“Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you!”
Nursery rhyme and Christmas carol (frequently sung as a round)
Well Christmas with all the excitement and busyness is almost upon us. No doubt you are looking forward to many parties and celebrations culminating in a special time with your family and friends.
I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you some of the facts and fallacies surrounding Christmas as we now celebrate it.
Did you know?
- Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was the catalyst for the reinvention of St Nicholas into the jolly, fat image of Santa we now know?
- Also invented by Moore, Santa’s travels are invariably connected to reindeer. In the poem they are pictured charging through a winter sky complete with strong, elaborate horns. But in winter reindeer lose their horns so are Santa’s reindeer all female or are they castrated males?
- Moore omitted to tell us that St Nicholas was Turkish. He was real and was born in Patara, Turkey. He was an early Christian and in the 4th Century he became bishop of the district of Demre where some of his bones can still be visited. Little fact is known of him, only oral legends relating to his goodness and kindness to children.
- Another poem, this one by Frank Baum (who wrote The Wizard of Oz) told that Santa lived in a valley called Ho Ho Ho. American marketers quickly picked up on the poem and Ho Ho Ho became Santa brand’s catch cry.
- The song Jingle Bells never mentions Christmas and has no connection to Christmas. It was originally composed for America’s Thanksgiving festival in 1857.
- Nobody knows when Jesus was born or died. For many centuries people in the northern hemisphere celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day and the turning point in the long, often hard, cold winter. Some 300 years after Jesus’ (guessed at) death date, Pope Julius I announced that 25th December would be the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. As Christianity spread around the world, this date took over the existing festivities and became “Christmas”. The word Christmas didn’t come into being until 1032 AD.
- The bible doesn’t say that three kings visited the baby Jesus but refers to “Wise men from the east”. They may well have been astronomers (they did follow a star) or Zoroastrian priests and the fact that the three gifts, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh are mentioned is the possible basis for assuming there were three visitors.
- And the gifts they brought. Gold and Frankincense would be acceptable but in ancient times Myrrh was very expensive and used in embalming dead bodies and was burned at funerals to disguise the smell of bodies that hadn’t been embalmed. Why would it be brought to a newborn child?
- And everybody’s favourite – Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol”. There have been 14 versions of this story.
- Four Calling Birds in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Originally it was four colly birds, colly being the ancient word for black (as in collier and coal) so colly birds were black birds. As time went by colly fell out of use and didn’t make sense so people started saying four calling birds. This doesn’t make sense either.
- Decorated evergreen trees have been part of December celebrations in Europe for many centuries reminding everyone that spring is just around the corner. The decorated Christmas tree became accepted in the UK when Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the children were depicted in the “Illustrated London News” standing around a lavishly decorated Christmas tree.
- The use of X as in Xmas is not at all invalid or disrespectful. The word Christ was never part of Jesus’ name, it is a title assigned by later worshippers in Greek meaning ‘the anointed one’. In ancient Greece the letter chi was written with a symbol very like an X and the title assigned to Jesus was Xristos and was frequently abbreviated to just X. So writing Christmas as Xmas has been considered acceptable for some 1000 years. Note early publications were charged by the number of letters so using X in Xmas was encouraged.
- The wassail ritual was an ancient pre-Christian custom of drinking a toast to the sun after the northern mid-winter approximately 25 December and hopes for a bountiful harvest in the coming warmer months. Hence the song ‘Here we come a-wassailing’ was a gathering of friends drinking a toast. “Waes hael” in ancient English means “Be healthy” and the usual drink was a mixture of spices, apple juice and eggs. (Give me a G&T any time).
- Christmas was cancelled in England in the 1640s when Puritan law forbade churches to open on Christmas Day and banned home decorations, celebrations, carol singing and the creating of Nativity scenes. December 25 was declared a day of everyday work and fasting. The outraged populace made Christmas observances in secret until the Monarchy was restored in 1660 and King Charles II restored Christmas.
- And finally, a horse named Santa Claus won the Epsom Derby in 1964.
So there you have my list – as my son always says I have a fund of useless information. Enjoy it anyway.
“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”