I was recently asked to do a guest blog post (for Rambling Mamma) on anything I wanted related to Christmas. Here is my post…
Happy Holidays Everyone! It’s Mindy from Simplicity Redesigned. Terri AKA Rambling Mama was incredible and asked me to share a guest blog post for her readers about Christmas and our traditions. This was not an easy post to write. I am baring it all again to complete strangers. But if I tell my kids to be honest and to be proud of their decisions in life, then I must show them that I too walk the same path . So here is our story and traditions…
We are a blended family in all aspects. My Hubby and I were both married once before. I came into the relationship and marriage with one daughter from my previous marriage and two cats and he came into this relationship and marriage fresh out of the military after 10 1/2 years, with his computers, love of gaming and one cat. As we came together as a family(which was not easy), we also had to blend traditions and even create our own. Did I mention we were and still are of different religions and paths?
I am a Solitary Pagan (I do not belong to a coven or practice with other Pagans) and my Hubby was raised Christian but has since become Atheist (after the loss of our son). I chose to raise my oldest daughter Non-Denominational, something my Hubby and I decided to continue doing with our two youngest daughters as well. Now before you freak out, shake your head in disgust, pray for my childrens’ souls, write me off as a horrible mother, etc, PLEASE hear me out. We chose to do this after my daughter was told she was going to Hell on her first day of preschool by another preschooler for being excited about Halloween. She was 4 years old. She did not understand what Hell was. I realized that neither did that other child. When I went to speak to the teacher in the preschool I was told that both of us were in fact going to Hell. That was the last time she saw the inside of that preschool. When she entered Pre K a couple of weeks later, I was in awe as I listened to the children talking about religion. And they really do talk about it! They tell each other how their religion is the only religion. Disregarding anyone else’s religious choices or paths. It was one of many, many, many, light bulb moments I have had in my life. I decided that I would not raise my children with any one religion (including my own) but rather teach them about any and all religion they wanted to know about without prejudice and contempt, teaching them instead respect and tolerance for others view and religious paths. I have taken my children to speak with Priests, Rabbis, Ministers, etc. We have visited Churches, Synagogues, Temples, etc . We research online, read books, and watch documentaries about various religions as well. I want them to be free to choose whatever religion speaks to them when they are ready to understand what following that religion means.
We do celebrate Christmas. For us, it is not about the story of Christ’s birth, but more as a melting pot of religions, traditions, and our own childhood memories. We put up a tree and decorate the inside of our house and sometimes the outside of our house. We sing carols, light a yule log, make a big feast, and exchange presents. We visit with family and friends. We drive around and look at other people’s lights and holiday displays. We drink wassail and spiced drinks or hot cocoa.
Here is where some of our traditions started from…
Early Practices and Celebrations: Christmas is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. The history of Christmas is a story that actually predates the birth of Christ. Early Europeans marked the year’s longest night, the winter solstice. German Pagans honored Oden. The Norse in Scandinavia celebrated Yuletide. In Rome, people celebrated the Festival of Saturnalia from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24. By the fourth century, the church stepped in and decided that Christians needed to combine solstice celebrations with a version of their own celebration to help convert Pagans and Druids to Christianity. Church leaders selected Dec. 25 for the Feast of the Nativity. From the mid-fourth century on, Christians deliberately adapted and Christianized pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. From December 20 to December 23, depending on the year in the Gregorian calendar (AKA Western calendar and the Christian calendar), the shortest day of the year is also known as winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere due to the seasonal differences. Many people rejoiced during the winter solstice, when winter was half over and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight. Ancient people celebrated Yule, (pronounced EWE-elle) which is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half, the sun’s “rebirth” was celebrated. On this night, Pagans and Druids celebrated the rebirth of the Oak King, Sun King, the Giver of Life that warmed the frozen earth. From this day forward, the days would become longer.
Bonfires were lit in the fields. Men would bring home a log from their property, which they would set on fire. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. Animals were slaughtered so that families would have fresh meat and they would not have to worry about feeding the animals for the rest of winter. Also fermented beer and wines were usually ready to drink at this point adding to the festivities. Crops and trees were wassailed with toasts of spiced cider.
Festival of Saturnalia:
Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’ and was held on December 25th (when the Romans thought the Winter Solstice took place) and was the ‘birthday’ of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. In the pagan religion of Mithraism, the holy day was Sunday. In Rome, where winters were not as harsh as those in the far north. Saturnalia was a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a time when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, members of the upper classes often celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens. Christmas as December 25: The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (The first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.
There is much controversy over the actual date of December 25 being the date of Jesus’s birth. The bible offers few clues as to the actual date of Jesus’s birth. Some believe it to be sometime in December. Others believe it was actually in the spring. By the fourth century, however, there are references to two dates that were widely recognized and now celebrated as Jesus’ birthday, December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; most Christians, however, celebrate it on December 25. And January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas. So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, there is a record of people observing his birth in mid-winter. There are two theories about how these dates came about. One is the Christmas date(s) were borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. The other theory is that around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.
The Name Christmas:
The name Christmas came from the Latin “Christes Masse” of Christ’s Mass. This grew out of the Roman Catholic feast day called Christ’s Mass (also known as Feast of the Nativity) in Rome in the A.D. 336′. “Christmas” is not found in the Bible, nor is it a prescribed scriptural holy day.
Gifts at Christmas Through The Years:
Pagan children went from house to house with gifts of clove spiked oranges and apples (represented the sun) in baskets of evergreen and wheat stalks dusted with flour (evergreens represented the eternal aspect of the Divine because they did not die and the wheat stalks portrayed the harvest). Holly and ivy decorated both the inside and the outside of the homes to welcome Nature Spirits to join in the celebration. Mistletoe was also hung as decoration. It represented the seed of the Divine, and at Midwinter, the Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest it. Romans traded gifts during Saturnalia, and 13th century French nuns distributed presents to the poor on St. Nicholas’ Eve. Christians’ Christmas’s gift-giving tradition has its roots in the Three Kings’ offerings to the infant Jesus. The magi or Wise Men traveled to Bethlehem to present Christ gifts of Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. Gifts were meant to remind people of the magi’s offerings to Jesus and of God’s gift of Christ to humankind. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches and European countries still celebrate the traditional date of the Magi’s arrival as January 6 or Three Kings’ Day, with a Christmas-like gift exchange.
Carols: Carols were first sung in Europe, but these were not the Christmas Carols we know today. They were actually Pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. The word carol originally meant to dance to something. The word Carol now means to dance around with a song of praise and joy. Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived. When the early Christians began to convert the Pagan solstices to Christmas, they gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760AD, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols’. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand. St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, started Nativity plays. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin, but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in. The new Christmas carols began to spread all over Europe.
Centuries ago in Great Britain, Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits. Primitive Britons thought it possessed magical healing properties, while early Romans regarded mistletoe as a symbol of peace and goodwill.
There are several conflicting origins of who Santa Claus is. The Pagan and Druid’s God Odin (ruler of Asgard) bears the Old Norse names Jólnir, meaning “yule figure” and the name Langbarðr, meaning “long-beard”. A number of similarities exist between some of Odin’s escapades and those of the figure we now call Santa Claus. Odin was often depicted as leading a hunting party through the skies, during which he rode his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (which was traded for reindeer in North America). In the 13th-century Poetic Edda, Sleipnir is described as being able to leap great distances, which some scholars have compared to the legends of Santa’s reindeer. Odin was typically portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard — much like St. Nicholas himself. Margaret Baker, a biblical scholar, comments that “The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Gift bringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christ child became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”
Another legend is of a wealthy Monk, Bishop, or Christian named St Nicholas who was born in Patara (modern day Turkey) around 280 A.D. He was admired for his piety and kindness, often traveling the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known stories of St Nicholas is that he saved 3 poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father. He provided them with a dowry so that they could be married instead. In most European countries, St. Nicholas is still portrayed as a bearded bishop, wearing clerical robes. He became a patron saint of many groups, particularly children, the poor, and prostitutes. The final Santa Claus candidate is called Father Christmas. This legend dates back as far as 16th century England during the reign of King Henry VIII, when King Henry VIII was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He represented the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to December 25 to coincide with Christmas Day.
The Christmas Candy Cane originated in Germany about the 1760’s . They were originally straight white sugar sticks. It is said that they are shaped in a “J” for Jesus or the shape of a shepherds crook for the shepherds that visited baby Jesus at his birth. Sometime around 1900 the red stripes were added and they were flavored with peppermint or wintergreen.
Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico, who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828. There is an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettia’s and Christmas come together. There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita’, he said “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy.” Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’. The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent his purity.
Christmas Trees and Their Decorations:
The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God. Nobody is really sure when Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees. It is said that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Many early Christmas Trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains (hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks). They also used fir trees to represent the Tree of Paradise in mystery plays about Adam and Eve. They decorated the trees with apples and later with wafers to symbolize the host. Other early Christmas Trees, across many part of northern Europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants (or a branch of the plant) that were put into pots and brought inside, so they would hopefully flower at Christmas time. If you couldn’t afford a real plant, people made pyramids of woods and they were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes there were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home. The first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is in town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, in 1510. Not much is known about the tree except that it was attended by men wearing black hats and was burnt after a ceremony much like a Yule Log.
Garland and Tinsel:
Garland is a decorative wreath or cord that was hung round a person’s neck or the Christmas tree. Originally garlands were made of flowers or leaves. Tinsel was invented in Nuremburg, Bavaria, around 1610, and was originally made from strands of silver. Before the 16th century, tinsel was used for adorning sculptures rather than Christmas trees. It was added to Christmas trees to enhance the flickering of the candles on the tree. Tinsel was used to represent the starry sky over a Nativity scene.
Ornaments were originally apples, berries, strings of popcorn, white candy canes and pastries in the shapes of stars, hearts and flowers placed on the tree. Once the feast and celebration were over with, either children ate the ornaments off of the tree or it was given to the animals to eat. Star or Angel were placed on the very top of the Christmas trees to symbolize the significance of the angels who appeared high above Bethlehem to joyfully announce Jesus’ birth on the first Christmas. If they didn’t use an angel ornament as a tree topper, they usually used a star, to represent the bright star that appeared in the sky to guide people to Jesus’ birthplace.
The Christians used the Roman Pagan Festival of Saturnalia as the beginning of what we call Christmas dinner. Christians celebrated the coming of the true unconquered “Sun” (Yes it spelled SUN instead of SON). Eventually turning the Pagan Sun god Mithra celebration into the feast of Christmas, the celebration of the dawning on the world of the “Sun” of Righteousness. It celebrated the idea of Christ’s coming and manifesting Himself through several events of the New Testament of the Bible. It did not originally concentrate exclusively on the birth of the Lord, but celebrated several aspects of His manifestation: the birth in the cave, the adoration of the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan, and the first miracle at Cana in Galilee.
As you can see the holiday we call Christmas is actually a blend of traditions that over the years has become what we celebrate today. From my blended family to your family (whether it is blended or not) I would love to wish everyone a wonderful holiday and much joy in celebrating with your loved ones during this blessed holiday season. Have a Merry Christmas, Blessed Yule, and Happy Holidays all rolled into one!
What are your favorite holiday traditions?
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