A Christmassy History

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Image by Barbara Piancastelli

As Michaelmas term lurches to an end, it seems we are officially reaching the most wonderful time of year, and even though Lancaster is never kind enough to bless us with snow to really boost the festive ambiance, that doesn’t mean we can’t all embrace the coming of Father Christmas and his loyal reindeer. As the Coca-Cola advert helpfully loves to remind us, “holidays are coming” and for most, Christmas is probably the highlight of the winter season – if not the entire year. So whether you’re a Grinch or a Cindy Lou, here is your dose of Christmas cheer!

Occasionally, in the glitter and glamour of Christmas we can forget its real meaning, although everybody has played an angel in the nativity play at least once in their life. Christmas dates back to year one, and the birth of Jesus Christ is deeply embedded in our culture, something we like to celebrate through nativity plays. We all know the story, but to refresh your memory, the tale goes that Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were required to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census that was taking place. Mary was heavily pregnant at this time, after being visited by an angel and being told that she had conceived a child by God, although still a virgin. Upon their arrival at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay, and were eventually offered a stable at an inn, as it was the only place left for them. In that (probably filthy) stable, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Not only that, but shepherds came a-flocking and three wise men who had been following a star in hopes of finding the King of the Jews arrived at the inn with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Although nobody can be sure when exactly Jesus was born, his birth is celebrated as a massive festive occasion and a public holiday on the 25th December in many countries around the world, including non-Christian countries; although some prefer to celebrate in early January. As the centuries progressed, the birth of Jesus became known as Christmas, which is derived from old English and means Christ’s Mass. Christmas became interlinked with church attendance and pious behaviour, particularly after the fourth century when Christianity became the religion of Rome and therefore the rest of the empire.

Christmas inspired artists to paint depictions of nativity scenes, carols were created singing the praises of the event, and it could be suggested that the original three gifts brought to Jesus upon his birth inspired the tradition of giving gifts to loved ones. In modern times, some of the more secular aspects of the season such as gift-giving have been emphasised upon and overly commercialised by retailers and businesses – making Christmas one of the most expensive times of the year and causing a huge boost in sales.

Christmas trees are another wonderful tradition embraced by all, particularly this year when our wet summer has led to a stunning crop of green fir trees. The decorating of homes and trees dates back to the fifteenth century, and the use of trees is thought to have come from the pagan tradition of the Winter Solstice. Red and green are the traditional colours of Christmas, red representing the blood of Jesus and green symbolising eternal life, particularly in evergreen trees which keep their leaves in the winter. White, silver and gold are also popular Christmas colours – often seen in the twinkly lights and baubles that people use to decorate their trees.
The modern Christmas dinner with turkey and trimmings did not develop for centuries; in medieval times peacock or boar were a popular choice. King Henry VIII is the first English monarch who is reported to have had a turkey for Christmas. Mince pies and Christmas pudding are both Christmas foods which have existed for centuries, originally made with meat, fruit and spices.
In modern times, the religious themes are often overshadowed by the coming of the mythical Santa Claus. A jolly red giant known for his elf-filled palace in the North Pole, he brings joy and happiness to children all over the world, by slaving away the whole year building presents and checking his naughty-or-nice lists and then doing an all-nighter to deliver these presents with his trusty team of reindeer. Santa Claus was originally based on St. Nicholas, a man known for his giving nature and generosity, whose day was celebrated in December. Father Christmas was an invention of the English seventeenth century, associated with holiday merry-making and drunkenness and depicted as a jolly, bearded man who embodied all things wonderful and happy about the winter season. Santa Clause inherited his characteristics and was perfected by the Americans.

Unfortunately, you could also argue that Christmas has been corrupted in modern times – it seems that every year the Christmas advertising comes earlier and earlier, occasionally appearing before Halloween decorations have even been put out for sale. Although annoying (I believe the Christmas songs shouldn’t be cracked out until December 1st) advent calendars, carol singers and those heart-breakingly beautiful John Lewis adverts all contribute to the magic of Christmas.
Overall, Christmas presents itself as the perfect time of year to get the family together and spread some love – curling up in front of a crackling log fire, building a snow man and gorging on chocolates with a glass of something warming and alcoholic is all part of the excitement of the season, as well as honouring a tradition that reminds us of simpler times and our ancestry. Even if you aren’t the biggest lover of religion, you can’t deny that Christianity got Christmas right; it gives you a reason to connect and share with the most important people in your life, if only for one day of the year.

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