English Cristes maesse
(Christ's Mass), older still, Yule, from the Germanic root geol.
In some languages:
- English: Christmas,
- German: Weihnachten
- Finnish: Joulu
- Swedish: Jul
- Italian: Il
- Spanish: La
- French: Noël
The traditional Christmas is not
a single day but a prolonged period, normally from 24th December
to 6th January. This included the New Year, thus increasing the
festival value of Christmas.
From old Persian language, a priest
of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The Bible gives us the direction,
East and the legend states that the wise men were from Persia
(Iran) - Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar - thus being priests of Zarathustra
religion, the mages. Obviously the pilgrimage had some religious
significance for these men, otherwise they would not have taken
the trouble and risk of travelling so far. But what was it? An
astrological phenomenon, the Star? This is just about all we know
The practice of sending Christmas
greeting cards to friends was initiated by Sir Henry Cole in England.
The year was 1843 and the first card was designed by J.C.Horsley.
It was commercial - 1000 copies were sold in London. An English
artist, William Egley, produced a popular card in 1849. From the
beginning the themes have been as varied as the Christmas customs
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phenomenon which triggered the travel of the Magi to give presents
to child Jesus. Variously described as a supernova or a conjunction
of planets it supposedly happened around the year 7 BC - the most
probable true birth year of Christ. Star is often put to the top
of the Christmas tree.
The traditional date for the appearance
of Santa Claus, obviously from the birthdate of Jesus (the word
Christmas is from old English, meaning Christ's mass). This date
is near the shortest day of the year, from old times an important
agricultural and solar feasting period in Europe.
The actual birthday of Jesus is
not known and thus the early Church Fathers in the 4th century
fixed the day as was most convenient. The best fit seemed to be
around the old Roman Saturnalia festival (17 - 21 December), a
traditional pagan festivity with tumultuous and unruly celebrations.
Moreover, in 273 Emperor Aurelianus
had invented a new pagan religion, the cult of Sol Invictus (invincible
sun, the same as the Iranian god Mithra), the birthday of this
god being 25th December (natalis sol invicti). The Christian priests
obviously saw this choice as doubly meritorious: using the old
customary and popular feasting date but changing the rough pagan
ways into a more civilized commemoration.
The first mention of the birthday
of Jesus is from the year 354. Gradually all Christian churches,
except Armenians (celebrating 6th January which date is for others
the baptismal day of Jesus and the day of the three Magi), accepted
the day. In American/English tradition the Christmas Day itself
is the day for Santa, in German/Scandinavian tradition the Christmas
Eve is reserved for presents.
- Candles, fires:
Summer, warmth, paradise, end of darkness, Jewish Hanukkah
- Tree: Eternal
life, Paradise tree, pagan symbol
- Apples: Apple
- Santa Claus:
St Nicholas, pagan deity
- Gifts: Customary
(Romans, pagans everywhere), Magi
- Holly: Christ's
crown of thorns
- Gnomes: Pagan
- Straw: Stable
& crib, pagan, handy material for deco
- Sock: A prop
(as chimney etc)
Jesus was born in a stable in
Bethlehem. In Catholic countries this fact is brought to mind
with miniature replicas of the nativity scene. The manger, animals,
miniatures of Jesus, Joseph, Maria, the shepherds and the Three
Magi are part of this very popular symbol. It was started (says
the legend) by St Franciscus of Assisi. The Pope has his own in
Rome but nowadays the custom is followed in Protestant countries,
Sacred to ancient druids and a
symbol of eternal life the same way as Christmas tree. The Romans
valued it as a symbol of peace and this lead eventually its acceptance
among Christmas props. Kissing under mistletoe was a Roman custom,
Anything goes nowadays. In old
times they were simple, wood, paper, straw and often very intricate.
Themes follow the general taste of each time but national traditions
can be discerned even now.
Some people have chosen to show their Christmas pride with an
extravagant display of outdoor
There are many roots of this custom.
Today, many people shop on sites such as redenvelope.com to find gifts for their
There is St.Nicholas the anonymous benefactor, there is the tradition
of Magi giving precious gifts to Jesus, there is the Roman custom
of giving gifts of good luck to children during Saturnalia. The
day of gift giving varies greatly in different Christian cultures
- 6th December - in memory of
- 24th December - Christmas Eve
- 25th December - Birthday of
- 1st of January - the New year
- 6th of January - The Epiphany,
day of the Three Wise men, the Magi
The giver of the presents are
many: Jesus himself,
Old Father Christmas, Santa Claus, a Goat, Befana (the female
Santa in Italy), the three Magi, Christmas gnomes, various Saints,
the Kolyada (in Russia), the Joulupukki (in Finland).
The oldest Finnish tradition did not necessarily involve a giver
of the presents at all: an unseen person threw the gifts in from
the door and quickly disappeared.
The Catholic Church valued music
greatly and it is no wonder that the early Christmas songs date
from 4th century (the earliest known is Jesus
refulsit omnium by St.Hilary
of Poitiers). The Mediaeval Christmas music followed the Gregorian
tradition. In Renaissance Italy there emerged a lighter and more
joyous kind of Christmas songs, more like the true carols (from
the French word caroler, meaning to dance in a ring). These songs
continued to be religious and in Latin, though. In Protestant
countries the tradition, as everything Christmas-related, intensified.
Luther wrote and composed his
song "From Heaven above I come to You". Music by Handel
and Mendelssohn was adapted and used as Christmas carols. The
old Finnish/Swedish collection Piae Cantiones
was translated and published in English in mid - 19th century.
The most famous of all, Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht)
was written by the Austrian parish priest Joseph Mohr and composed
by Franz Gruber, church organist, in 1818. In 19th century and
later many popular songs were written by composers (e.g. Adam,
Sibelius). The themes of songs surpassed religion and the totality
of Christmas paraphernalia found its way to carol music.
Religious plays were part of the
Medieval Christian tradition and many of them were connected with
Christmas. The plays were often communal with pageants and general
participation. A popular theme was the coming of the Magi (the
Three Kings), because the plot allowed lots of pomp and decorative
props to please the audience. These plays live on in many places,
for instance in Finland in the form of the traditional Star Boys
Christmas means eating in most
parts of the Christian world. In old societies hunger was the
supreme king and eating was the highest contrast, the supreme
way to nirvana. Meat of some kind was the most important dish
(was this connected with the words of Jesus, "this is my
flesh"?), often pork, ham,goose, (later turkey), fish (carp,
salmon). An innumerable variety of cakes and pastries, often very
intricate and only baked for Christmas were and are known throughout
the world. Cakes could be hung from the Christmas tree, too.
The Northern Myth
How is it possible that in the
predominantly Mediterranean / Near East tradition of Christianity
something arises like Santa Claus of today? What force has generated
the dominance of North in the directional map of popular Christmas
tradition? Why not East as in the original traditions of St.Nicholas
and the Magi? I can only offer some educated guesses.
Christmas was originally in pagan
times the festival of End of Darkness, the shortest day of the
year, after which comes Spring and and then Summer . We say in
Finland "Talven selkä taittuu" meaning that the
back of Winter is broken. The more northern the country the more
pronounced is the contrast between winter and summer solstices.
The length of December day in Helsinki is about 5 hours, the longest
June day is 19 hours. The temperature in Winter might be -30 degrees
Celsius, the temperature in Summer +30. These extremes set the
span of the year in the North.
Thus,in minds of Northern men
Christmas is associated with Winter ways: snow, cold, darkness
illuminated by candles, sleighs drawn by horses, fur coats. Christmas
things are in contrast with summer things. If this applies to
the folk of the North the more it will interest Southern peoples
who do not have such pronounced climatic changes but who find
the traditions of Northern Christmas delightfully odd and alluring.
Furthermore, to preserve a myth one generally likes to place it
as far as possible from the everyday experience: in North Pole,
Lapland. I think that in Northern Europe in intensity of Christmas
feeling is greatest because of the contrasts of Midwinter. The
custom tends to accelerate towards greatest intensity. In this
case, the Northern Christmas, with its peculiar romance and idyll
In Finland and Sweden an old tradition
prevails, where the twelve days of Christmas are declared to be
time of civil peace by law. A person committing crimes during
this time wold be liable to more stiff sentence than normally
(this does not apply anymore). In Finland the declaration (text
from Middle Ages) is read by an official of the city of Turku
at noon in Christmas Eve. This tradition has been followed without
breaks for 500 years by now.
The history of the modern Christmas
tree goes back to 16th century Germany. In Alsace (Elsass) around
Strasbourg there was a widespread practice of bringing trees (evergreens,
not necessarily a fir-tree) into houses for decoration during
Christmastide. This practice may well derive from pagan times.
The evergreens were symbols of eternal life in ancient Egypt and
China and in Europe trees were worshipped in many places - the
ancient Finns used sacred groves instead of temples.
The modern custom is also connected
with the Paradise tree hung with apples, present in the medieval
religious plays. The decorations could symbolize the Christian
Hosts, too (a gruesome reminder of the human sacrifices they used
to hang from the branches of holy trees). Instead of trees, various
wooden pyramidal structures were also used. In 17th century the
Christmas tree spread through Germany and Scandinavia. Eventually
the tree was extensively decorated, first with candles and candies,
then with apples and confections, later with anything glittering
The success of Christmas tree
in Protestant countries was enhanced by the legend which attributed
the tradition to Martin Luther himself (in Catholic countries
the custom was unknown up to this century). In England the tradition
was popularized by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen
Victoria. The German immigrants brought the Christmas tree to
America in 17th century. Public outdoors Christmas trees with
electric candles were introduced in Finland in 1906, and in USA
(New York) in 1912.
Father Christmas needs helpers,
goes the rationale behind this, mainly Scandinavian tradition.
There are a number of gnomes (In Finnish tontut, in Swedish tomtar,
Nisse in Denmark and Norway), which help Father Christmas to manufacture
the presents and distribute them (We in Northern Europe just do
believe in industrial production).
The tale of gnomes goes back to
pagan times, when there was widespread belief in house gnomes
which supposedly guarded homes against any evil (evil was ubiquitous
in Viking times). These gnomes were mostly benevolent but they
could be nasty if they were not properly treated. They were clad
in grey with red caps. The cult of gnomes withstood the onslaught
of Christianity and was eventually linked with things Christian.
The oral traditions were fixed in writing in 19th century when
a succession of writers (Grimm Brothers, Thiele,Topelius, Rydberg)
and artists (Hansen, Nyström) created the true Christmas
Originally these apparitions were
active throughout the year but nowadays they are firmly entrenched
in the Christmas time, although in Finland the children are scared
by "tontut" who watch behind the windows and keep tally
of the good behaviour the year round. As with all Christmas customs,
local or global, the origins are forgotten and everything is intertwined
with the modern folklore, Disney (whose seven dwarves bear marked
resemblance to Christmas gnomes) and all...
tarandus) and flying ones. The biological
reindeer lives in arctic and subarctic regions (predominantly
in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia). The people tending reindeer
are the Lapps who, curiously enough, do not have any apparent
role in Santa Claus story. The cult of flying reindeers (eight
of them) was probably originated by Moore in early 19th century.
The biological reindeer is used
as meat and skin producing animal (the horn or poronsarvi
is desired by the Japanese for aphrodisiac). It used to be draft
animal (and can be - for tourists - such a one even today). The
reindeers are not wholly domesticated. The most part of the year
reindeers are free to roam and search for food . They are collected
for counting and slaughter in the so-called poroerotus (division of reindeers). This
is a truly exciting happening with thousands of animals, their
owners selling and buying and dragging the obstinate beasts. One
can see true Northern reindeerboys (if there exists such a term)
there with lassoes (suopunki).
In Finland straw was customarily
spread on the floor for Christmas day. This symbolized the stable
and manger where Jesus lay after being born. But it was also a
pagan custom to ensure the crop of next summer, known also in
Slavic countries. Thus here we see the Christian rationalizing
again when accepting the old and difficult-to-remove folk customs.
Many Christmas decorations were (and are) made from straw, too.
Most notably the so-called himmeli
(an intricate straw mobile hung from the ceiling) and straw goats
big and small. Straw sheafs were prepared for cattle and birds.
Ear, in county Savukoski, Lapland.
The height is about half a kilometer, so it is a big hill, really.
It has three summits and the Finnish-Russian border divides them.
The traditional dwelling place of the Finnish Father Christmas,
"Joulupukki". This region belongs to the reindeer country
proper, thus the place is lots better for Santa to live than the
North Pole (with no reindeers at all - its only stiff water there!).
Korvatunturi is situated within
the border region which is strictly off-limits for ordinary tourists
- maybe this has added to the myth and mystery of the place. Actually
this tradition is very young one. In 1927 the Finnish radio personality
Uncle Marcus invented the whole thing telling his young listeners
that Father Christmas lived in (on?) Korvatunturi and used the
ears of the mountain to listen to the wishes of children. This
stuck and the story goes that after the war, when Finland was
compelled to make concessions to Russia, they demanded the whole
mountain, but relented when they were told about the significance
of Korvatunturi for Finnish kids.
The name of Father Christmas in
Finland. Literally: Yule Buck. Old pagan traditions lived on in
Finland and never faded but got gradually a Christian flavor (elsewhere
in Europe, too). The shortest days of the year are in December
and pagan peoples used to have big festivities to ward of evil
spirits. In Finland these spirits of darkness wore goat skins
and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents
but demanded them, not to cause havoc. The Christmas Goat used
to frighten the kids and was in every way very loathsome.
It is unclear how exactly this
personality was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas
but nowadays the remaining feature is the name only. The process
was probably a continuous amalgamation of many old folk customs
and beliefs from varied sources. One can speak of a Christmas
pageant tradition consisting of many personages with roles partly
Christian, partly pagan: A white-bearded saint, the Devil, demons,
house gnomes, whatnot. Nowadays the Joulupukki of Finland resembles
the American Santa Claus.
The popular radio programs from
the year 1927 onwards probably had great influence in formatting
the concept with Santa-like costume, reindeers and Korvatunturi
(Mount Ear, near Polar Circle) as its dwelling place. Because
there really are reindeers in Finland (sadly, part of our agricultural
husbandry) and we are living up North, the popular American cult
took root in Finland very fast. Maybe the Joulupukki is a little
bit more fearsome than Santa Claus, though. Finland is one of
the few countries where kids customarily do see Father Christmas
in the act of delivering the presents (a hired Santa or Grandpa)
and probably the only one where the Saint asks the kids if they
did behave during the year.
The Dutch Sinterklaas delivers
the presents on the evening before his 'birthday', the 5th december.
He and his black servants come fully dressed in their exotic garments,
bringing candy and bags of presents. One of his items is a book,
in which it is written how the kids behaved during the last year!
"Are there any bad children here" is his standard question
when entering the room. Good behavior will get the kid presents,
but bad behavior will result in..... the black servants taking
him/her back to Spain (where Sinterklaas is assumed to come from)
in a bag!
In Finland it is customary to
place candles on the graves of dead relatives in Christmas. This
is partly Christian tradition (from Germany), partly a pagan one
- the Winter solstice was a time for the dead and their ghosts
which must be placated.