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Christmas – origins of its traditions

Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is observed every year on December 25 by most Christians all over the world. The name Christmas stems from the words „Christes Masse” which is the medieval way of saying the Mass of Christ. These ceremonies got considered by the Christian church in the 5th century. But the day of December 25 was already being celebrated because it was the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and this new celebration started in order to give new meaning to the pagan holiday. The Roman holiday was named after the birth of the SUN and this pagan anniversary was used as the date of Christmas as no precise knowledge of the day of Christ’s birth was available. Also, the Roman feast of Saturnalia provided many cheerful customs for Christmas like gift-giving, feasting and burning of candles.


And what about the Christmas tree? Long before Christianity, European pagan tribes used evergreen trees and boughs during their ceremonies and festivals. Later, fir tree was used in particular to symbolize the evergreen age of the Christ Child.

The Saxons made use of ivy and holly and the Celtic tradition was to bring mistletoe from the forests as means of decoration. This plant was hung up all doors and all pretty girls who walked under it would often get kissed. This was such an old custom that no one is really sure how and when it began. The Britons though thought that mistletoe had powers to protect them from evil. That is why they were wearing a sprig as a charm or hang it in a doorway for good luck in the coming year.


In Germany the Christmas tree has been a tradition since the Middle Ages.


According to an ancient legend a saint called St. Boniface while travelling one December through a forest met a group of people who were having some kind of pagan religious ceremony. St. Boniface was horrified that a small boy was going to be offered as a human sacrifice to one of their pagan gods. The boy was just about to be put to fire when St. Boniface rushed and snatched the little boy away. Then, picking up an axe, he chopped down a huge oak tree. As it fell to the ground a tiny young fir appeared out of the ground in the space where the mighty oak had stood. And then St Boniface said ”From now on this little tree will be a holy symbol. It’s the sign of everlasting life because its leaves are still green when everything else seemed dead around it. Moreover, it will always point upwards to heaven. From this day, this little tree shall be called the Christmas tree.”


However it is said that fir  had no particular meaning until the time of the leader of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther.

According to this legend, Luther was returning homes through a forest. He felt that stars twinkling above him were almost a part of the trees themselves. „It must have been a night like this” he thought, „when the angels of the Lord appeared to the shepherds on the Bethlehem Hillside”. Willing to share the beauty of this scene with his family he cut down a small fir tree, set it up in his home and fastened candles to its branches.


Another symbol of Christmas in our culture is St. Nicholas widely known as Santa Claus and the legends about St Nicholas are much more common. Let’s take a look at some of them. St. Nicholas was born at the end of the third century. He became known for his piety and generosity to the poor. One story tells how St.Nicholas provided dowries for the three daughters of an impoverished nobleman by throwing bags of gold through their windows and then begging secrecy when their father discovered the identity of the giver. The custom of the secret giving of gifts may be traceable to this incident.


Saint Nicholas was first adopted as their patron saint by children in Holland. On December 6, which is his saint day, children were told that St. Nicholas had come to their home the preceding evening, riding a white horse and dressed in his bishop’s robe to inquire about the behaviour during the past year. If the report was satisfactory he returned the next day to distribute presents to the delighted children.


The tradition of Saint Nicholas crossed the ocean and went to America with the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York), where he was first called Sinter Class. When the colony came under English rule his name was anglicized to Santa Claus.


Nowadays Santa Claus travels in sleigh pulled by famous eight reindeer, lives at the North Pole.


But what about his image? Who knows who invented the common look of Santa Claus? In the past he was depicted as a bishop usually wearing a yellow church robe and holding a crosier in his hand but now…..


The famous red robe of Santa Claus easily associates with the color of … yes, Coca Cola. We owe the current image of Santa Claus to Coca Cola which in one of the Christmas posters depicted him as an old man with long white beard wearing a red robe. Now we probably can’t imagine Christmas without the famous Coca Cola jingle, trucks and the Santa Claus with white beard and a red robe.. What a perfect marketing!


We are left now with one more absolutely necessary symbol of Christmas for us – Christmas carols and Christmas songs the Polish ones being probably the most beautiful of all. Christmas carols are very old songs which are sung in December and tell about the birth of Christ – but not all have a religious motif. Some were just like stories about kindness and were created long before many ordinary people could read or write so it is not surprising that the songs are like stories. The music is very beautiful and easy to remember and singing songs in front of houses at Christmas time is a very old tradition. And before or after Christmas there are a lot of special concerts in churches, concert halls and now especially we may enjoy them on the radio.

Wishing you all Merry Christmas