Have you started wrapping the Christmas presents you are giving this year? Or do you leave it to Christmas Eve? Surrounded by wrapping paper and stuck to adhesive tape, do you wonder how it all began?
Some time ago I was introduced to a book by Patrick Harding, Christmas Unwrapped. Harding states that early Christians did not celebrate Christmas until the 3rd century AD, as the physical birth of Christ was considered a sin up to 245 AD. Hence Christ’s birth date was forgotten and the first mention of December 25th was not until AD 354 when the Roman Emperor Constantine chose the midwinter solstice as the approximate date. He also allowed Christianity to enjoy the same rites as Mithraism. This fell within the Roman winter celebration of Saturnalia, the solstice having been celebrated for thousands of years before as the rebirth of the sun and the year (remember Stonehenge!). The pagan Anglo-Saxons used December 25th as the start of the New Year and some called the 24th “Mother’s Night”, when the Earth Mother gave birth to the sun. We now celebrate the solstice on the 21st or 22nd, called St Thomas’ Day. St Stephen’s Day, the 26th, was the Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrated with money saved in pottery boxes, perhaps the origin of the “Christmas Box”, or present. The twelve days of Christmas is the same length as the Mesopotamian Marduk celebrations, the yule log that burnt for 12 nights and also the Anglo-Saxon wassail ceremonies to counter evil spirits and protect and encourage tree growth.
So if December 25th is not the real Christmas day and the actual date cannot be determined, what of the year? Harding says it was probably between 8 BC and 8 AD, related to the sighting of a comet by Chinese astronomers and a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and the Pisces constellation in 7 BC. King Herod is now thought to have died in 4 BC and Christ was born before this, so probably about 7 BC.
6,ooo years ago Pagans celebrated the Sky God Allfather. He became the Viking Odin (or Wotan or Woden), the old man of winter, bearer of gifts. He had a beard, and wore a cloak and hat (but not then red). He later became the Lord of Misrule, then Old Father Christmas of the Mummers plays. It is likely that this character combined with the customs of European settlers into the American child oriented Santa Claus figure, in the red outfit—Yo, Ho, Ho!
The first Roman calendar is thought to date from 735 BC, perhaps by Romulus. This had a year of 304 days, making 10 months named Martis, Aprilis, Hams, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November and December, according to David Ewing Duncan in his book The Calendar. In 700 BC King Numas added Januarius and Februarius to make a year of 354 days plus another “for luck”. Then in 45 BC Julias Caesar commenced the year with January, adding 10 more days to total 365 days. The month Quintilis was later changed to Julius in his honour. In 8 BC Augustus Caesar changed Sextilis to Augustus, altering the days in the month. This formed the Julian calendar, which was later found to be inaccurate and out of step with real time. So in 1582 AD Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar, which jumped 10 days, to correct the errors. England was no longer tied to Rome by that time as King Henry VIII had severed the links, and refused to accept the Gregorian calendar. This situation prevailed until 1752 when King George II approved the new calendar, losing 11 days, which caused riots. The New Year was set to commence on 1st January, which until then had begun on 25th March. Now we know where we are!
Another recent addition to the Christmas scene, or table is the Christmas Cracker. I remember reading that these were first introduced by a London Sweet Maker, Tom Smith in about 1845 – 1850. He had seen “Bon-Bons” made in France, consisting of almonds wrapped in attractive paper. Smith produced something similar, but containing sweets. Later mottoes and poor jokes were added to the contents to increase interest. Paper hats may be a reference back to Twelfth Night, Saturnalia and the Roman celebrations, when the Lord of Mis-Rule was crowned. The bang when pulled, preferably by two people, has also been known as a “Christmas Snap” with the “crack” producing the common name “Christmas Cracker”.
We wish you a very Happy Christmas, whenever and however you celebrate midwinter this month.
Bridport History Society meet again on December 13th at 2.30 pm in Bridport United Church Main Hall, East Street when Sheila Meaney will talk about “Dear Mother” Pigeons, Parcels and Post.