Christmas Traditions and Myths: Truth Behind Santa Claus, Christmas Trees and Much More...
Christmas is one of the most famous festivals in the whole world. It is celebrated on 25th of December every year to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. People put up stars, decorate their Christmas trees and give gifts to everyone. It is a very festive season with a lot of traditions. But how did these traditions come into existence?
Date of Christmas:
We all know that the day of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But was Jesus really born on the 25th of December? The fact is we really do not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. The date 25th of December was chosen by Pope Julius I to celebrate Christmas. There are a number of reasons as to why this date was chosen.
It was chosen to be nearest to the date of the pagan festival of Saturnalia in ancient Rome. Saturnalia was celebrated in honor of Saturn, the God of agriculture. This was a time for celebration and merriment. The church wanted to absorb the traditions of the Saturnalia festival into Christmas. This way the Church leaders thought that Christmas would become more popular and be celebrated by everyone.
Although this made Christmas more popular among the people, it did not give the Church the freedom to dictate on how the festival was celebrated, giving rise to the various traditions we have to date. It was celebrated at the time of year when food and drink were plentiful. Most cattle would be slaughtered so that they won't have to be fed during the winter. Most wine and beer was fermented and ready for drinking as well. This made Christmas the perfect time for celebration.
We earlier discussed why Christmas was celebrated in the mid of December. People wanted to celebrate life in the darkest days of winter as part of the Winter Solstice. They also decorated their houses with wreaths and garlands which were a symbol of eternal life. The Romans used Fir trees to decorate their temples and branches were also used to decorate homes.
The first documented use of a Christmas tree is argued between Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia. This was around the 15th century. Thomas Edison and his colleague Edward Johnson are said to have created the serial light bulbs which are used to decorate the Christmas tree in the year 1882. Right now we have a number of decorations and even the trees are made up of artificial substances like metal or plastic.
Whenever we think about Christmas, the first person who comes to mind is Santa Claus. Santa Claus is depicted as a portly, white-bearded old guy with a loud laugh and wearing a red coat with white fur and black leather boots. He carries a big bag of presents which he gives to children who have been well-behaved that year. He also travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer which can fly. He enters the house of children using chimneys during Christmas eve and places the present under their Christmas tree or stockings and leaves before anyone watches.
We have all heard the story of Santa and his band of elves in the North pole making presents and flying across the sky to deliver them before Christmas day. But is there any truth to this myth? Leaving aside the flying animals and elves the story of Santa did come from an actual person. Hundreds of years ago there was a monk named St.Nicholas who was born around 280 A.D. in Patara, a place situated around modern day Turkey. He was admired for his piety and kindness. He helped the poor and the sick by giving away the wealth he had inherited.
He is most famous for saving three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by their father paying their dowry so that they could get married. Over the years his popularity spread and he came to be known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated is celebrated on the day of his death on December 6th. In Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas was a kindly figure who traveled house to house to deliver presents in honor of St. Nicholas. In 1773 the name Sinterklaas was changed to Santa Claus.
Before children go to bed at night before Christmas, they put up their stockings at the fireplace and hope that they will be filled with presents from Santa the next morning. The stockings serve as kind of a holding place of presents. But how did this tradition come into place?
We earlier learned about St. Nicholas and how he saved three girls from slavery by giving them money. Nicholas, however, could not give the girls' father money directly like charity as he would not have accepted it. So while walking past their house he threw three bags of gold through an open window and they fell inside the stockings which were hung to dry. When they found the bags of gold the next morning the girls were overjoyed and got married.
The Star of Bethlehem or more commonly known as the Christmas star is a common decoration item used during Christmas to lighten up our house. This represents the star which guided the three wise men to the town of Bethlehem and is a powerful symbol for Christianity. So is there any truth to "The Star of Wonder" or is it just a myth?
King Herod's astrologers couldn't seem to have seen this star and yet the three wise men were guided by this star. The star also seemed to have moved in front to guide them and stop at stand over the town of Bethlehem which is also not quite possible for a star, a comet or even a planet. So was this yet another "Miracle" or was this scientifically possible?
The "Star in the East" refers to an old Greek phrase "en te anatole". It describes a planet which rises from the eastern horizon just before the sun disappears. This planet disappears briefly in the glare of the morning sky before reappearing again. The stars in the solar system do not move from their relative positions but the planets, sun and the moon move.
Since the planets and sun change positions relative to each other when the sun gets too close to a planet it disappears due to its glare. When the planet remains hidden for months under the glare of the sun and appears again it is called as a heliacal rising. The appearance of Jupiter, in particular, was supposed to signify the birth of someone important according to Greeks.
The word, "stood over" comes from the Greek word "epano" which refers to a particular moment in astrology when a planet stops moving and apparently changes direction. This event happens when the Sun during its cycle moves faster than the particular planet, in this case - Jupiter. This might have been the situation which unfolded during that fateful day and three wise men would have been expert astrologers to notice these events.
Christmas Truce of 1914:
He pleaded "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang."
We know how bloody and cruel war can be. And World War-I was the deadliest of wars during that period with the loss of millions of lives. People were shooting at each other and dying by the thousands daily in their trenches. There was no sign of an end to this war and no relief from the struggle. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested to the world leaders to have a temporary truce on Christmas day to celebrate and rest. He pleaded "that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang." But this was rejected.
Although there was no formal truce or cease-fire on Christmas eve there were many British and German troops on the front lines celebrating and singing carol songs. On the morning of Christmas, many German soldiers on the front lines jumped up from their trenches and approached the British front lines while calling out "Merry Christmas" in their enemies' native language. Although they were skeptical at first they soon realized that they were being genuine and rushed to shake hands.
Men exchanged cigarettes, cakes and sang carols together. There was even a documented case of a soccer game played between the opposing sides. Some of the men used this time to recover the dead bodies of their fallen men across no-man's land. This was the last known acts of chivalry and a reminder to the humanity that was still present in the men. When the day was over they had to go back to their trenches and shoot at the men they had shared their happiness with. There is no doubt that each person would have struggled to pull the trigger the following day.
Christmas is a time for celebration and merriment. No matter what sorrow or pain you are in, the festival just blows aways all your suffering. The joy of giving and receiving is the main theme for Christmas. There are many traditions that are followed around the world but no matter what changes, the core theme of Christmas always remains the same.
Sources and References:
- Christmas truce - Wikipedia
- Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?
The wise men were likely accomplished Greek astrologers, watching the stars for signs of a king’s birth. Technical terms used in the Bible’s description point to a real astronomical event.
- Santa Claus - Christmas - HISTORY.com
Find out more about the history of Santa Claus, including videos, interesting articles, pictures, historical features and more. Get all the facts on HISTORY.com
© 2017 Sudhir