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The word Christmas comes from the old English "Cristes maesse" meaning Christ's
Mass. The Holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The actual birthday of
Jesus is not known; therefore, the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed
the day around the old Roman Saturnalia festival (17 - 21 December), a
traditional pagan festivity. The first mention of the birthday of Jesus is from
the year 354 AD. Gradually all Christian churches, except Armenians who
celebrate Christmas on January 6 (the date of the baptism of Jesus as well as
the day of the three Magi), accepted the date of December 25th.
In American/English tradition, Christmas Day itself is the day for opening gifts
brought by jolly old St. Nick. Many of our current American ideals about the
way Christmas ought to be, derive from the English Victorian Christmas, such as
that described in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
The caroling, the gifts, the feast, and the wishing of good cheer to all - these
ingredients came together to create that special Christmas atmosphere.
The custom of gift-giving on Christmas goes back to Roman festivals of
Saturnalia and Kalends. The very first gifts were simple items such as twigs
from a sacred grove as good luck emblems. Soon that escalated to food, small
items of jewelry, candles, and statues of gods. To the early Church, gift-
giving at this time was a pagan holdover and therefore severely frowned upon.
However, people would not part with it, and some justification was found in the
original gift giving of the Magi, and from figures such as St. Nicholas. By the
middle ages gift giving was accepted. Before then it was more common to
exchange gifts on New Year's Day or Twelfth Night.
Santa Claus is known by British children as Father Christmas. Father Christmas,
these days, is quite similar to the American Santa, but his direct ancestor is a
certain pagan spirit who regularly appeared in medieval mummer's plays. The
old-fashioned Father Christmas was depicted wearing long robes with sprigs of
holly in his long white hair. Children write letters to Father Christmas
detailing their requests, but instead of dropping them in the mailbox, the
letters are tossed into the fireplace. The draft carries the letters up the
chimney, and theoretically, Father Christmas reads the smoke. Gifts are opened
From the English we get a story to explain the custom of hanging stockings from
the mantelpiece. Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming
down the chimney. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been
lost if they hadn't landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry. Since
that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them
filled with gifts.
The custom of singing carols at Christmas is also of English origin. During the
middle ages, groups of serenaders called waits would travel around from house to
house singing ancient carols and spreading the holiday spirit. The word carol
means "song of you." Most of the popular old carols we sing today were written
in the nineteenth century.
The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition with
origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to lift
sagging winter spirits and remind the people that spring was not far away. The
custom of kissing under the mistletoe is descended from ancient Druid rites.
The decorating of Christmas trees, though primarily a German custom, has been
widely popular in England since 1841 when Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set
up in Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria, and their children.
The word wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon phrase "waes hael," which means
"good health." Originally, wassail was a beverage made of mulled ale, curdled
cream, roasted apples, nuts, eggs, and spices. It was served for the purpose of
enhancing the general merriment of the season. Like many of the ancient customs,
wassailing has a legend to explain its origin. It seems that a beautiful Saxon
maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting
him with the words Waes hael. Over the centuries a great deal of ceremony had
developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl is carried into a
room with great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink is sung, and
finally, the steaming hot beverage is served.
For many years in England, a roasted boar's head has been associated with
Holiday feasting. The custom probably goes back to the Norse practice of
sacrificing a boar at Yuletide in honor of the god Freyr. One story tells of a
student at Oxford's Queen College who was attacked
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