Christmas beliefs and traditions


A lovely Alaskan Christmas scene! (via Wikimedia Commons)

A lovely Alaskan Christmas scene! (via Wikimedia Commons)

This article appeared in the North Clare Local this December. Merry Christmas and a Happy 2013! 🙂

It’s hard to believe that 2012 is at its end, but Christmas has rocketed its way around already.

Christmas is foremost a religious holiday which marks the birth of Jesus Christ. The occasion is marked differently by various strands of Christianity. In the Orthodox tradition, Christmas is celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6. The Greek Orthodox Church is an exception though; it marks Christ’s birthday on December 25.

For many Europeans, December 25 itself is a relatively unimportant day. In Germany, children receive presents on December 6, which is St Nicholas’ Day. (Yes, that St Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus). In Poland and other Eastern European countries, feasting takes place on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day is time to recover.

Naturally, a large amount of our traditions come from the nativity. The idea of giving presents, for example, comes from the gifts given by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus, as well as the association with Saint Nicholas (who threw three bags of gold down a chimney to help some poverty-stricken sisters). The beautiful Irish tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve comes from the idea that the Holy Family may be out and about and need guidance. Similarly, you should never turn a stranger away from your door on Christmas Eve, because you will share the guilt of those who refused Mary and Joseph with “no room at the inn”.

We may complain that Christmas gets earlier and earlier every year, but even within the Church itself, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. In the Orthodox Church, the countdown begins in September! The Advent wreath, with its purple, rose and white candles, symbolises the Sundays until the big day. Advent calendars are a more recent invention and are extremely popular with children- especially if they contain chocolate.

Some of our Christmas traditions are an even older legacy from paganism. A midwinter festival was a sure way to lift the gloom of short days and long nights, and so, Christmas takes its cue from festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yule. The use of evergreen plants is one of the strongest remnants of pagan times.

The Celts had a soft spot for mistletoe, as did many other ancients. Seen as a symbol of fertility, it remains the source of one of Christmas’s best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) traditions. Technically, mistletoe should not be cut down until the following Christmas, as it protects the house against lightning. It is uncertain where the kissing tradition originates, but it is thought to be Norse. Technically, the man should pluck a berry per kiss. When all the berries go, the kissing stops. Who would have thought that the Vikings would be such spoilsports?

The Christmas tree is a German tradition, but we have Queen Victoria’s husband Albert to thank for introducing it to the English-speaking world. We also owe the existence of the Christmas card to the Victorians. The first card was created by John Callcott Horsley in 1843, and the idea spread like wildfire.

Apparently it is especially lucky to receive a card with the Three Wise Men on the front. In Ireland, those who have suffered a serious bereavement in the previous year do not send Christmas cards. I may have mentioned last month that a robin can be associated with death; it is, of course, a bird more traditionally associated with Christmas. We can thank the Victorians again for this, as in Victorian Britain, postmen wore distinctive red-jackets which led to the nickname ‘robin’. As people were busy trying out the new-fangled Christmas card thing, postmen were very busy at this time of year, hence the association with Yuletide.

Animals are well-rewarded for the help they gave Jesus in the stable. If you cock an ear on Christmas Eve, you might just hear your dog or cat talking. Old belief states that animals are granted the power of speech on this night, but it’s bad luck to eavesdrop. Perhaps Rover will be less than complimentary about his walks!

What would Christmas be without Santa Claus? His red robes are accredited to Coca Cola, but he is much older. Indeed in his original Dutch incarnation, Sinter Klaas, he wore red. The British figure of Father Christmas is actually separate from Santa Claus, who is a remnant of the Anglo-Saxon god Woden. However, Santa’s cuddly figure, red robes and reindeer are now beloved by children the world over.  Santa’s not the only game in town, though. Children in Italy for example receive their presents from a kindly witch, La Befana, on the Epiphany.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year and wherever you’re enjoying it, I wish you a merry and peaceful season.


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