A little bit of Christmas history.
The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days that began on Christmas Day (25 December).
This period is also known as Christmastide.
The Twelfth Day of Christmas is 5 January, with the celebrations of Christmas traditionally ending on Twelfth Night and is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. In some traditions the first day of Epiphany and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.
Over the centuries, differing churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame and their interpretations. St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day), for example, is 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. Boxing Day, the first weekday after Christmas, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations and was traditionally marked by the giving of Christmas boxes to service workers (such as postal workers and trades people) in the United Kingdom; 28 December is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents. Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Night, some only on Twelfth Night and some each of the twelve nights
Many in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (26 December) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly A Christmas Carol, hold key elements of the celebrations such as the consumption of plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail. While these foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in the UK, some dine and dance in the traditional way throughout, all the way to Twelfth Night.
Nowadays, the Twelfth Day is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it is held to be bad luck to take decorations down after this date. This is in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations were left up until Candlemas; this is still done in some other Western European countries such as Germany.
In 1647, the English parliament passed a law that made Christmas illegal. Festivities were banned by Puritan leader, Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting and revelry, on what was supposed to be a holy day, to be immoral.
A pagan tradition during the twelve day Christmas festival was to go “wassailing” in local pear and apple orchards. The term wassail means be whole or be in good health, and wassailers would pour cider, perry, honey, spices and pulp from baked apples around trees in the orchard in the hope that they might thrive and produce bumper crops.
In 1647, the English parliament passed a law that made Christmas illegal. Festivities were banned by Puritan leader, Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting and revelry, on what was supposed to be a holy day, to be immoral. As with most bans, the festival simply went underground. Clandestine church services were held on December 25th and violent clashes occurred in places like Canterbury and London between supporters and opponents of Christmas. Songs such as the Twelve Days of Christmas became radical protest anthems. The ban was lifted when the Puritans lost power.
Christmas was once a moveable feast celebrated at many different times during the year. Telesphorus, the second Bishop of Rome (125-136 AD) declared that public Church services should be held to celebrate “The Nativity of our Lord and Saviour.” In 320 AD, Pope Julius I and other religious leaders specified 25 December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. The choice of December 25, was made because this coincided with the pagan rituals of Winter Solstice, or Return of the Sun. The intent was to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one.
Mystic Nativity, Sandro Bottocelli 1500
The Mystical Nativity is a painting of circa 1500–1501 by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, in the National Gallery in London.
The ‘Mystic Nativity’ shows angels and men celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Mary kneels in adoration before her infant son, watched by the ox and the ass at the manger. Mary’s husband, Joseph, sleeps nearby. Shepherds and wise men have come to visit the new-born king. Angels in the heavens dance and sing hymns of praise. On earth they proclaim peace, joyfully embracing virtuous men while seven demons flee defeated to the underworld.
Botticelli’s picture has long been called the ‘Mystic Nativity’ because of its mysterious symbolism. It combines Christ’s birth as told in the New Testament with a vision of his Second Coming as promised in the Book of Revelation. The Second Coming – Christ’s return to earth – would herald the end of the world and the reconciliation of devout Christians with God.
The picture was painted a millennium and a half after the birth of Christ, when religious and political upheavals prompted prophetic warnings about the end of the world. ’The Mystic Nativity’ was probably painted as a private devotional work for a Florentine patron.
At the top of the painting twelve angels dressed in the colours of faith, hope and charity dance in a circle holding olive branches, and above them heaven opens in a great golden dome, while at the bottom of the painting three angels embrace three men, seeming to raise them up from the ground.
The angels carry olive branches, which two of them have presented to the men they embrace in the foreground. These men, as well as the presumed shepherds in their short hooded garments on the right and the long-gowned Magi on the left, are all crowned with olive, an emblem of peace. The scrolls wound about the branches in the foreground, combined with some of those held by the angels dancing in the sky, read: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men’ (Luke 2:14).
They hold scrolls which proclaim in Latin, “peace on earth to men of goodwill”.
As angels and men move ever closer, from right to left, to embrace, little devils scatter into holes in the ground. The scrolls held by the angels pointing to the crib once read: `Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ the words of John the Baptist presenting Christ (John 1:29). Above the stable roof the sky has opened to reveal the golden light of paradise. Golden crowns hang down from the dancing angels’ olive branches. Most of their scrolls celebrate Mary: ‘Mother of God’, ‘Bride of God’, ‘Sole Queen of the World’.
What do the 12 Days of Christmas mean?
The partridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ.
Two turtle doves: The Old and New Testaments.
Three French hens: Faith, hope and love.
Four calling birds: The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
Five golden rings: The first five books of the Old Testament.
Six geese a-laying: Six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming: The sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation,
Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
Eight maids a-milking: The eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing: The nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness,
Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self Control.
Ten lords a-leaping: The Ten Commandments.
The eleven pipers piping: The eleven faithful disciples.
The twelve drummers drumming: The twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.
Decorate your home with evergreens. Bake some apples. Hang a wreath of native holly from the front door. Get beyond the superficiality of what’s become a festival of commerce, and reclaim the old ways of celebrating the 12 day festival the Medievals called Christmastide.
In Europe, evergreen plants are actually quite limited in number. Conifers such as yew and fir are the mainstay because of their fine leaves, while others like holly, box, and ivy had tough enough foliage to withstand heavy frosts and snow. Little wonder that in a mostly drab winterscape, people felt the need to bring a bit of greenery into the house. In fifteenth century London it was recorded that at Christmas, every house and parish church was “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green”.
Our Christmas tradition of adorning a conifer with baubles and other decorations dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Church would hang apples from a tree on Christmas eve, a date on the Medieval calendar known as “Adam and Eve Day”. The chosen tree was an evergreen, most likely a fir tree because it would hold its leaves throughout the European winter, symbolising life and renewal.
Mistletoe, a traditional Christmas symbol, was once revered by the early Britons. It was so sacred that it had to be cut with a golden sickle. Long before it was used as a “kiss encourager” during the Christmas season, mistletoe had long been considered to have magic powers by Celtic and Teutonic peoples. It was said to have the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility. Celts hung mistletoe in their homes in order to bring themselves good luck and ward off evil spirits.
Twelfth Night Customs
Today, some celebrants give gifts each of the Twelve Days, feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through to Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition. Some still celebrate Twelfth Night as the biggest night for parties and gift-giving and some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas) and let it burn some each of the twelve nights.
During the ancient 12-day Christmas celebration, the log burned was called the “Yule log.” Sometimes a piece of the Yule log would be kept to kindle the fire the following winter, to ensure that the good luck carried on from year to year. The Yule log custom was handed down from the Druids.
“Wassail” comes from the Old Norse “ves heill”–to be of good health. This evolved into the tradition of Christmas caroling and visiting neighbors on Christmas Eve and toasting neighbors to a long and healthy life.
Frankincense is a sweet smelling gum resin derived from certain Boswellia trees which, at the time of Christ, grew in Arabia, India, and Ethiopia. Tradition says that it was presented to the Christ Child by Balthasar, the black king from Ethiopia or Saba. The frankincense trade was at its height during the days of the Roman Empire. At that time this resin was considered as valuable as gems or precious metals. The Romans burned frankincense on their altars and at cremations.
Myrrh is an aromatic gum resin which oozes from gashes cut in the bark of a small desert tree known as Commifera Myrrha or the dindin tree. The myrrh hardens into tear-dropped shaped chunks and is then powdered or made into ointments or perfumes. This tree is about 5-15 feet tall and 1 foot in diameter. Legend says Caspar brought the gift of myrrh from Europe or Tarsus and placed it before the Christ Child. Myrrh was an extremely valuable commodity during biblical times and was imported from India and Arabia.
Jesus Christ, son of Mary, was born in a cave, not in a wooden stable. Caves were used to keep animals in because of the intense heat. A large church is now built over the cave, and people can go down inside the cave. The carpenters of Jesus’ day were really stone cutters. Wood was not used as widely as it is today. So whenever you see a Christmas nativity scene with a wooden stable — that’s the “American” version, not the Biblical one.
Christmas trees are known to have been popular in Germany as far back as the sixteenth century. In England, they became popular after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, who came from Germany, made a tree part of the celebrations at Windsor Castle. In the United States, the earliest known mention of a Christmas tree is in the diary of a German who settled in Pennsylvania.
Cultured Christmas trees must be shaped as they grow to produce fuller foliage. To slow the upward growth and to encourage branching, they are hand-clipped in each spring. Trees grown in the wild have sparser branches, and are known in the industry as “Charlie Brown” trees.
Originally, Christmas decorations were home-made paper flowers, or apples, biscuits, and sweets. The earliest decorations to be bought came from Nuremburg in Germany, a city famous for the manufacture of toys. Lauscha in Germany is famous for its glass ornaments. In 1880, America discovered Lauscha and F.W. Woolworth went there and bought a few glass Christmas tree ornaments. Within a day he had sold out so next year he bought more and within a week they, too, had sold. The year after that be bought 200,000 Lauscha ornaments. During the First World War supplies of ornaments from Lauscha ceased, so American manufacturers began to make their own ornaments, developing new techniques that allowed them to turn out as many ornaments in a minute as could be made in a whole day at Lauscha.
At lavish Christmas feasts in the Middle Ages, swans and peacocks were sometimes served “endored.” This meant the flesh was painted with saffron dissolved in melted butter. In addition to their painted flesh, endored birds were served wrapped in their own skin and feathers, which had been removed and set aside prior to roasting.
In Victorian England, turkeys were popular for Christmas dinners. Some of the birds were raised in Norfolk, and taken to market in London. To get them to London, the turkeys were supplied with boots made of sacking or leather. The turkeys were walked to market. The boots protected their feet from the frozen mud of the road. Boots were not used for geese: instead, their feet were protected with a covering of tar.
It is a British Christmas tradition that a wish made while mixing the Christmas pudding will come true only if the ingredients are stirred in a clockwise direction
Eating mince pies at Christmas dates back to the 16th century in Britain. It is still believed that to eat a mince pie on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas will bring 12 happy months in the year to follow.
Candy canes began as straight white sticks of sugar candy used to decorated the Christmas trees. A choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral decided have the ends bent to depict a shepherd’s crook and he would pass them out to the children to keep them quiet during the services. It wasn’t until about the 20th century that candy canes acquired their red stripes.
Frustrated at the lack of interest in his new toy invention, Charles Pajeau hired several midgets, dressed them in elf costumes, and had them play with “Tinker Toys” in a display window at a Chicago department store during the Christmas season in 1914. This publicity stunt made the construction toy an instant hit. A year later, over a million sets of Tinker Toys had been sold.
“Hot cockles” was a popular game at Christmas in medieval times. It was a game in which the other players took turns striking the blindfolded player, who had to guess the name of the person delivering each blow. “Hot cockles” was still a Christmas pastime until the Victorian era.
Historians have traced some of the current traditions surrounding Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, back to ancient Celtic roots. Father Christmas’s elves are the modernization of the “Nature folk” of the Pagan religions; his reindeer are associated with the “Horned God,” which was one of the Pagan deities.
In France, Christmas is called Noel. This is derived from the French phrase “les bonnes nouvelles,” which means literally “the good news” and refers to the gospel.
In Finland and Sweden an old tradition prevails, where the twelve days of Christmas are declared to be time of civil peace by law. It used to be that a person committing crimes during this time would be liable to a stiffer sentence than normal.
In Greek legend, malicious creatures called Kallikantzaroi (also spelled Kallikantzari) sometimes play troublesome pranks at Christmas time. According to the legend, to get rid of them, you should burn either salt or an old shoe. Apparently the stench of the burning shoe (or salt) drives off the Kallikantzaroi. Other effective methods include hanging a pig’s jawbone by the door and keeping a large fire so they can’t sneak down the chimney.
In North America, children put stockings out at Christmas time. Their Dutch counterparts, however, use shoes. Dutch children set out shoes to receive gifts any time between mid-November and December 5, St. Nicholas’ birthday.
In Norway on Christmas Eve, visitors should know that after the family’s big dinner and the opening of presents, all the brooms in the house are hidden. The Norwegians long ago believed that witches and mischievous spirits came out on Christmas Eve and would steal their brooms for riding.
In Portugal, the traditional Christmas meal (consoada) is eaten in the early hours of Christmas Day. Burning in the hearth is the Yule log (fogueira da consoada). The ashes and charred remains of the Yule log are saved; later in the year, they are burned with pine cones during Portugal’s thunderstorm season. It is believed that no thunderbolt will strike where the Yule log smoke has traveled.
In southern France, some people burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. This stems from an ancient tradition in which farmers would use part of the log to ensure a plentiful harvest the following year.
In Sweden, a common Christmas decoration is the Julbock. Made from straw, it is a small figurine of a goat. A variety of straw decorations are a usual feature of Scandinavian Christmas festivities.
La Befana, a kindly witch, rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into the stockings of Italian children. The legends say that Befana was sweeping her floors when the three Wise Men stopped and asked her to come to see the Baby Jesus. “No,” she said, “I am too busy.” Later, she changed her mind but it was too late. So, to this day, she goes out on Christmas Eve searching for the Holy Child, leaving gifts for the “holy child” in each household.
Santa’s Reindeers are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.
Silent Night was written in 1818, by an Austrian priest Joseph Mohr. He was told the day before Christmas that the church organ was broken and would not be prepared in time for Christmas Eve. He was saddened by this and could not think of Christmas without music, so he wanted to write a carol that could be sung by choir to guitar music. He sat down and wrote three stanzas. Later that night the people in the little Austrian Church sang “Stille Nacht” for the first time.
St. Nicholas was bishop of the Turkish town of Myra in the early fourth century. It was the Dutch who first made him into a Christmas gift-giver, and Dutch settlers took him to America where his name eventually became the familiar Santa Claus.
Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas message to the nation was televised for the first time on December 25, 1957. The BBC continues to broadcast the event.