Christmas Eve Then and Now

A previous version of this blog was posted on December 24th, 2015.

Alan Partridge in a Pear Tree

For centuries, the Christian holiday of Christmas was celebrated as a season rather than a single day. Beginning at sunset on Christmas Eve and continuing through the Eve of the Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of parties, feasts, and gifts of milkmaids and birds.

Midnight Mass led by Pope Francis in Rome can now be watched online via traditional livestreaming services, as Catholics have done for centuries.

In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy), Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. To celebrate the end of the Advent Season and its vigilant fasting, families often share a large Christmas dinner after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark), the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.  

Tradition carried over from pagan days dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Burning a Yule log, kissing under mistletoe, and guarding the house from evil spirits with holly are all pagan customs that have become entwined with Christmas.

In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia), the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well.  In Norway, the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.  

In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.  

In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.

It is also common to go caroling on Christmas Eve. (Click here to read about the evolution of Christmas carols.) In the UK, if not caroling, perhaps wassailing or mumming.  

Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.  

They’re cute, but I reeeeally hope I don’t find one in my stocking!
Saint Nicholas, as depicted in an Orthodox icon

Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.  

Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.  

Tovlis Babua (Grandfather Snow) distributes gifts and spreads Christmas cheer in many areas of the Caucasus. He is shown here working together with Santa Claus to form an unstoppable force of merriment.

P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!  

Darwin’s Christmas series

Christmas Trees and Greenery Putting Christmas into Carols How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

I want to go to Santa School!

Why December 31?

Darwin's Christmas! December 31st

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

Currently, most people around the world begin New Year’s celebrations on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. But as with so much in the modern world, it wasn’t always so. Although people have celebrated the beginning of a new year for millennia, astrological or agricultural events typically marked the new year.

The earliest recorded celebration of the beginning of a new year was in ancient Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. For Babylonians, the new year began with the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a date falling in late March. It was a massive religious festival that required a different ritual every day for 11 days.

Dragon in Chinatown NYC Lunar New Year
By Patrick Kwan from New York City, USA
(Dragon in Chinatown NYC Lunar New Year) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Chinese new year was tied to the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Egypt the new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, coincident with the rising of the star Sirius.

For early Romans, each new year began with the vernal equinox. A year had 304 days divided into 10 months. Over time, the calendar year deviated significantly from the sun year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar consulted astronomers and mathematicians to solve the problem. He added 90 days to that year, adjusted the length of months, and declared January 1 as the first day of the year. January honors the Roman god of beginnings—Janus—who has two faces that look forward and back. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as new year’s day for Christians.

Janus-Vatican
Bust of Janus by Fubar Obfusco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vatican museum, Vatican City
We’re all familiar with New Year’s celebrations that involve eating special foods for good luck on New Year’s Eve and/or New Year’s Day: legumes, such as lentils or black-eyed peas, signaling financial success; pork, associated with prosperity; ring-shaped cakes and pastries, because the year has come full circle; sometimes cakes or puddings with something hidden inside, to bring especially good luck to the one who gets the nut or prize. Sometimes the number of courses (3, 5, 7, 9, or 12) are specified. In several Spanish-speaking countries, eating 12 grapes, accompanied by 12 wishes, as the clock strikes 12 is traditional. (In Portugal, it’s 12 raisins.)

Making a lot of noise—shooting guns, banging pots and pans, blaring car horns, playing loud music, setting off firecrackers—is supposed to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Partying with family and/or friends is common, as is fireworks displays or other ritual midnight activities.

In the U.S., the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, begun in 1907, is now watched by millions. Spin-offs involve publicly dropping items that represent an area’s culture, geography, or history: the Peach Drop in Atlanta, GA; Pickle Drops in Dillsburg, PA, and Mount Olive, NC; the Possum Drop in Tallapoosa, GA; Wylie the Walleye Fish Drop in Port Clinton, OH; the Bologna Drop in Lebanon, PA; a Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, IN; the Midnight Muskrat Dive in Princess Anne, MD; a Big Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI; a Pine Cone Drop in Flagstaff, AZ; a Grape Drop in Temecula Valley, CA; a Donut Drop in Hagerstown, MD; a Flip-flop Drop in Folly Beach, SC; a Wrench Drop in Mechanicsburg, PA; Beach Ball Drop in Panama City Beach, FL; the Music Note Drop in Nashville, TN; Chile Drop in Las Cruces, Mexico. Surely I’ve missed some! Please feel free to comment on your favorites.

Celebration in the ‘Big Apple’, SMP hosts trip to Times Square for New Year’s DVIDS511672
by Nichole A. Hall
(https://www.dvidshub.net/image/511672) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In England, the national icon is the tolling of Big Ben. Similar striking clocks or bells are widespread in Europe. In Albania, people watch a lot of comedy shows because one should enter the new year laughing and full of joy. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, playing the Czechoslovak national anthem at midnight honors the time they were one nation. In Turkey and Russia, New Year’s involves many of the traditions of Christmas in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, running across the street with luggage is to bring travel and new adventures in the year ahead. But in Venezuela, only those traveling in January pull a suitcase around the house. In Japan, people clean their homes and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, representing the mental states that lead people to take unwholesome actions.

In the Philippines, many wear new, bright, colorful clothes with circular patterns. In Brazil, wearing white on the beach to ring in the new year is supposed to bring good luck. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is traditional. Spanish tradition holds that wearing new red underwear brings good luck. In Venezuela, the underwear is yellow.

In Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with First-Footing (going to each other’s houses with gifts of whiskey and sometimes a lump of coal); Edinburgh hosts a 4 or 5 day festival, beginning on December 28th, including cannon fire and fireworks displays.

Edinburgh Hogmanay 2010 (4234793752)
By John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland (Edinburgh Hogmanay 2010)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

North and South Korea celebrate New Years twice, a Lunar New Year which varies, and a Solar New Year which is always January 1.

The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have been popular first among the ancient Babylonians.

And thus we come full circle—a fine New Year’s tradition!

Darwin’s Christmas series

Gift Giving Then and Now, Here and There

Gift Giving

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

The earliest gift-bringer I read about was Odin, a Pagan Germanic god who is thought to have influenced concepts of Father Christmas in numerous ways, including long white beard and riding through the night sky.

blue Santa Claus figurines related to Odin
Odin’s influence is seen in blue Santas

Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak and rode through the midwinter sky on an eight-footed horse named Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. According to pre-Christian Norse tradition, he entered through chimneys or fire holes on the solstice.

In 16th century England (during the reign of Henry VIII), Father Christmas was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He was associated more with good cheer, peace, joy, good food and wine, and revelry.

Father Christmas merged with St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas), which morphed into Santa Claus. Suffice it to say that most people around the world have a tradition of a Christmas gift-bringer: Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Christkind, the Wise Men, an old gift-giving witch called Befana (in Italy). In Scandinavia a jolly elf named Jultomten delivered gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. And in Russia, an elderly woman named Babouschka (grandmother) leaves gifts by children’s bedsides on January 5th.

figurines of Santas around the world
Representations of Santas around the world, L-R: Hungary, 1884; Austria, 1904; Russia, 1903; Canada, 1930; U.S.A., 1935; Mexico, 1923; U.S.A., 1925; Holland, 1920.

Presents are left in different places. In much of Europe, presents are left in shoes or boots put out by the children. In Italy, the UK, and the USA presents are left in stockings—and, of course, under the Christmas tree.

Presents are opened on different days as well. Children in Holland often receive the earliest presents, on December 5th for St. Nicholas’ Eve. On St. Nicholas’ Day (6th of December), children in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, and some other European countries open some of their presents. Christmas Day (25th of December) is the most popular gift day for the UK, USA, Japan, and many other countries. The last presents are opened on Epiphany, January 6th, especially in Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico.

gift-giving-santa-figurine-with-stack-of-gifts

Who gets presents has shifted dramatically over the centuries. Odin gave presents to “his people.” St. Nicholas gave to the poor. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in early modern Europe, gift giving also had roots in Christmas begging, when bands of young men, often rowdy, would wassail from house to house, demanding handouts from the gentry. It wasn’t till the mid-1800s that gift-giving shifted from the poorer classes to children.

On the other hand, giving gifts to heads of state, kings and queens, emperors, etc, pre-dates the birth of Jesus.

Today, it seems everybody gives gifts to everybody—an impression strongly supported by advertising and merchant specials! Christmas begging from charities is rampant. Salvation Army kettles (which first appeared in 1891) are on sidewalks all over the world.  Employers often give actual gift baskets or holiday bonuses. Co-workers, neighbors, and friends exchange gifts. Parents give gifts to children, but people also give gifts to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and step siblings, and second cousins twice removed.

wrapped gifts

By now, all the glittery wrappings are probably torn asunder, the gifts put away, exchanged, maybe saved for re-gifting, and the leavings look more like this.

gifts unwrapped

And I’m left wondering, how many Christmas presents are gifts and how many are perceived obligations.