We all know the ‘ingredients’ of Christmas; Christmas Day, the Crib, carols, Santa Claus, reindeer, Christmas trees, the list is endless. But where did they all come from? Christmas Day was first celebrated in Rome in 354 AD. The Roman feast of the god Saturn was in December and involved eating, drinking and much jollity. When Christianity became the official religion under the Roman Emperor Constantine, many aspects of the ‘Saturnalia’ were absorbed into the Feast of the Nativity.
Christmas was banned in these islands in 1652. The Puritan Parliament regarded it as heathen and condemned the Saturnalian origins of the celebrations. The Restoration, to everyone’s relief, ushered back Christmas with all the trimmings in 1660.
St Nicholas (Sinterklaas in the Netherlands) was a fourth century bishop of Myra in modern Turkey. He came from a rich family but regularly helped the poor anonymously. When Dutch settlers went to America in the eighteenth century, ‘Sinterklaas’ became ‘Santa Claus’. The familiar smiling avuncular figure in a red suit and black boots originated in a US Coca-Cola poster in 1931. Santa’s reindeers Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen first appeared in 1823 in ‘A visit from St Nicholas’. This American poem describes how Santa and his team trotted over roof tops distributing presents to deserving children. Rudolph, the famous reindeer with the red nose, appeared in 1939.
‘Silent Night’ was first performed in the village church of Oberndorf in Austria in 1818. It was scored for two voices and a guitar. Legend has it that the guitar was used because the church mice had rendered the organ unplayable. The Christmas Tree comes from Germany and was originally pagan. Prince Albert, consort and husband of Queen Victoria introduced it to Britain in 1840 as part of the Royal Family’s Christmas celebrations. The first Crib was created by St Francis of Assisi in 1224. Apart from ‘Silent Night’, it is the only element of our Christmas celebrations that directly relates to the miracle of the birth of Jesus. So however you wish to celebrate, there is no shortage of ways.