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Looking at this question I see the tradition of Christmas presents, but where did the tradition of Christmas itself come from? Also, what's with the Christmas tree and Santa (or Kris Kringle)?
While Christmas has roots far in the past, many of our traditions in the English world were introduced by the Victorians. This was the period that moulded Christmas into important celebration is it today, deciding on the themes we recognise (charity, goodwill, gift giving etc), the traditions (many drawn from Germanic ones) and even the commercialism (cards, Christmas crackers etc) This BBC link should be useful.
As for the pre-Christian background: check out the wikipedia page for Christmas. "Modern Christmas customs include: gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; and Yule logs and various foods from Germanic feasts". Actually, read all of that section.
This Britannica article goes into some other detail. It also mentions Mithras.
(There is lots of info online, but I hesitate to link to non-wikipedia or encyclopaedia articles on such a touchy issue). This is decent where it provides references but has a massive agenda.
Bonus: If you think Christmas is mostly about the food (who can blame you) you'll find this answers everything.
Christmas was originally a pagan tradition in northern Europe where they were celebrating that the sun had started to rise again. Winters were difficult to survive in those days with no lights, bad clothing, worse housing and heating and sometimes not even enough food etc. So winter and its end was a much bigger deal back then than it is today.
Then when Christianity came to northern Europe it was adapted to the already existing traditions to ease the conversion, which included Christmas, or Jul as it was called.
Origin and Secrets of Christmas Elves
Elves are known to be tiny, dwarf-like creatures, either male or female, with pointed ears. They are youthful but immortal and have magical powers that can control what you see and experience. Their abodes are said to be underground, in forests, or in springs and wells, but no one really knows about it because they keep their location a secret! It is also believed that on the 6th of January the elves light up their torches and come down from their secret village in the mountain to play in a hidden field to celebrate the last day of Christmas.
But do you know who these elves are? Are they real creatures or just a myth? What is the story behind their origin? What is the secret behind them?
Elves have a fascinating history that is associated with Germanic paganism. Elves are originally seen to be the creation of Germanic paganism who thought them to be the creatures of light who lived in the heavens. Elves have been depicted as male or female, tiny or dwarf-like, youthful and immortal with magical powers. Later they were often referred to as living underground, in forests, springs and wells. Elves generally were magical beings who could control what people see as well as experience. Elves and fairies are also highly associated with the mushroom "Amanita Muscaria", also referred to as "magic mushrooms" not only in art but in Psychedelic experiences.
Centuries ago, in the pagan times, Scandinavian people believed that elves are house gnomes who guarded their homes against evil. If you were good, the elves were good to you, but if you were bad, the mischievous elves would play tricks on you. Although these gnomes mostly were benevolent, they could quickly turn nasty when not properly treated, so it is told. Some of the tricks they enjoyed playing were giving you nightmares by sitting on your head while you were dreaming, tangling your hair as you slept, making your milk turn sour, and stealing your sausages. Folks believed that if they left a bowl of porridge on the doorstep at night, the elves would be happy and not subject them to their ornery antics. Throughout the centuries, they were either loved or loathed. Some people even believed them to be trolls and cannibals. The perception of gnomes largely depended on whether a person was naughty, or nice.
By the mid-1800's the true purpose of the elves was revealed by the Scandinavians. Elves - already a tradition associated with story telling and magic, assumed a new significance in the mid-1800's and their true intention began to be held as nothing else but to help Father Christmas (Santa Claus). This was the handiwork of the popular Scandinavian writers of the day. At this time, elaborate Christmas festivals regained popularity and Scandinavian story writers such as Thile, Toplius, Rydberg sketched the elves' true role in modern life: fairies that are somewhat mischievous, but the true friends and helpers of Father Christmas. It is during this period when the elves began to be referred to as the "Christmas elves", or simply "elves", and not "house gnomes" anymore. Artists such as Hansen and Nystrm completed the picture of elves for us. It is now began to be held that the elves help Santa design and make the wonderful toys and gifts he brings to children. They were said to have other duties as well. Some elves take care of Santa's reindeer and keep his sleigh in good condition, ready to fly through the skies on Christmas Eve. Others help Santa keep his naughty and nice list in order, and some elves guard the secret location of Santa's village. Elves make sudden appearances in the days before Christmas, to keep an eye on each children and see which of them are behaving well and obeying their parents. They are believed to be Santa's secret agents and report their findings back to him. Children who are unkind and misbehave have their names added to the naughty list and may wake up Christmas morning to find their filled with lumps of coal or bundles of twigs!
The elves could be helpful now. Their mischievousness, however, was still evident in the variety of stories told about them. Tales suggested that how you were treated by the elves depended on whether the person was thought to be naughty or nice! Particularly in America, the diminutive, green with pointy ears type are depicted as Santa's helpers making toys in his workshop at the North Pole.
At one stage it was thought that the elves live in Father Christmas' (Santa's) village in North Pole. However, in 1925 it was discovered that there are no reindeer in the North Pole but there are lots in Lapland, Finland. Since reindeers draw the sleigh of Santa Claus, he must be living in an area, where there are large number of these animals available. Since then, it is believed that there is a secret village with a secret passage, somewhere in Lapland, where Santa, his wife and his team of elves live. Nobody has actually seen their village because the passage to it is a secret that is known only to Father Christmas and the elves. But people believe that it is somewhere on the Korvatunturi mountain in the Savukoski county of Lapland, Finland, which is on the Finnish-Russian border.
Some people that Santa employs six elves, while others think that he has nine elf assistants. Others think that there are as many as 13 elves living with Santa to help him. Elves are the children of Gryla and Leppaludi and are very clever. They help Santa to design toys and process requests of children that are sent to them through snail mail or emails. The popular Western names of the Christmas elves helping Santa Claus are:
1. Alabaster Snowball (Administrator of the Naughty & Nice list).
2. Bushy Evergreen (Inventor of the magic toy-making machine).
3. Pepper Minstix (Guardian of the secret of where Father Christmas's village is located).
4. Shinny Upatree (The oldest friend of Santa and the cofounder of the secret village in Lapland).
5. Sugarplum Mary (Head of the Sweat Treats, she is also known as Mary Christmas. She is an assistant to Mrs Claus and helps her in the kitchen).
6. Wunorse Openslae (Designer of Father Christmas's sleigh and responsible for its maintenance. He also looks after the reindeers and it is believed that his reindeers reach speeds faster than Christmas tree lights).
The ancient folklores of Iceland mention elves by the names of Askasleikir, Bjugnakraekir, Faldafeykir, Gattathefur, Giljagaur, Gluggagaegir, Ketkrokur, Kertasnikir, Pottasleikir, Skyrjarmur, Stekkjarstaur, Stufur and Thvorusleikir. Other names of Santa's elves that can be found are Baggalutur, Bjalmans barnid, Bjalminn sjalfur, Bitahaengir, Frodusleikir, Laekjaraegir, Raudur, Redda, Sledda, Steingrimur, Syrjusleikir, Tifill and Tutur.
According to some legends and post-Christian folklore especially in Europe, elves are mischievous pranksters who make special appearances during the lead up to Christmas. For example "Albtraum" is a German word for nightmare which also means "elf dream". Earlier the word meant "elf pressure" as it was believed that nightmares are a result of an elf sitting on the dreamer's head! Elves also were believed to braid people's hair while sleeping, make milk sour and run off with sausages. People of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway believed that a bowl of porridge left out would prevent elves from playing tricks on people especially during the festive season! Today, elves associated with Christmas are symbols to remind children to be good and not naughty!
Ancient Pagan Origin Of The Christmas Tree Tradition
In the ancient Egyptian tradition, many celebrations occurred around the time of the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The Egyptians believed that this was when the sun god, Ra returned in strength. The solstice symbolized a time of renewal and hope. To celebrate, the people filled their homes with evergreen boughs. They chose the evergreen trees because they maintained their color throughout the harsh winter months. Other people groups, including Roman and Celtic cultures, hung evergreens during the Winter Solstice in celebration, and to keep away evil spirits and illness.
One of the most well-known and religiously kept traditions of the Christmas season is the giving of gifts. But when did this practice start and what prompted it? Is it really something worth doing or is its background call for us to stop practicing it all together?
The most popular notion is that the tradition started as a commemoration of the three gifts that the Magi brought to the baby Jesus after He was born. December 25 being simply a commemoration (as Jesus was not born in December but most popularly speculated in August), this sounds like a plausible origin, but it isn't.
Gift-giving started long before Christmas was set as a day to remember Christ's birth. While Christmas became a tradition in the fourth century, gift-giving during holidays is of Roman origin. It was part of a celebration offered to the Roman god Saturn who was viewed to be the god of agriculture who gave vegetation and fruitfulness all year round.
The celebration lasted for seven days through the 17th to the 23rd of December. The gift giving ceremonies were seen as a way of gaining fortune for the next year. People initially gave simple gifts like candles, cheap wines, fruits, nuts and the like.
This celebration went on until the fourth century, which was also the time that Christmas started taking over as the highlight of the season. Many Christians have found it quite disturbing, given that the origins of the tradition are pagan in nature, and choose not to celebrate by giving gifts.
This has been an issue of concern for thousands of years. Paul once addressed it in a letter to the Romans. "Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. One person's faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables." (Romans 13:1-2)
As God has declared everything clean and lifted the command for the exclusion of practices between His people and others, we are given the liberty to celebrate things of pagan origins because Jesus has regained authority over all the world (Matthew 28:18).
But Paul does warn against the blatant practice of pagan traditions to the point of going back to its core meaning, which is not what we want to do.
On the topic of giving gifts on Christmas, for instance, or celebrating Christmas at all, no one has to refrain from the tradition if he or she doesn't want to as long as we celebrate it in the way Christ has regained it as a celebration. Christmas is a time to remember Jesus and to celebrate God-given family and relationships. It's not a time for fortune, selfishness and gluttony. What matters more than how we celebrate is what we celebrate. As long as we get that right, we're on the right track.
Origins of Christmas Eve
For centuries, Christmas was celebrated not as a single day, but as a whole season in parts of the world, beginning with this day, December 24 , Christmas Eve. Perhaps the practice of celebrating the evening before the big day is an echo from ancient Jewish reckoning. Among earlier Jews, a day began at six in the evening and ran until six the following evening. Had not Moses written: "An evening and a morning were the first day"?
Christmas means "Christ-mass." Although the date is a guess, the tradition of observing it goes back to at least the fourth century. Under the influence of the church, Christian traditions replaced pagan solstice festivals throughout Europe. Often the more innocent pagan practices (such as bringing in a Yule log, decorating with holly and the like) were carried over into the Christmas observance, transfigured with new meaning.
The History of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'
The song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is an English Christmas carol. From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the Church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember. To fit the number scheme, when you reach number 9, representing the Fruits of the Holy Ghost, the originator combined 6 to make 3, taking the 6 fruits that were similar: the fruit in each parenthesis is the that was not named separately. There are actually Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost.
The "True Love" one hears in the song is not a smitten boy or girlfriend but Jesus Christ, because truly Love was born on Christmas Day. The partridge in the pear tree also represents Him because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators.
According to Ann Ball in her book, HANDBOOK OF CATHOLIC SACRAMENTALS:
The two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments
The three French hens stood for faith, hope, and love.
The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The five golden rings rerepresented the first five books of the Old Testament, which describe man's fall into sin and the great love of God in sending a Savior.
The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit-----Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit-----Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].
The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful Apostles.
The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles' Creed.
The Legend of the Christmas Stocking
Christmas stockings made by a “Gentleman of German heritage,” 1950s.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
– A Visit From Saint Nicholas
As far back as 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore (or possibly Henry Livingston Jr.) wrote “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” stockings were hung near the fireplace, awaiting a visit from Santa Claus. At the end of the poem, St. Nick “fill’d all the stockings then turn’d with a jerk,/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”
Stockings have been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for centuries (except, briefly, in the mid-1800s, when the New York Times wrote that Christmas trees almost completely supplanted them as the tradition of choice).
“He filled all the stockings –” Dec. 25, 1950.
Christmas stocking ad from a 1918 catalog
The most popular legend about why stockings are hung at Christmas goes something like this: A recently widowed man and father of three girls was having a tough time making ends meet. Even though his daughters were beautiful, he worried that their impoverished status would make it impossible for them to marry.
Vintage Christmas stockings, date unknown.
St. Nicholas was wandering through the town where the man lived and heard villagers discussing that family’s plight. He wanted to help but knew the man would refuse any kind of charity directly. Instead, one night, he slid down the chimney of the family’s house and filled the girls’ recently laundered stockings, which happened to be drying by the fire, with gold coins. And then he disappeared.
Stockings made from McCall’s patterns, 1976.
The girls awoke in the morning, overjoyed upon discovering the bounty. Because of St. Nick’s generosity, the daughters were now eligible to wed and their father could rest easy that they wouldn’t fall into lonely despair. Whew! While obviously far-fetched, this tale of unknown origin and date is most widely referenced when it comes to the history of the Christmas stocking.
“’My father took this photo of me on Christmas Eve 1921, when I was 3,’ explains Doris Tonry of Elyria, Ohio.”
For some, the ritual has translated into hanging a nondescript sock (the bigger, the better, of course) pulled from Dad’s drawer.
For others, it has meant a personalized, decorated, maybe even handmade, foot-shaped bag hung year after year.
And sometimes, it means not hanging the stocking by a fireplace at all!
Hanging Christmas stockings from rifles. Camp Lee, Virginia, 1941.
Whichever stocking set-up you prefer, there’s one more related factoid that’ll impress guests during your holiday party. Oranges tend to wind up in Christmas stockings, right? Ever wonder why? Some say it’s from a time when fresh fruit was more difficult to come by and finding an orange in your stocking was a huge treat. But a different version of that beautiful-daughters-distraught-father legend swaps the gold coins left by St. Nick with three gold balls left in each stocking. Understandably, the solid gold balls tradition isn’t so easy to replicate that’s why their citrus look-alikes have found their way into stockings alongside tchotchkes and baubles, but hopefully not coal!
Dennison Manufacturing Co., Dealer’s Catalogue of Tags and Specialties, 1913-1914, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
Man, woman, child with baby sock, stocking, and trouser sock hung by the chimney in the background, 1940s.
If you celebrate Christmas, what’s your stocking of choice? A tube sock, a silk stocking, the traditional red and white variety, or something else completely?
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
About Emily Spivack
Emily Spivack creates and edits the sites Worn Stories and Sentimental Value. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
The Untold Story Behind A Charlie Brown Christmas
It's hard to remember a time when A Charlie Brown Christmas wasn't a part of the cultural fabric of this country, but just in time for our annual collective viewing of the classic underdog tale, Jennings Brown over at New York Magazine did a fascinating deep dive into the history of the holiday special.
According to Brown, the idea for the special came after producer Lee Mendelson tried and failed to make a documentary about Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Mendelson then came up with&mdashand sold&mdashthe idea for a holiday special before even talking to Schulz.
When he called Schulz to tell him the news, "Schulz said, 'What's that?'" he remembered. "And I said, 'It's something you're going to write tomorrow.'"
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Fir-Tree, Mendelson proposed the show focus around a Christmas tree, and a sad one at that. The rest, as they say, is history.
But throughout the production, television execs were hesitant, unsure of the jazz score, the untrained children actors, and the character's elevated vocabulary. Brown cites this quote from Charlie Brown as indicative of their concern: "Don't think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. Maybe carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchadnezzar."
In the end, executives let it run (after all, the TV guides had already been printed), but they "were certain it would flop, never to run again." Fortunately, Charlie Brown proved everyone wrong, bringing in both a huge audience and exceptional critical reviews.
Mendelson credits at least some of the program's success to the young actor who plays Linus. "That 10-year-old kid who recited that speech from the Bible was as good as any scene from Hamlet," he said.
"If we ever have to fight bullying, at so many levels, this is it."
And while the special has aired every December for the last 50 years&mdashPresident Obama even called it "one of our country's most beloved traditions"&mdashMendelson thinks the program will resonate perhaps more intensely year. "These people identify with Charlie Brown maybe more than ever after this election season. He keeps fighting back and keeps enduring," he said. "If we ever have to fight bullying, at so many levels, this is it."
"Hopefully," he said, "this positive program will be soothing at a time of uncertainty."
A Charlie Brown Christmas will run on ABC on December 1, but in the meantime, go ahead and give Christmas Time is Here a listen:
The History Behind Your Favorite Church Hymns
Across the world, millions of Christians sing hundreds of hymns in their church every Sunday. Singing is such an integral part of worship. The church has a massive collection of songs, but some stand out above the rest. Some classics have captured the attention of Christians for generations.
When we learn the stories behind our favorite hymns, they come to life in a new way. History adds context and meaning so that we can understand and relate to the hymns in a profound fashion. These stories will spark emotion and passion the next time you sing them.
This would not be a complete list without one of the most well-known hymns in the world. "Amazing Grace" was created by John Newton in 1779. The author of the hymn described himself as the "wretch" in the song. He was a slave trader, rebel, blasphemer, and all-around immoral man. He was as far from grace as anyone could ever be and lived a life full of hardship. God was able to get his attention after Newton's slave ship was nearly wrecked in a thunderstorm. As the vessel was taking on water and the crew was crying, Newton fell to his knees and started pleading for God's forgiveness. God's grace saved Newton. Newton became a pastor in Olney, England, where he wrote the song. Today, the song still inspires the world and is sung in churches everywhere.
"How Great Thou Art"
This song was written in 1885 by Carl Gustav Boberg, a 26-year-old pastor from Sweden. Boberg was said to have been caught in a thunderstorm after church one Sunday afternoon. From his place in the mountains, Boberg could see the storm rolling in and noticed the immense power and force it had. Once the storm passed, Boberg observed a beautiful big rainbow cover the valley, over the meadows and grain fields. It took his breath away. He wrote the song "O Store Gud," which was then translated into German, Russian, and English. A stanza in the song was picked up in 1949 by an English missionary named Stuart K. Hine and changed to what we know today. Millions now sing the song of Christians in dozens of languages across the world.
"What a Friend We Have in Jesus"
Joseph Scriven, a young Irishman, completed his college education in 1844. He returned home to marry his sweetheart. He came home to find his bride-to-be tragically lying dead after falling off her horse. Later on, Scriven moved to Canada and fell in love again. Unfortunately, for the second time, his bride-to-be hit a horrible fate. She became ill and died weeks before their marriage.
Scriven wrote a poem to his mother in Ireland to describe the tragedy he had faced. He spoke of how his deep friendship with Jesus, which he had cultivated through prayer, helped him get through the loss of his two loved ones. Instead of believing God was punishing him, Scriven thought God was his rock. The poem was published anonymously under the title "Pray Without Ceasing". Later in 1868, attorney Charles Converse set the text to music and changed the name to what we know it as today.
"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"
Isaac Watts devoted much of his life to writing, including essays, sermons, and hymns, despite his frail health. He is considered the father of English hymnody crafting songs like the Christmas carol "Joy to the World". As a teen, Watts was concerned with the crude lyrics that most English-speaking congregations used to praise God. Watts was challenged by his father to create something better, so he began to write hymns. At first, he wrote new versions of Bible verses in the book of Psalms. Then in 1707, Watts wrote, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," which reflected his personal feelings. This writing style was considered controversial at the time, but the song became so popular and had a significant impact on the church. Theologian Matthew Arnold came to call it the greatest hymn in the English language.
"Wherever He Leads, I'll Go"
Two friends, R.S. Jones and B.B. McKinney, were having lunch at an Alabama Sunday school conference in 1936. Jones had just returned from Brazil, where he was a missionary. Jones was heartbroken, because just days before he found out that health issues would keep him from returning to the country to do God's work. McKinney, a hymn writer, asked Jones what he was going to do. Jones replied, "Wherever He leads, I'll go". This statement was so powerful that McKinney penned the classic hymn that afternoon, and later that night performed it after Jones had preached in the church. Since then, the song has been such in many worship services. We might know where God will lead us, but we can trust He knows what He is doing.
The hymns we know and love have much deeper meanings behind them. Knowing the history of these songs makes them that much more meaningful each time we sing them. We can honor God's hand in creating these beautiful tunes.
Rise to Fame
In 1934, Joey Nash who performed with Richard Himber got a hold of Bernard's latest song, and it did not take long for before it made its recording debut on RCA Bluebird. The recording featured vocals by Nash who was accompanied by Himber and his Hotel Ritz Carlton Orchestra. December 1934 saw another release of Winter Wonderland, this time by the hugely popular Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, taking it to the top of the charts for the first time. A decade later, Perry Como landed yet another smash hit with his interpretation of the Christmas song, followed by a long list of favorite artists who did their own take, including Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra, Barry Manilow, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley to name just a few.