The Celebration Of Christmas

   The following is a history of the celebration of Christmas. Most Christians who celebrate the Christmas holiday (and even some non-Christians who participate in the holiday for purely financial reasons) are knowledgeable of the history of the birth of Jesus Christ. There is no need for me to include all the details of His virgin birth here. Instead, this article will deal with the history of how the Christmas holiday came to be celebrated in the way we know it at the present time.

   When the early Christian Church was in its formative stages, a number of dates were suggested as being the most likely date of Christ's birth. The actual date had been forgotten over time. Some scholars have estimated that Jesus was born in the Spring, during the time of Passover. Other scholars believe that it was in the Jewish month of Tishri, correlating to the end of September. In 350 A.D. Pope Julius I decreed that from that time forth the 25th of December would be acknowledged as the date of the Nativity. All of Christendom accepted that decree except for the Armenian church. To that denomination, the Nativity is celebrated on January 6 each year. It should be noted that Julius I's decree came only thirty-seven years after Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration which effectively legalized the Christian religion. Prior to that time anyone who professed the Christian religion were persecuted. In 303 A.D. the Nativity was "celebrated" by Emperor Diocletian by having nearly 20,000 Christians burned to death.

   The 25th of December was chosen by Pope Julius I partly to counter or replace the festivals normally celebrated on or near that date. The day was commonly known throughout the Persian Empire as the Dies Solis Invicti Nati, or the Birthday Of The Unconquered Sun. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia at that time of year because a solar solstice occurs about that time. In Mesopotamia, the people celebrated their god Marduk's struggle against the forces of chaos. The Greeks believed that the latter part of December was when the god, Zeus would renew his annual battle against Kronos and the Titans. The effort by the Christian Pope to counter these established holidays with a solemn celebration of the Nativity was intended to purge the world of the debauchery and raucousness that they induced in the general populace. The Saturnalia, in particular, was very hedonistic; people indulged in all manner of (often drunken) revelries and gaiety. They indulged in parties and exchanged gifts with one another.

   The intention of the Christian leaders like Pope Julius I was not to force a sudden change on the common people. Instead, they hoped to gradually replace the "pagan" customs with Christian ones. Gregory the Great wrote, in 597, that the pagan rituals not be removed "upon the sudden", but rather be adapted "to the praise of God." As a result of this approach, many of the traditions we indulge in today come from sources originally not part of the Christian tradition. The lights on the Christmas tree are descended from candles, which descend themselves from the Norse belief in lighting fires to help Woden and Thor battle the evil of winter. Presents given out at Christmas descends from the Saturnalian practice of exchanging gifts. The decoration of our homes with evergreens descends from the early Celtic belief that the harsh effects of winter could be wished away with the plants that did not lose their green color. The colors we cherish as Christmascolors, red and green, comes from the holly plant's berries and leaves. The holly plant was revered by the early Romans and hung about their houses during the Saturnalia, supposedly to ward off witchcraft. During the Medieval Ages the legend was spread that the holly first sprang up in the footsteps of Jesus as he was led to the cross; the spiny leaves symbolizing the crown of thorns and the red berries recalling His blood. The shiny, glittering balls that are hung on the Christmas tree are believed to derive from the bags of gold which the 4th century St. Nicholas gave to serve as dowries for three daughters of a poor man.

   Through the Medieval and Dark Ages, roughly between the 5th and 11th Centuries, the Christian and pagan traditions mingled. An English account of the legendary King Arthur, written in 1736, noted that:

  "At this time (AD 521) that great Monarch Arthur, with his Clergy, all his Nobility, and Soldiers, kept Christmas in York, whither resorted to him the prime Persons of the Neighborhood, and spent the latter End of December in Mirth, Jollity, Drinking and the Vices that are too often the Consequence of them; so that the Representatives of the old Heathanish Feasts dedicated to Saturn were here again revived; but the Number of Days they lasted were doubled and amongst the wealthier Sort trebled; during which Time they counted it almost a Sin to treat of any serious Matter. Gifts are sent mutually from and to one another; frequent invitations pass betwixt Friends, and domestick Offenders are not punished. Our Countrymen call this Jule-tide, substituting the name of Julius Ceasar for that of Saturn. The Vulgar are yet persuaded that the Nativity of Christ is then celebrated, but mistakenly; for 'tis plain they imitate the Lasciviousness of Bacchanalians rather than the memory of Christ, then, as they say, born."

   Legend tells us that it was on a Christmas day that Merlin, the reknowned magician of Camelot, called together all of the various leaders of the realms of Britain. Merlin announced that on His birthday, the Lord would reveal to them who would be the rightful king to rule over the entire British Isles. The sign which the Lord gave to the assembled feudal lords and knights was a sword embedded in an anvil. Arthur was the only one who could draw the sword from the "stone" and to him was given the title of the first King of England. The epic story, Le Morte d'Arthur, written in the 15th Century by Sir Thomas Malory, was largely responsible for promoting the legend of Arthur as the heroic Briton who defended the Christian Faith against the hordes of Angles and Saxons who invaded the Isles. Despite the legends of Arthur's prowess in battle, the British Isles were indeed invaded by Germanic peoples who brought with them their particular form of Celtic traditions.

   In the year 506, King Clovis I, of Gaul, was baptised on Christmas day in the city of Reims. Clovis, who had united and formed the Germanic tribe known as the Franks, embraced Christianity and endeavored to make all of the Frankish Kingdom a Christian one. His baptism was intended to be a sign to his followers that they should also embrace the Christian religion. Christmas had become popular as the day on which important state ceremonies should be held, and so Clovis' baptism, one of the most important events in the history of the Franks, was held on that day.

   Another Christmas day would become an important date in France's history. On Christmas day in the year 1066, a Norman king, William the Conqueror, assumed the throne of England following his successful invasion.

   The Middle Ages, stretching from about 1100 to 1500, was a period in which Christianity had reached a position of dominance throughout the European Continent and the British Isles. During that time, Christmas celebrations became more extravagant and widespread, but at the same time, more Christianized.

   The first enactment by live actors and animals of the Nativity was undertaken in the year 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi in the village of Greccio. As a result of his initiative, the Nativity was observed in the newly constructed cathedrals in the form of live reenactments and impressive Masses and pageants.

   During the Middle Ages, secular celebrations of Christmas were combined with the then-popular jousting tournaments. The tournaments, themselves, were combinations of feast, the jousts themselves and processions of knights and their entourages. The feasts were as heroic as the jousts. Christmas in 1252 was celebrated by the English king, Henry III with a meal prepared from approximately 600 oxen. The feast also included salmon pie and roast peacock. In the year 1420 King Henry V of England married Katherine of France on Christmas day. The wedding/Christmas feast consisted of roast porpoise, pike stuffed with herbs, smelt and crayfish along with a variety of exotic hors d'oeuvres that included dedells in burneaux and frument with balien. Of course, large quantities of wine and other popular drinks were consumed at these Christmas feasts. It was during this time that the Wassail became popular.

   There are probably as many recipes for Wassail as there have been bowls of the drink. The wassail bowl was filled primarily with ale, to which sugar, fruit slices, such as apples or lemons, and spice such as ginger were added. Wine was often added or substituted for the ale. The mixture was served after it had been heated and pieces of toast were floated on the surface. The Wassail bowl was passed around between the guests of the feast and each would drink a portion of it and each a piece of the toast. The word wassail comes from the Saxon words wes hal which mean "be in health". The passing around of the wassail bowl and the partaking of its contents was a way that the revelers wished each other good health. Our custom of "toasting" another's good health derives from this tradition. People who were poor and could not afford to attend such feasts would take mugs and go "a-wassailing" from door to door, begging for money to purchase some of the drink. The Norsemen had a similar tradition. Their drink, though was called glogg and contained aquavit, a native liquor flavored with licorice, in place of the ale. The recipe for glogg also called for two additional types of wine and an array of spices along with almonds and raisins which gave the warm drink an extra kick.

   The giving of gifts, as noted previously, was a tradition which the Romans indulged in during their Saturnalian festivals. Those gifts tended to be simple figurines crafted by the giver. By the 12th Century, the practice of giving gifts at Christmastime had reached extravagant proportions. The people of this present age, while spending large sums of money on gifts for their loved ones on one hand, bemoan the "commercialism of the holiday" on the other. They would have found the present of a live elephant by the king of France to Henry III in 1236 to be indeed extravagant but commonplace. The giving of gifts, though, has always been condoned by Christianity as a sort of reenactment of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which the wise men brought to the Christ child at Bethlehem.

   The live Nativity scenes which local church congregations perform during the Christmas season, and the plays acted out by youngsters in church are direct descendants of the Miracle (variously, Nativity, Mummer or Mystery) Plays which developed during the Medieval period. Out of the masquerading of the Saturnalia developed the masque or "mummers" plays of the Medieval Age. These early theatrical exhibitions were pantomimes and farcical characterizations of well known personages or of animals, real or imaginary. Troupes of actors would travel from town to town, performing the mummers plays, and so they were the precursors of traveling circus and sideshows. There wasn't much of any storyline to the mummers plays. They often relied on pantomime and song to convey a simple message, and they sometimes consisted simply of the creation of tableaux to illustrate some event. As the power of the Church grew, the mummers plays took on the form of morality lessons and the productions which were originally based on farce and comedy developed into drama. The most common productions told the story of the birth, life and the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. They gradually took on the name of Mystery Plays. The Catholic Church condoned the production of these Mystery Plays, and over time, allowed other events to be reenacted as Mystery Plays. The most popular type of Mystery Play to be presented in England was that of the story of St. George and the Dragon. As the power and control of the Church began to wane, the subjects of the Mystery Plays returned to the secular world from which they had sprung, but rather than return to farce and comedy, they developed as drama and formed the basis of the Elizabethan theatre.

   Another tradition which developed out of the Mystery Plays was the singing of Carols at Christmas. The name is derived from the French carole which meant to sing in a circle. The carolers would form a semi-circle and sing to serenade their neighbors. The songs which accompanied the original mummers plays tended to be raucous and vulgar. As the plays changed from a purely secular artform to a tool of the Church to teach morality, the music which accompanied them developed into solemn Church music. Christmas Carols sprang into being during the Medieval Age as a reaction against the grave and solemn music which the Church condoned. The songs that were sung in the taverns and wayside inns, rather than the official hymns, formed the basis of many of the Christmas Carols we know and sing today. The tradition of going "a-wassailing" from door to door to beg for money merged with the singing of carols and the act of "caroling" matured through the ages.

   Henry VIII, who became king of England in the year 1509, was a man who had an insatiable appetite for high living and partying. Henry VIII reinstituted the tradition of the masque or masquerade as a Christmas celebration. He also reinstituted a tradition which we celebrate to this day (if only in the form of a single song). The Twelfth Night celebration gave Henry a means to extend his Christmas celebrating past the 25th of December. The 6th of January had earlier been celebrated as the Epiphany, and was commonly known as the Feast Of Fools. The Saturnalian tradition of changing roles, when slaves would take the role of masters over their rightful masters and the clergy would pretend to be lay persons while a "Bishop of Fools" was chosen from the common people to preside over the affairs of the Church, found a new home in the Epiphany twelve days later on January 6. When Henry VIII brought the Epiphany celebration back into vogue as the Twelfth Night, it was reinstituted as a private, family celebration rather than a community-wide affair. Each family would gather together on the eve of January 6 and partake of a hearty feast. Then a cake would be brought forward. A bean had been placed in the cake batter, and theperson who found the bean would be honored as either the King or Queen of the Bean, a carryover of the Bishop of Fools. The King (or Queen) of the Bean, as the Bishop of Fools before, would order the assembled guests to either dance, drink, sing or frolick as he (or she) wished. The partygoers were compelled to follow the orders given, and if the bean so happened to be found by a child, the orders might be ridiculous and comical. While the common people celebrated simply and inexpensively, the richer families and the court tended to celebrate the occasion in costumes and masks. In 1512 a court historian noted that King Henry VIII celebrated Twelfth Night "disguised after the manner of silke, bearing staffe torches."

   There are legends about the origins of the decorated tree, one of which dates from the Medieval Ages and comes from the Germanic peoples of northern Europe. During the Medieval Ages, one of the favorite Miracle Plays was based on the lives of Adam and Eve. Presented during the Christmas season, an evergreen tree would be used in place of the "Tree of the knowledge of good and evil". The evergreen tree, of whatever type happened to be available, was chosen to be honored as the "Paradise" tree because it held the promise of everlasting life throughout the dead of winter. And of course, apples would be hung on the tree to symbolize the fruit with which the serpent tempted Eve. Some families started to set up their own "Paradise" tree in their homes, decorated simply with apples.

   The earliest actual record found so far regarding the Christmas tree comes from the year 1510 and the village of Riga, in Latvia. Apparently, the merchants' guild of that town decorated an evergreen tree with artificial roses. The tree was set up at the marketplace. After merrymaking and partying, the participants danced around the decorated tree, as was a usual custom during holiday celebrations. When the fun had ended, the tree was set on fire. It is possible that the purpose of setting the tree ablaze was to invoke the blessings of the "old gods". It was common practice during that time to create bonfires during holiday celebrations for the purpose of invoking blessings from the "gods" who were believed to protect nature and everything in the natural world. It should be noted that this was a "public" event. There is no mention in the record of the event at Riga that trees were likewise set up inside the people's homes.

   At about the same time, contemporary with Henry VIII of England, the Reformation was being introduced throughout Europe by Martin Luther and others. Martin Luther celebrated Christmas as heartily as any other. It is interesting to note that he contributed a couple hymns to the growing list of Christmas Carols. It is Martin Luther who is credited with establishing the tradition of actually decorating the evergreen tree which was set up in most German homes at that time. Prior to 1605, the fir, pine or hemlock trees which the Germans cut and set up in their homes were left undecorated, or were simply hung with fruit, such as the aforementioned apples.. The first decorated tree was recorded in 1605 by a resident of the village of Strasbourg. He noted that: "at Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlors...and hang upon them roses cut from many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt-sugar, sweets, &c."

   The Puritan Clergy wanted the celebration of Christmas to be held in solemn respect. A Puritan writing in the early-1600s noted that "In Christmas tyme there is nothing else used but cardes, dice, tables, maskyngs mumming, bowling, and suche like fooleries."

   Oliver Cromwell was a devout Puritan, and when he came to power he attempted to uphold the Puritan beliefs by stopping the celebration of Christmas throughout the British Isles. During Cromwell's reign as the Lord Protector, the public was prohibited from celebrating with theatre plays, religious or otherwise, and from decorating their houses. They were warned that on the day "commonly called Christmas, no observance shall be had, nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches in respect thereof." Greenery found as decorations on houses were removed and publicly burned as a warning to others not to decorate their houses in the same manner.

   The following narrative was written by John Evelyn in his diary about the Christmas situation in Oliver Cromwell's England.

  "I went to London with my Wife, to celebrate Christmasday, Mr. Gunning preaching... as he was giving us ye Holy Sacrament, the chapell was surrounded with souldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surpriz'd and kept prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away. It fell to my share to be confin'd to a roome in the house, where yet I was permitted to dine with the master of it, ye Countesse of Dorset, Lady Hatton, and some others of quality who invited me. In the afternoone came Col. Whaley, Goffe, and others, from Whitehall, to examine us one by one.... When I came before them they tooke my name and abode, examin'd me why, contrary to an ordinance made that none should any longer observe ye superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteem'd by them), I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but ye masse in English, and particularly pray for Charles Steuart, for which we had no Scripture. I told them we did not pray for Cha. Steuart, but for all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors. They replied, in so doing we praied for the K.of Spaine too, who was their enemie and a papist, with other frivolous and insnaring questions and much threatning; and finding no colour to detaine me, they dismiss'd me with much pitty of my ignorance. These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord's Nativity. As we went up to receive the Sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us as if they would have shot us..."

   Oliver Cromwell's leadership extended across the Atlantic Ocean and affected the celebration of Christmas in the small, scattered colonies. William Bradford wrote a History Of Plymouth Plantation in which he described the entire journey of the Pilgrims from their temporary refuge in Holland to the New World. Although the year is not noted, in the following account Governor Bradford described how one Christmas was spent by the new colonists.

"Munday, the 25 Day, we went on shore, some to fell tymber, some to saw, some to riue, and some to carrys that no man rested all that day, but towards night, some, as they were at worke, heard a noyse of some Indians, which caused vs all to goe to our Muskets, but we heard no further, so we came aboord againe, and left some twentie to keepe the court of gard; that night we had a sore storme of winde and raine ú Munday the 25 being Christmas day, we began to drinke water aboord, but at night, the Master caused vs to have some Beere, and so on board we had diverse times now and then some Beere, but on shore none at all."

"One ye day called Christmas day, ye Gov'r caled them out to worke (as was used), but ye most of this new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to worke on ye day. So ye Gov'r tould them that if they made it a mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away ye rest, and left them: but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; some pitching ye barr, and some at stoole ball, and such like sports. So he went to them and tooke away their implements, and told them it was against his conscience that they should play, and others worke. If they made ye keeping of it matter of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but there should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least, openly."

   The Puritans residing in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were warned that they would receive a fine of five shillings if they observed "any such day as Christmas." The following decree was recorded in the record of the Massachusetts Bay general assembly on 11 May, 1659.

"For preventing disorders arising in severall places within this jurisdiccon, by reason of some still observing such festivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great disshonnor of God & offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labour, feasting, or any other way, upon any suc accounts as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county. And whereas, not only at such times, but at severall other times also, it is a custome too frequent in many places to expend time in unlawfull games, as cards, dice &c, it is therefore futher ordered, and by the Court declared, that, after publication hereof, whosoever shall be found in any place wthin this jurisdiccon playing either at cards or at dice, contrary to this order, shall pay as a fine to the county the some of fiveshillings for every such offence."

   Oliver Cromwell's death in 1658 was followed by the succession of his son, Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of Great Britain, but he was not cut from the same cloth as his father in terms of leadership. In 1660 the Royalist supporters of Charles II succeeded in overthrowing Richard Cromwell and restored the throne of England to the Stuart line. The Restoration Period was a time not only of the restoration of the throne to Charles II, but also of restoration of the celebration of Christmas. The restored celebrations, though, like the monarchy, was not as extravagant as it had been prior to the Civil War. The traditions were taken up again, but the wild abandon and boisterous nature of the proceedings was tamed somewhat.

   Although the celebration of Christmas declined throughout the British colonies and the mother country, it did not die out in the rest of the world. The Dutch, French, Scandinavians,Italians and, especially, the Germans kept the traditions alive and well.

   It was the Dutch who brought to America the first collection of traditions which we enjoy at Christmas time today. Sinter Klaas had evolved as a bringer of gifts from legends of a real 4th Century bishop. Like St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas' reputation was based on his deeds of benevolence. Sinter Klaas came riding through the land on a white horse, leaving goodies, cookies and small gifts in the wooden shoes of children who were good. Although his name would change slightly when the Dutch traditions were replaced by those of the Germans, his character kept his trademark pipe and the fur trim on his coat which had been given to him by the Dutch storeytellers. The Germans substituted their stockings for their shoes as a receptacle for Santa Claus' goodies.

   To read more about St. Nicholas, click on the following link: {You will need to use your 'Back' button to return to this page.}

   Certain aspects of the tradition of St. Nicholas were incorporated into the Sinter Klaas tradition while others were forgotten over time. St. Nicholas had an assistant named Knecht Ruprecht. Knecht Ruprecht was also known as Black Peter and he doled out either rewards or punishments. He was believed to have originated as a demon, and was often depicted with horns on his head. Knecht Ruprecht carried a bag over his shoulder; the bag contained presents of candy and small toys along with a selection of switches. As he traveled with St. Nicholas through the countryside, Knecht Ruprecht would hand out gifts to the good boys and girls, but the bad children could expect to recieve a good switching for their naughty conduct. Although Santa Claus does not give bad children a switching, he still retains the power to withhold gifts if a child is naughty.

   It has already been noted that throughout Europe, since the time of the Reformation, evergreen trees had been brought into houses during the winter season serving as symbols of the renewal of life and serving as beacons of hope for the coming year. It was especially prevalent in the Black Forest region of Germany that pine, fir and hemlock trees were beautifully decorated with candles and small objects which would refract and reflect the light given off by those candles. The Black Forest of Germany lies in the region of Baden Wurtemberg, which lies to the east and south of the Rheinland Pfalz, or Palatinate. The German families who emigrated to the New World from the year 1708 to the 1770s came primarily from those two regions. They therefore brought with them their traditions and, of course, their decorated Christmas trees.

   The Germans brought their concept of KristKindlein, or Christ Child with them as they emigrated from their homeland to make new homes in the American colonies. Their tradition was that the Christ Child entered the homes of good children on Christmas Eve to leave gifts for the children. As the years passed, the KristKindlein evolved into Kriss Kringle. As the Germans and Dutch settled near to each other in the colonies of the Jerseys and Pennsylvania, Sinter Klaas and Kriss Kringle became confused with each other, and concept of Santa Claus took on the attributes of both of them.

   The Germans, especially those of the Moravian sect, also brought the Putz with them. The Putz was a form of manger scene composed of miniature figures. But unlike most manger scenes of today, which only depict Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus along with a few shepherds and the wise men, the German putz depicted whole landscapes consisting of villages and farmsteads. Of course, the stable with its manger in which the Christ child would be lain, and Mary and Joseph, along with a multitude of shepherds and magi gathered around them, would occupy a space within the larger landscape of the putz.

   As most of the major nations of the world either experienced their own revolutions or participated in some other nation's war during the latter half of the 18th Century, Christmas celebrations tended to change slightly. Although they did not change in character or tradition, the celebrations became more personal. The large, public community parties gave way to smaller, private get-togethers. Then, through the Victorian Age (mid-1830s to 1900), a general feeling of contentment pervaded most of the European nations and the United States. As a result, Christmas traditions and celebrations took on more of a nature of contentment. The figure of Santa Claus became, with some help from Clement C. Moore, a jolly, fat elfish type of figure. Moore wrote his story, A Visit From St. Nicholas in 1822 and effectively put Knecht Rupecht to bed. Forty years later Thomas Nast would illustrate Santa Claus and give him the fur-lined red outfit we recognize today.

   In the year 1839 the postal system in Great Britain began something new: postcards. Known as the "penny post", the low cost of the postcard allowed more people to use the postal system. Christmas of 1839 saw the appearance of the colorful Christmas postcard. The new fad spread across the Atlantic to the United States and created a sensation on this continent. Giving a nudge to the activity of card giving, Queen Victoria of Great Britain permitted greeting cards to be printed using an image of the Christmas Tree that she had, at the instigation of her German born husband, Prince Albert, set up in Windsor Castle. The card showed the Royal family gathered around an elegantly decorated none or ten feet tall evergreen tree. The image was also pirnted and published in mnay newspapers around the world. In one fell swoop the 'German' customs of the Christmas Tree and Greeting Cards was given a popular push. The Christmas Cards of today are seldom sent in the form of postcards, and certainly cost more than a penny to mail, but they have become a tradition in themselves.

   The Industrial Revolution of the mid- to late-1800s polarized society into "haves" and "have-nots". Large segments of the population of the United States and Europe had to work long hours under inhumane conditions and still did not earn enough to help them rise above poverty level. At the same time there were a few individuals who owned the industries and enjoyed a fine living style. The disparity between the classes was illustrated by a novel which has become a classic Christmas tradition. Charles Dickens was already a very popular novelist when he wrote A Christmas Carol in the year 1843. The story about the miserly old Scrooge and how he was brought around to understand the plight of poor families such as the Cratchits was not well received when it was first published. It appeared at a time when the industrial revolution had just begun and not many people identified with its message. As the years passed, though, the story acquired an audience who could identify Scrooge with the industrial magnates who controlled their lives somewhat. The story also gave hope to them, that happiness still existed, if only in the magic of Christmas cheer.

   The pace of everyday life accelerated during the 1900s. The Industrial Revolution, with all its gritty hardships, was a period in which family centered activity was important and encouraged. Hardship and difficulty have a way of forcing one's focus toward things which can provide happiness and feelings of security. The Cratchit family in Dicken's story exemplified that idea; through their hardship the family was drawn closer together and valued each other all the more. Through the Victorian period and into the early-1900s, many families, though dirt poor as far as finances were concerned, had a great wealth of happiness in their fondness and respect of each other. Perhaps it is because of that love of family that so many people view the Victorian period and the early-1900s as "the good old days". And because that era is viewed in a nostalgic manner, it tends to be the subject of Christmas Card pictures, decorating schemes and movies. In a sense, the Victorian images of men in cut-away suitcoats and silk top hats, women in bustle dresses with their hands hidden in plush fur-lined muffs and children trailing long mufflers while they dash here and there throwing snowballs have become a sort of tradition for us to enjoy at the present time.

   Christmas is celebrated in a variety of ways throughout the United States at the present time. The lighting of the tree on the White House lawn provides a single national focus to herald the Christmas season. In a similar way, the sales promoted in our department stores on the Friday following Thanksgiving give a signal to many people that the Christmas season has arrived. The so-called "Black Friday" shopping has become a tradition for many families who wait for that day to begin their shopping for Christmas gifts.

   Some communities celebrate the Christmas season by staging nostalgic reenactments of ancient traditions. One such tradition was the finding and lighting of the Yule Log. A tree measuring between one and one-half and two feet in diameter would be cut down by the elders of the village. A log about six or seven feet in length would be cut from the trunk, which would then be hidden somewhere near the village. On Christmas Eve, the young men of the village would hunt for the log and then drag it back to the village square. The log would then be set afire as the centerpiece for a general community party. The bonfire created might have been the motivation for placing lighted candles on indoor Christmas Trees. Some individual families, having fireplaces large enough to accomodate one, would get their own yule log. The log would be positioned at the back of the fireplace and the fire kindled in front of it so that it would not burn fast, but basically smoulder. The yule log was believed to last about twelve days, burning constantly from Christmas Eve to the 6th of January, or "Twelfth Day". This period of time, during which the family would celebrate the season, eventually gave rise to the concept of the "Twelve Days of Christmas". Before it was completely gone, a piece would be cut out of the yule log. The piece would be stored someplace safe through the year, and during the next Christmas celebration, the piece would be lit, and it in turn would be used to light the next year's log. Keeping a piece of the yule log was considered to be very lucky for the household.

   In regard to the 6th of January, Twelfth Day, it might be noted that it was also known as the "Feast of the Epiphany". An epiphany is a realization of something, and it was traditionally assumed that the Magi heard about the birth of Jesus twelve days after His birth. Therefore, it was as a result of their epiphany that they were motivated to search out the Christ Child in order to present gifts to Him. This also explains why some cultures give gifts on Jamuary 6 rather than on December 25, which is celebrated solely as a religious holiday.

   In Boston, on Beacon's Hill, carolers stroll through the community each year in Victorian costume. The people of Atlanta enjoy a display of creches depicting Christmas in various nations. Philadelphia holds a Mummers Parade on New Year's Day in which the participants dress in elaborate costumes and engage in pantomime. Old Bedford Village, in our own region, opens its gates for two (and recently three) weekends prior to Christmas. All of the historic buildings are decorated inside and out with live evergreen boughs and ribbons and most of the interiors have live trees decorated with historically accurate decorations such as popcorn strings and antique glass ornaments. Carolers stroll through the park streets and a bellsnickler questions children if they have been good or naughty. The good children receive candy as a reward while the naughty ones get nothing.

   A custom that is often enacted during Christmas celebrations is the kissing under mistletoe. The oak tree was venerated by the ancient Celts who inhabited much of eastern Europe prior to the rise of the Roman Empire. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that lives on the oak tree and gets its nourishment from the oak itself. The Celts, who venerated the oak tree as a powerful living entity, likewise venerated the mistletoe because it subdued the oak. Because it seemed to be even more powerful than the oak, mistletoe was brought into homes by people who believed that it would bring them luck. Kissing under the mistletoe was thought to be very lucky for young lovers. One tradition about kissing under the mistletoe that has become forgotten over time was that when the lovers began to kiss, another person would pick the white berries off the twig. When all of the berries were picked off the twig, the lovers had to stop kissing.

   And then there is the food. Thanksgiving has, in only the past century, become a holiday in which a feast is a requisite part. Christmas has always been a time for feasting. The offering of food and drink to travelers and guests has, since time immemorial, been a sign of friendship and hospitality. During the Elizabethan Age the richer noblemen celebrated with a feast on each day of the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany. Feasts in that age, as has been noted, included a number of exotic dishes, but a particular item was usually included, for looks if not for actual consumption. That thing was a roasted boar's head, with its mouth stuffed tight with an apple and a garland of rosemary encircling it. Since there is very little meat that can be eaten on a boar's head, the dish was not really meant to be consumed. The dish apparently was only a tradition handed down from Anglo-Saxon days.

   In the present day and age we enjoy roast turkey, cornish hens, and other fowl or else baked ham as a main dish for Christmas dinner. Through the ages, those foods along with other types of fowl, such as roast goose, peacock and pheasant, have been commonly accepted fare for the Christmas feast. The way of preparing many of these meats, though, was not just by roasting, but by baking them in a pie. The descendant of those meat pies can be found on the Christmas tables of this day in the form of the mince pie. The spices which are an integral part of the pie are said to represent the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child.

   A cousin of the mince pie is the dish known as plum pudding. Plum pudding has an interesting history. At some time during the Medieval Age a soup was developed which was composed of mutton stock into which various fruits were chopped. Plums, in the dried version of prunes, were a favorite ingredient because of the flavor they imparted to the soup. Over time, the dish became known as plum soup. Plum soup evolved into a pie with the addition of meat and suet and baked within a pastry shell by the 16th Century. The pie acquired its Christmas connection by being formed into a rectangular shape to represent Christ's manger-bed.

   According to the Mother Goose's Nursery Rhyme: "Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, Eating his Christmas pie. He put in his thumb, and pull'd out a plum, And said "What a good boy am I!"

   The Puritans frowned on any sort of extravagance, and plum pie was one of those things which they deemed extravagant. The pie was therefore outlawed throughout the British Isles and the British colonies in North America during the reign of Cromwell. In order to avoid trouble, but to still to enjoy the dish, the people of England disguised it by making it round and calling it "minc'd pie". By the 1800s the name of the dish had been changed to plum pudding and it was cooked without the pastry shell. The dish has remained in that form to the present day, and is uniquely associated with Christmas. Plum pudding is now more commonly called 'fruit and nut cake'.

   Throughout the world, and down through time, Christmas has been celebrated in a variety of ways in different countries. Some of their traditions have already been noted and some of them were imported to North America by immigrants. Some others, as noted below, are unique to certain regions or countries.

   In Great Britain before going to bed on Christmas Eve, children would write letters to Father Christmas, telling him what they desired to receive. They would then toss their letters into the home's fireplace or furnace in the belief that the requests would fly along with the rest of the smoke up the chimney and to the North Pole where Father Christmas lived.

   December 26 was celebrated for decades in Great Britain as Boxing Day. In the weeks before Christmas, money would be placed in church alms boxes as donations for the poor. On the 26th of December, the funds collected in the alms boxes were distributed to local families that were needy.

   In Germany an advent wreath would be created from evergreen boughs four Sundays before Christmas. Four different colored candles (one of which was white) would be worked into the wreath and on each of the Sundays preceeding Christmas, one candle would be lit. The white candle would be left to be lit on Christmas Day. Advent calendars were also very popular in the German-speaking countries. Each day before Christmas, starting on 01 December, a numbered 'door' would be opened, revealing a portion of the story of the birth of Jesus.

   The German putz was described above. In Italy, a similar diorama-type scene, the Presepio, was set up in the homes just eight days before Christmas. The eight days, along with the ninth day of Christmas itself, was known as the novena and the family would light candles around the scene while the parents would tell tales of Christmas. Like the children of Great Britain, Italian children would write their Christmas wishes on small strips of paper which would then be burned so that the requests would fly in the smoke up to La Befana. La Befana was the mythical Christmas witch who had the power to grant the wishes and deliver gifts on 06 January, the Day of Epiphany.

   Like the Dutch, as mentioned above, Italian children were encouraged to place their shoes in front of the Presepio in order that La Befana would have somewhere to leave small toys, candy and treats.

   In Italy, the shepherds are known as the zampognari and they are serenaded at Christmastime by bagpipers who play songs in their honor as they stroll through small towns.

   France was another country in which farming families wore wooden shoes, like their cousins in the Netherlands. French children would leave their wooden shoes by the home's hearth so that Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, would fill them with gifts and treats.

   Christmas Eve in France was traditionally celebrated by fasting through the day, going to church for midnight mass, and then returning home for a feast. After a brief nap, the family would go again to the church for Christmas Day services, and then return home for the real feast. A notable feature of the Christmas Day feast was the cutting and eating of the buche de Noel, a cream filled cake shaped like a yule log.

   In France, the German putzand the Italian presepio was known as a creche. On Christmas Eve, a candle was lit beside the creche when the family went to bed. It would light the way for Mary carrying the Christ Child to pass by.

   In Spain, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on 08 December. Then, on Christmas Eve, La Noche Buena, or Blessed Night is celebrated by fasting and a visit to church for a midnight mass. The people of Spain believe that the three Magi travel through Spain on their way to Bethlehem. The length of their trip was long, and so they did not arrive at Bethlehem on the exact day that Jesus was born. The people of Spain thusly celebrate the Wise Men's journey on 05 January, the Eve of Epiphany. Children are encouraged to go from house to house looking for the Magi. They carry cookies and other treats to give to the three Wise Men. After they have searched long enough, and not finding the Magi, the children are permitted to eat the treats themselves.

   Mexico, like her motherland, Spain, celebrates the Las Posadas, or Christmas Season beginning on 16 December. During the evenings, the paths and doorways to houses are lit by luminaries, which are small paper bags filled half full of sand, into which candles are set. When lit, the candles' flames are far enough away from the sides of the bags so that they do not catch fire, but the sides of the bags protect the flames from being blown out by wind.

   In Mexico, a Nacimiento, or Nativity Scene, with all the figures except that of the Christ Child, is set up in the church. On La Noche Buena, the figure of the infant Jesus is placed in the Nativity Scene. A midnight mass is conducted, and then the church bells ring and fireworks are fired into the night sky.

   One of the highlights of Las Posadas is the breaking of a pinata by the children. A large papier-mache or clay pinata is filled with candy and treats and hung overhead. The children take turns trying to break the pinata with a pole, and suddenly the treats, like small gifts from Heaven, fall down over the children.

   As with many other regions and cultures, the children of Mexico set their shoes out on Christmas Eve so that they can be filled with small toys and treats. But instead of being placed beside a fireplace or hearth, the shoes are placed on a windowsill so that the Reyes Magos, or Three Kings, will see them on their journey to Bethlehem, seeking out the Christ Child.

   Mexicans celebrate Twelfth Night, or 06 January, by eating a special ring-shaped cake. It doesn't matter what kind of cake it is, by the shape needs to be that of a ring. A small toy baby is baked into the cake, and the one who finds the tiny figure will have the honor of hosting a party on Candlemas, or 02 February.

   China is not usually a country one thinks of as celebrating Christmas, but there has, for many decades, been a small number of Christian families in that far eastern land. Christmas in China is known as Sheng Dan Jieh, the Holy Birth Festival. During that festival, trees made of tree branches devoid of leaves are set up and decorated with paper lanterns, flowers and paper chains made from strips of red paper. Western style, evergreen-type fake trees are sometimes set up, especially by Christian families living in the larger cities (where tree branches are not readily available).

   Many of the Christmas decorations that people of the West purchase and display are made in the factories of China. The people of China, whether Christian or not, are familiar with the figures of Santa Claus and other non-religious Christmas items, so they also purchase them and decorate their homes with them.

   On Christmas Eve, the Chinese children hang stockings from a shelf or other handy location so that Dun Che Lao Ren, or Christmas Old Man, can fill them with gifts.

   In Sweden, Christmas begins on 13 December, St. Lucia's Day. That day celebrates St. Lucia, the patron saint of light. The oldest daughter in a family has the duty, and honor, of waking the rest of the family. Before dawn she will rise, dress in a long white dress, don a wreath of leaves as a crown, and carrying a lighted candle, take a tray of cookies, candies and other treats to wake the other members of the family.

   At lunchtime on Christmas Eve, the Swedes 'dip in the kettle.' A bowl of broth is set in the center of the table, and the members of the family dip small pieces of bread into the broth. They eat the bread dipped in the broth in remembrance of times past when most families in Sweden were poor. The 'dip in the kettle' is similar to the Jewish seder marking the beginning of Passover, and a reminder of times past. Afterwards, the Swedish family eats a bountiful meal.

   Swedish tradition stated that on Christmas Eve, after the Christmas Tree is lit, the Jultomten, a small Christmas Gnome rides a sleigh drawn by the Julbokar, the Christmas Goat, bringing gifts to each house.

   On Twelfth Night in Sweden young men dress as the three Wise Men and, with their way lit by a candle on a long pole, go from house to house singing Christmas Carols.

   The last celebration of the Christmas season in Sweden is held on 13 January: St. Knut's Day. During the party, the Christmas decorations are taken down and packed away for next year and the Christmas tree is removed from the house.

   Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in Africa, and has its own particular brand of Christianity: the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The birth of Jesus is celebrated as Ganna on 07 January. The people fast all day on the day before Ganna, and on that day, they rise and dress in white accented with bright colors.

   The Ethiopians attend services at church and then go home to a feast, followed by games and other pastimes. There is no gift-giving in Ethiopia during the celebration of Ganna. It is strictly a religious observance.

Plum Pudding

   A recipe for Christmas / Plum Pudding is given below. Please note that this recipe is based on the use of actual beef suet, as would have been the case a hundred or two hundred years ago.

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs; 1 cup hot milk; 4 eggs; 3/4 cup brown sugar; 1/2 cup plum brandy; 1/2 pound minced beef suet (or modern, fruit-based mince-meat); 1 cup flour; 1 teaspoon salt; 1 teaspoon nutmeg; 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves; 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon; 1/4 teaspoon mace; 1 cup seedless raisins; 1 cup chopped candied cherries; 2 cups diced glaced fruit; 1/2 cup chopped walnuts.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a small pan, add the milk and then place it on medium heat to warm it. You do not want it to come to a boil.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the crumbs and warmed milk, then let stand.
In a small mixing bowl, beat the eggs and then add the sugar and the brandy. Note: If you cannot get plum brandy, any flavored brandy will substitute.
In the large mixing bowl, stir milk/crumbs and sugar/egg/brandy mixtures together, and then add suet (or modern, fruit-based mince-meat).
Combine flour, salt and spices in a sifter, then sift over fruit and nuts mixed in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly.
Blend crumb suet/mince-meat mixture with the fruit and nut mixture.
Turn the mixture into a greased 2 quart round mold, such as used for angel-food cake.
If actual beef suet has been used, follow the next four steps (marked with an *). If modern fruit-based mince-meat has been used instead, simply place in an oven pre-heated to 350 deg, and bake for 45 to 50 minutes.
* Cover the mold tightly with a doubled piece of heavy foil.
* Place mold on a rack in a deep kettle and add hot water to about half the depth of the mold.
* Cover kettle and steam for about 4 hours, adding more hot water as it boils away. Note: The requirement of steaming the pudding for 4 hours is necessary for the fat in the suet to melt properly. If actual beef suet is not used, and instead 'modern' mince meat is used, the steaming process is unnecessary.
* Take mold from water and remove foil.
Bake in the oven at 350 deg. for about 45 minutes, or until top is somewhat dried and firm. Stick a wooden toothpick into the pudding and then withdraw it. If the toothpick comes out clean, without any of the pudding sticking to it, the baking is finished.
If pudding is to be stored to ripen before using, leave in mold, wrap and place in a cool, dark place for a month or more. Note: A plum pudding will last at least a year without moulding or spoiling if stored in a cool, dark place.
If pudding is to be served at once, turn out of bowl and spoon heated brandy over top.
Serve aflame. Serves 8 to 10.

Plum Pudding (Traditional)

   This recipe for Plum Pudding is derived from a cook book published in 1747 (Hannah Glasse, Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy). Please note that this recipe is also based on the use of actual beef suet and is intended to use that ingredient and be boiled.

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs; 1 cup hot milk; 4 eggs (minus 2 whites); 1/2 cup sugar; 1/4 cup butter; 3/4 cup plum brandy; 1/2 pound minced beef suet; 1/2 lb flour; 1 pinch salt; 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg; 1 teaspoon grated ginger; 1/2 lb currants; 1/2 lb seedless raisins.
Set a large stockpot about two-thirds full of water on top the stove and bring to a boil.
In a small bowl, beat (whisk) the eggs.
Add half of the milk. Continue beating.
Gradually add the flour and bread crumbs.
Gradually add the suet, spices and fruit.
Add more of the remaining milk as necessary to produce a thick batter. A wooden spoon inserted in the center should stand upright.
Spread out a tightly woven linen cloth (about 24" x 24") onto a table. Rub the entire surface with softened butter, then sprinkle with flour. Then position the cloth over, with the center into a medium size bowl.
Carefully spoon the firm batter onto the cloth and into the depression of the bowl. Draw up the sides of the cloth and twist tightly to form a solid ball. Tie the cloth closed as tightly a possible with cooking twine, leaving enough to create a loop.
Slide a long wooden spoon through the twine loop. Suspend the spoon across the top of the stockpot with water boiling. The pudding should be completely immersed in the water, but not touching the bottom or sides of the pot.
Boil for two and one-half to three hours. Add hot water as necessary to keep the level over the pudding and boiling.
To check the pudding for doneness, remove it from the boiling water and sit in a colander. After sitting a few minutes, tap the pudding. It should feel firm and not squishy.
When the pudding is firm, open the cloth to reveal the pudding. Place a plate over the open spot and turn the pudding over to rest on the plate. Carefully remove the rest of the cloth.
In a small saucepan, add the brandy, sugar and butter and heat on low until the sugar is completely dissolved to form a sauce.
Pour the souce over the pudding.

Christmas Stollen

   The Christmas Stollen is a traditional type of bread baked throughout the German regions at Christmas time. The meaning of the word stollen is simply fruit-bread. Unlike the plum pudding, which is stuffed full of fruits and nuts, the stollen is more bread with bits of fruit baked into it. The recipe for the Christmas Stollen is given below.

2 cups flour; 2 ounces dry yeast; 1/3 cup sugar; 1 teaspoon salt; 1/2 cup milk; 1/2 cup water; 1/3 cup butter; 2 eggs; 1/2 cup candied cherries; 1/4 cup citron; 1/4 cup raisins; 1/4 cup walnuts or pecans; 1 tablespoon softened butter; 1 teaspoon softened butter; 1 cup powdered sugar; 1 - 2 tablespoons maraschino cherry juice.
Combine the 2 cups flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl, mixing them thoroughly and then set aside.
Heat the milk, water and butter in a medium saucepan until the butter melts.
Add the milk/water/butter to the flour/yeast/sugar/salt mixture.
Beat the eggs lightly and then add to the flour mixture. Stir the mixture with a whisk, or mix with an electric mixer at low speed, until it is evenly mixed and moist. Then, at medium speed, mix for about three minutes.
Chop the cherries, citron and walnuts (or pecans). Stir into the mixture the cherrie, citron and walnut (or pecan) pieces along with the raisins.
On a floured surface, knead the mixture until it is smooth and elastic. You might need to add a little flour if the mixture is not firm enough to be kneaded.
Place kneaded mixture in a greased bowl and turn to get entire surface greased.
Cover and place in a warm place for the mixture to rise.
In about an hour the mixture should have doubled in size. Punch down the dough, and divide into two equal parts.
Roll and pat each half on a lightly floured surface. Shape each half of dough into a 'loaf' roughly fourteen by eight inches.
Working with each loaf, brush the softened butter over the top. Then fold the loaf lengthwise and twist the ends to form a crescent shape.
Pinch the ends slightly to partially seal the ends and maintain the fold.
Place on a greased baking sheet, then cover and let it once more rise for about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake the loaves for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Remove the baked loaves and allow to cool.
If desired: To form a glaze, combine the powdered sugar, teapspoon of softened butter and maraschino cherry juice in a small bowl. Stir until mixed well and smooth. Then drizzle the glaze over the cooled loaves or stollens.

Gingerbread Cookies

   Gingerbread cookies can be traced back to the Fourteenth Century when German baker guilds began to use the spice ginger from India and the Far East. At first, because of the expensive cost of the spice, only the upper classes could afford to eat anything baked with it. By the Seventeenth Century, the cost of ginger was becoming more reasonable and bakers could lower the prices of goods in which it was used. By the 1700s, gingerbread and gingerbread cookies became a favorite, especially during the winter holiday season. The Brothers Grimm, in their tale of Hansel and Gretel, popularized the idea of a house composed of gingerbread, and the ubiquitous gingerbread man, a cookie baked in the shape of a human doll, came into existence.

3-1/2 cups flour; 1 teaspoon baking soda; 1/2 cup butter, 3/4 cup sugar; 1 large egg; 1/4 cup dark molasses; 3 tablespoons orange juice; 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon; 1 teaspoon ground ginger; 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Cream the butter with the sugar by whisking them together until fluffy. (Note: The butter should not be melted, but cool or at room temperature. It needs to be semi-solid, or it will not mix with the sugar.)
Add the egg, molasses and orange juice and beat well. The set aside.
Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinamon, ginger and salt in a large bowl.
Fold the flour and spice mixture into the butter mixture and blend thoroughly to create the cookie dough.
Divide the dough in two and wrap each half in plastic wrap.
Chill the dough for one hour, or until the dough is firm enough to handle.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Keeping one portion of the dough refrigerated until ready to use, roll the other out on a greased baking sheet to 1/8 inch thick.
Using a cookie mold in the shape of a human or doll figure, cut out individual cookies from the dough. Remove excess dough and leave the individual cookie shapes in place on the baking sheet.
Place the baking sheet into the oven and bake for 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow cookies to cool on the baking sheet for about 1 minute before removing with a spatula and placing on a flat, dry surface to finish cooling.

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