by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 1980, A.S. XV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
The following is a brief overview of the more prominent traditions of the Christmas season and their origins. Some have been left out, such as Santa Claus, as they are of more recent vintage. Others were omitted because of the diversity of the topic. These deficiencies notwithstanding, I hope this little discourse enhances your appreciation of this most joyous season.
The feast of the Christ Mass has its origins in the pagan rituals of the winter solstice. Many of the traditions of Christmas are carryovers from these earlier celebrations, absorbed and adapted by a growing Catholic Church.
The actual date of Christ’s birth is lost to obscurity, although scholars believe the year was 4 BC. St. John Chrysostom writes in 386 that a survey of churches came up with dates such as March 29, April 20, May 02 and September 29, as well as the Traditional December 25 or January 6.
The first celebration of Christmas took place in Rome about 350. As a result, the Roman holiday of Saturnalia set much of the pattern for the festivities. Saturnalia itself is the merger of two earlier holidays: Brumalia and Juvenalia. The festival by common usage lasted seven days, from the 17th to the 24th of December. It was quickly followed by the Calends of January, celebrating the New Year. The season was characterized by processions, singing, giving gifts and general joy and mirth. During the period, social rank was ignored or reversed, the source of the Medieval Feast of Fools and the Lords of Misrule.
The next strong influence came from Persia in the religion of Mithraism. Although older the Christianity, it was just beginning to spread through the Roman Empire. Many of its practices were similar to or were borrowed by the Christians and, for a while, it was the official religion of Rome. It enters here as its god Mithras, a sun god, was presumed to be born on December 25.
After triumphing over Mithraism and becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity began spreading through missionary work in the Germanic lands of the north. And from these lands came several new traditions to the Christmas season.
One was the Yule Log. Originating with the Druids, the Yule Log is probably the most explicit symbol of the basic theme of the season: the victory of light over the encroaching darkness. The brand made from the previous Yule Log, representing the old, dying fire, was used to light the new Yule Log, to represent the coming of light from a renewed fire.
Another Druid tradition that was adapted was the use of mistletoe. A semi-parasitic shrub, usually found on oak trees, it was the sacred plant of the Druids and their rite of the winter solstice centered on it. Kissing under the mistletoe is thought by some to be a remnant of an ancient marriage rite; others connect it to the Scandinavian myth of the death of Balder. It should be noted that the church never sanctioned its use in any religious decorations.
With the Middle Ages came the Nativity scene as it is now known. While there are earlier references, it was first popularized by St. Frances of Assisi in 1223. As related by St. Bonaventure, to inspire the people with religious fervor, St. Francis set up a “Praesepe” in the village of Greccio, near Assisi. Stage with live animals, St. Francis conducted the service, sung the gospel and gave the sermon. The night was said to be lit as bright as day. Giotto was to later paint the scene.
During the medieval period and lasting until the Industrial Revolution, the holiday season did not end on Christmas day. Instead, it lasted 12 more days, ending with the Feast of Epiphany. The church used these days to commemorate various saints and martyrs, but the days are really a holdover form the days of the Saturnalia.
The first of these days was given to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This is the Feast of Stephen that is referred to in the carol of King Wenceslaus. An unusual custom practiced on this day was the hunting of the wren. The wren was considered the king of birds and sacred and could not be killed except on this day. Later the robin was exchanged for the wren.
The second day is for St. John the Apostle, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The third day is the Feast of Childermas, commemorating the massacre of the Innocents by King Herod. The feast dates to the fifth century. The fourth day commemorates yet another martyrdom, that of St. Thomas a Becket, killed in 1170 during Christmas. The fourth day was also the traditional day of the Feast of Fools.
The sixth day is New Year’s Eve, with the seventh being, of course, New Year’s Day. The eleventh day, the Eve of Epiphany, is the time of wassailing. Wassailing was originally the drinking of toasts as a sort of offering to the pagan spirits, but later was turned into a sacramental act of fertilizing and blessing fruit trees, particularly apple trees.
The twelfth day, Epiphany, celebrated the adoration of the Christ child by the Magi. There are also some Eastern churches which celebrate Christmas on this date, a few his baptism. Traditionally the Magi were three in number with the name of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Other sources name 12 Magi and others give the names Galgalath, Magalath and Tharath.
Another tradition of Epiphany comes by way of Mithraism. At the feast of Mithras, the king was to come down off his throne and be among the people. To rule in his stead, a king was chosen by bean ballot, or lot. Later this was changed, and a bean and a pea were baked in a cake. Whoever got the piece of cake that contained the pea was the queen.
Hadfield, Miles and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1961.
Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. New York: A.T. De La Mare Company, 1954.
Sanson, William. A Book of Christmas. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.