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For most it is a time to eat too much, drink too much and open the piles of prezzies that Father Christmas has left beneath the Christmas Tree. But actually, Father Christmas has only been around since the 1800’s and not even officially. In the West, we have only had Christmas trees since Queen Victoria was on the throne. So why is it the most important day in our calendar? Well, Handy Histories is here to help work it out – to help with those tricky questions!
Christmas Day is so often associated with the birth of Jesus Christ. Whilst we know that Jesus was a real person, the question of his birth is a different matter. The Church tended to place important Christian events in the middle of pagan festivals – Easter in the middle of the Vernal Equinox and Christmas in the middle of the Winter Solstice etc.
But, the Romans celebrated Christmas before anyone.
The Roman’s celebrated a festival called Saturnalia. This celebration was designed to change social roles and make things a bit more interesting – people from around the Roman Empire would descend on Rome to be with their families, big meals were served, where families would exchange gifts and songs would be sung… sound familiar?!
There was even a King of Saturnalia who would distribute gifts to the poor and “rule” for the main day.
Like today; people took time off over this early Christmas; the celebrations were usually a week or so long, courts were closed so laws were suspended and you couldn’t declare war during Saturnalia.
Christmas became more important as time went on. As the stories of Jesus and his followers became more established, December was more and more associated with him. The Church declared December 25th as Jesus’ birthday and celebrations built up around it.
This is a very basic overview of Christmas, and doesn’t look at the Religious aspect of Christmas.
The Ancient Egyptians used to bring in palm tree branches into their houses during important festivals. The history of the Christmas Tree is varied and far reaching – but we can safely say that the Egyptians didn’t celebrate the holiday Christmas although the brining in of trees and plants during religious festivals was common. The Germans are truly to thank for today’s Christmas Tree – German tribes often decorated pine trees on important religious festivals. Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, is often credited with bringing the Christmas Tree to England; but actually it was actually thanks to Queen Charlotte, who was married to George III; nearly 100 years earlier. These trees were usually decorated with glass balls and candles.
There has always been a personification of Christmas in our History. St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Children in several customs and it is believed that his devotion to children, led the belief in a kindly man distributing gifts to them. Generally speaking, Father Christmas is keen on giving gifts but against excess, so be careful with those presents parents! Father Christmas differs greatly in different cultures – for example, in Scandinavia, Tomte (a personification of Christmas) has been known to beat up naughty children… oh dear!
Oh, and as I was once a child: Parents; Father Christmas does exist! Never tell your children otherwise! As an uncle, if I stopped coming downstairs for my midnight tipple left out for FC I think I’d crack!
Jesus Christ – Historical philosopher and leader of a religious movement. Many religions consider him the son of God.
Saturnalia – Roman festival honouring the God Saturn. Slaves would dress as masters and it shared many similarities to today’s Christmas
Roman Empire – Territory stretching from Scotland to Syria which was ruled by the Roman Senate
Scandinavia – An area in Northern Europe.
Tomte – Gnome like people who distribute gifts at Christmas in Scandinavian culture
Father Christmas – Not just the bringer of toys at Christmas, but he displays what Christmas should be about: happiness, thoughtfulness, graciousness, jollity and selflessness. He is as real as I am!
Bah Humbug! – I thought I’d let you know that “Bah Humbug” is an exclamation of not believing in something. Humbug was a slang term in the 1700’s for nonsense so “Christmas; Bah Humbug!” means, “Christmas? Don’t talk nonsense!” This was made popular by Charles Dickens in his story 'A Christmas Carol' but was a common saying in the Navy.
The Handy Histories Team wish you all a very Merry Christmas.