Bah! Humbug! Scrooge was right. That is what I often feel like saying when I walk into a shop and the aisles are full of Christmas decorations – in September. Christmas is not until 25th December but have we ever wondered how that date came about?
The Roman Emperor Aurelian, 270 to 275AD, instituted the Festival of the Unconquered Sun, (Dies Naturalis Solis Invictus), on the eighth day before the Calends of January, 25th December in the Julian calendar. The early church decided that the birth of Jesus should be commemorated nine months after the date set for the Annunciation which was also 25th December. Under Emperor Constantine, 306 to 337AD, the two festivals were assimilated. The winter solstice was also important in many pre-Christian European cultures such as Jul or Yule in Scandinavia.
When the Julian Calendar was superseded by the more accurate Gregorian version, 1752 in Britain, 25th December was retained but the Orthodox Church, still using the Julian, now celebrates Christmas on what we believe to be 7th January.
The Christmas Tree is a Germanic tradition popularised by Prince Albert, an evergreen said to represent eternal life with its origins in pagan tree worship. The earliest Christmas hymns or carols appeared in 4th Century Rome; some we know today like “Good King Wenceslas” have been traced back to the Middle Ages. The giving of gifts has a similarly ancient origin – common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, it also finds an echo in the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh borne by the Magi. Christmas cards are much more recent with the first being produced commercially in London in 1843, something which might explain the frequent theme of 19th century street scenes.
Difficult though it may now be to believe Christmas was actually banned in England by Oliver Cromwell in 1647 but the ban was quickly reversed by Charles II following the Restoration in 1660. We know from his Diaries how Samuel Pepys spent Christmas Day that year – First to church, then dined on mutton and chicken, then to church again where a dull sermon sent him to sleep! In 1843 the instant popularity of Chas. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” did much to set the scene for today’s holiday; family centred, with less emphasis on the church based observances of earlier times.
Synonymous also with the festive season is the ubiquitous figure of Father Christmas, alias Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas and Father Frost. Leaving the North Pole on Christmas Eve to deliver presents, we are now even able to watch online his progress in advance of the rising sun thanks to his sleigh being tracked by the US Air Force! I wonder what Dickens or Pepys would have made of that?
First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living December 2015