to snore while you play “get the hazelnut in her mouth” with your cousins.
Although these were very much the annual Christmas events in the Rufus household, I am fully aware that this is not the kind of thing people have in mind when they ask “Phoebe, why do we put a whacking great tree in the front room every year?” So here, just for you is a few of those common traditions explained, so that next time you are cursing the cat for running off with the baubles, you know why you had them in the first place.
Mistletoe. Mistletoe is one of those “things”, that everybody has, and nobody knows why. So here goes…. Mistletoe seems to have originated in Britain and Europe, from the species Santalales. It is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to the host, generally killing at least the portion to which it is rooted, if not all. Other species of similarly parasitic plants in other regions have since been added to the umbrella mistletoe. The etymology is unknown for definite, although there are claims that Mistle (Mistel) comes from the old English word for dung, or the German for mash. The toe is probably a derivative of tan meaning stick or twig, therefore mistletoe could translate as poo-stick. There goes the romance eh?
Druids were said to use both mistletoe and holly to decorate their houses in December to ward off evil spirits, a custom which appears to have continued into Christian times, despite initial misgivings. Pliny the Elder is the first recorded source of the Druid ritual of the Sacred Oak and the Mistletoe which was linked to fertility and includes sacrificing a bull or two. As a result of the myth of Loki tricking the blind God Hodur into killing Balder with an arrow made of Mistletoe, the plant then became a symbol of peace and friendship to make up for the murder. In Norse tradition, it was customary to place mistletoe around the house to show welcome and love. Note to readers, if you do put a bunch of holly or mistletoe up, might I suggest NOT eating the berries, or you may well end up with something worse than poo-stick.
In England, despite those pesky Christians, a tradition developed whereby a string of mistletoe was placed within a doorway, and when the girl of a young man’s dream passed underneath, he picked a berry and kissed her. If she refused she would bring on herself bad luck. When the berries were gone, the kissing stopped. In York, there was a long standing ritual whereby the city was decorated with mistletoe and sinners could come along and be pardoned for their discretions. This tradition continues today within the Minster I believe. Likewise the holly has been given new life in the form of a metaphor for the birth of Christ blah blah and also his death, yada yada. Red berries, blood, spikey holly, crown of thorns etc, you can work it out from there, I’m sure.
Christmas Trees. Well what home wouldn’t be complete without a massive Norwegian Spruce filling up one third of your lounge-room? Well, back to those Druids and other associated Pagans who used evergreen fir fronds, branches etc around their homes to remind them that in the season of natural death (winter) that life continues and will rebirth in spring. The Romans decorated their temples with a similar theme for the festival of Saturnalia, and Christians as a symbol of everlasting life, through God.
Around a thousand years ago, it was customary to decorate small cherry trees, or plants with paper apples, figs and so on, and hang it upside down from your roof space, on the “chandelier”. Often in poorer homes, a wooden block effect tree was substituted, known as a Paradise tree. Often these Paradise trees, said to represent the apple tree in the Garden of Eden, were taken door to door rather than displayed in the home, usually to announce the imminent enactment of a biblical play, which were done to teach the stories from the bible to those who couldn’t read. The tradition of a decorated tree comes from Latvia in its earliest recorded use, in the early 16th Century, where a large tree, possibly a Paradise tree was decorated with the customary apples and so on in the town square in 1510, before being burned in a ritual similar to that of the Yule Log. A painting dated to 1521 in Northern Germany, Latvia’s neighbor, shows a gentleman dressed as a bishop riding a horse following the tree, and he is said to be enacting the part of Saint Nicholas. Trees of course traditionally have a star or angel atop them, obviously the star representing the star that led everybody to Jesus, and the angel who appeared to Mary and the shepherds. The angel actually morphed from baby Jesus himself, who used to be stuck up there.
So on to Santa, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and all his other personas. Where does that begin? Well in the 4th century, in Myra. Lycia, there lived a Greek Christian Bishop, Nicholas who was notable for his gifts to the poor, one famous incident being the bestowing of dowries on three daughters of a poor Christian man, so that they could marry instead of becoming prostitutes. As Nicholas knew the man would refuse anything he saw as charity, one particularly favoured version of story tells that he filled three bags with gold, for the dowry and threw them through the window as he passed on his horse, one of which landed in a discarded stocking. So there you have the beginnings of Santa, gifts, stockings and the reindeer, all in one nice tidy parcel.
After his death he was sainted and his remains interred locally, in St Nicholas Reliquary, where they rested until the 11th century when Italian sailors allegedly located the tomb and removed his bones to Bari, Italy where they were reinterred in a basilica. Many of the small bones were left behind, later to be rescued by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade, before being taken to Venice where a Church was built, San Nicolo al Lido and the bones laid to rest. Saint Nicholas was remembered from then as the Patron Saint of Sailors (amongst others). Subsequent tests done in more recent times have confirmed that both sets of remains come from the same skeleton. This is not a myth! As Saint Nicholas day is the 6th December, during the Middle Ages it became popular to give gifts to children on the night before the Saint’s day. During the reformation Martin Luther made a good case to move the day to “Christmas”, 24th and 25th December, to give Christian focus away from the veneration of saints, by then considered by many as a foul Catholic practice. The Saint Nicholas/ Christmas tradition was observed in the court of Henry VIII.
It’s worth noting that in Britain, in later modern times, the tradition of Boxing Day has developed from the fairly recent custom of the wealthy classes giving their employees and regular tradesmen their Christmas “box” on the day after Christmas. This tradition goes back to at least the 17th century and most probably beyond. As many of them were expected to wait on the employer’s family on Christmas day, they were generally given the next day off, and often received a box containing a small gift, leftover food to take home and so on. This was a general part of any domestic employment whose roots are described in middle age accounts of festive celebrations. Connections are also made between boxes used to collect alms for the poor, distributed over the festive season, and most notably metal boxes placed outside early Roman/Christian churches which collected special offerings as part of the feast of St Stephen which fell on…. Boxing day!
Prior to Christianisation, Germanic Yuletide traditions in Europe and Britain supplied the depiction of what may have evolved into representations of Saint Nicholas’ image particularly with the flowing white beard. The Yule legends include the most important “ghost hunt” of Odin, whereby he rides his spirit eight legged horse Sleipnir through the night sky delivering gifts to his people. The reindeer? That’s definitely a much later American addition!
So about those decorations, and the festive colours. Well your metallics, gold, silver etc., represent the precious metal gifts from the three kings in the nativity; Cold, Frankenstein and Mirth. You don’t believe me? Ask my Dad! Green is for evergreen, red for love/heart and white for snow. Blue and white typically represent winter, and Hanukkah too. Wreaths were used by many ancient civilisations as decorations, notably by the Romans and Greeks to symbolize strength, rank, wealth and various other things about the wearer. Oak wreaths for example were a sign of wisdom. Laurel came from the mythological story of Apollo’s love for the nymph Daphne. He pursued her and trying to escape begged Peneus to help, whereby he turned her into a laurel tree. When Apollo found out, from that day forward he wore a laurel wreath upon his head. As Apollo represented victory, strength etc., the laurel wreath was later used to crown athletes in ancient games. Winners would also often receive olive wreaths, a symbol of victory.
Wreaths have long since been used as a kind of fertility symbol, most often associated with harvest rituals, and were often hung on doors all year round. Made of plaited or twisted wheat, or other harvest crops, they were an offering to the harvest Gods. In ancient Greece, again Laurel or Olive would be used, and the offering to Helios, for a bountiful crop. In Christian terms, the advent wreath represents the coming of Christ and the everlasting circle of God, no beginning no end. Candles were often placed in the wreaths each Sunday from the beginning of the advent period, to mark the start of the year in the Christian Calendar.
Christmas pudding and the sixpence. Well the humble Christmas pud had its origins in the 14th Century as a kind of preparatory fasting meal in anticipation of the main event, in the days before. Made from Beef, Mutton, dried fruits, wines and spirits, it was known as Frumenty and was somewhere between a porridge and a soup…. Back to that pottage thing again? Over the next couple of centuries it evolved by used of other fruits, eggs, breadcrumbs and so on, to become more of the plum pudding we recognize in modern terms, and claiming its status as THE Christmas dessert, until that jolly bunch the Puritans banned it in 1664… BOOOOO!!!! 50 years later, King George I managed to snaffle a taste, and decreed it returned to its rightful place at the Christmas dinner table. It has undergone further fine tuning, since then to become the Christmas pudding that we know and love. Unless you are a Rufus girl; We hate the stuff!
Custom has developed in Britain that the pudding mix has to contain 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and his disciples, it has to be stirred by every member of the family from East to West to represent the wise men. In the mix should be added one or all of the following… a silver coin (in England a sixpence, although now 5p is used); the “bachelor’s button” – if found by a single man they would remain a bachelor the following year, “spinsters/old maid’s thimble”, again if found by a single woman…..and a ring. If found by a single person it meant impending marriage, otherwise it signified wealth was on its way. Personally I would think managing to eat your portion of pudding without choking to death on one of many foreign objects hidden there within would be luck enough!
Finally carolers….. Wæs þu hæl, or waes hael is the old Anglo-Saxon greeting/toast “be thou of good hail” (or good cheer) from around the 7th to 8th Century, old English. Wassailing as it became, was divided into two main themes, a harvest incantation and a good natured recipient-led charitable exchange, most often between peasants and their landlord around Yuletide, during which the peasant would lead the wassail calling on his lord in verse to be generous and cough up the dough, to which the Lord would respond in kind “not until you sing me a cool song, telling me why you deserve it” And it would continue, until the deal is done through singing, and the peasant gets the goods! Later in the medieval to Tudor period, groups of wassailers would often go door to door, bringing songs and tidings of joy and luck, in exchange for a few coppers and a hot toddy. A lot of the time they would be semi-professional performers- good in voice, lacking in funds through the quiet winter season. When the Christians got hold of it, they kept the idea but replaced it with tales of little donkeys, silent nights and bleak mid-winters. Well I’m sure you’ve seen them.
Anyway, I’m going to wrap it up for now –BADUMM TSH!!!!! (See what I did there?) Look forward to other Festive Posts from the team in the next week. But from me, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Yuletide Blessings! May all your Christmases be white! As for me, I hope I have been a good girl, and maybe Santa will bring me a new History Book or two and a small box of Belgian Chocolates….. I’m easily pleased.