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Christmas in the Old and New Worlds

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Christmas has very deep roots in pagan traditions both Roman and Norse. However much of the Christmas known today was created in the USA during the 1800s based on German traditions.

The modern Christmas can seem very out of step with nostalgic views of Christmas past. However, ideas of Christmas have changed over time from the pagan winter solstice celebrations to a ban on Christmas in Puritan times to the commercial Christmas which started to develop in the USA in the 1870s. The Christian view on Christmas can see the 25th of December or the 6th of January the main feast day. Some Christian religions see no reference to Christmas in the Bible so do not celebrate it. In some places presents are given to children on the eve of the 6th of December, which is Saint Nicholas’ day. Other countries have the gift giver come on the 6th January coinciding with the gifts of the three wise men.

Image: Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.12
Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.12

The Christmas Tree

The earliest reports of decorated evergreen trees at Christmas time come from Latvia and Estonia in the 1400s. In the 1600s there are written reports of a tree decorated with lighted candles at Strasbourg which is now on the borders of German and France. Germanic people took to the idea of the "Tannenbaum," literally this translates as fir tree but also embraced the idea of Christmas Tree. German immigrants to America brought this idea with them. They are being noted as appearing in homes by 1832 and by 1850 are in American town squares. Soon it was forgotten that it was an immigrant import and was embraced as American icon. In Britain it was a German who made Christmas trees popular. Prince Albert is credited with making them the centrepiece of his Christmas with Queen Victoria. However, Victoria’s mother was German and she also had trees at Christmas. English periodicals had pictures of Albert and Victoria’s from 1845 onwards and it seems that this popularised the idea in Britain. Early decorations were homemade such as nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and hand fashioned trinkets. Soon decorations were manufactured and sold in shops and by street pedlars. By 1870 many were cheaply imported from Germany, the original homeland of this new Christmas.

Image: Christmas tree at the General Store on the American Street at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Christmas tree at the General Store on the American Street at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

The holly and the ivy

The holy and the ivy have deeper Christmas traditions in the British Isles than does the Christmas tree. These stretch back to pagan times before the birth of Christ. Roman, Norse and Celtic customs involved bringing evergreens in to the home. These were symbols of life, staying green all year round and fruiting in the middle of winter. Mistletoe was specially sought as it was a symbol of peace in Norse traditions but was also used in Celtic rituals and was associated with healing in Greek and Roman medicine. Certain parts of the country had restrictions about when the evergreens should be brought into the home, when they should be taken down and even how they should be disposed of. Many areas had the idea that they should only be brought in on Christmas Eve and not taken down until the Twelfth Night (6th January). Where in some places they should be burnt to ensure good luck, in other areas they should be left to wither.

Image: Door on the Ulster Street at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Door on the Ulster Street at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

The Yule Log

The Yule Log tradition is very much a Norse custom probably brought in by the Vikings. A selected log from the forest was decorated and brought to the home. It was set on fire on Christmas Eve and was supposed to burn until the Twelfth Night. The charred pieces left over were kept to help light the log next year.

Santa Claus

The modern image of Santa Claus was born in the 1850 in America by cartoonist Robert Nast. Santa Claus is, however, an amalgam of traditions stretching back to before Christ. The name is derived from the Saint Nicholas of Myra in Greece who lived 300 years after Christ. He was famed for his gifts, including dowries for three poor Christian sisters so that they did not have sell themselves. His saint’s day was on the 6th of December. In the Netherlands Sinterklaas gives out his presents the evening before the 6th dressed in the red robes of a bishop. This tradition was taken to New York (previously New Amsterdam) by Dutch immigrants. It is the American writer Washington Irvine who then writes about Santa Claus looking like a fat bellied old Dutch sailor smoking a pipe who brings gifts down the chimney. The imagery is taken further by Clement Moore's An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas. His poem gives Saint Nicholas a sleigh and eight reindeer. Thomas Nast then creates the iconic image of Santa Claus as a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly in 1863. The colourised version printed in 1881 with a red cloak is close to the modern version although the colour of the cloak varies greatly in early colourised images.

In central Europe the idea of Saint Nicholas as the gift giver changes to Christkindl (literally Christ child) in Martin Luther’s time in the 1500s and there the date of gift giving changes from the 6th to the 25th of December.

Britain has the figure of Father Christmas who personifies the ideas of feasting and merry making at Christmas. The idea is first mentioned in the 1400s but he is only named Father Christmas in the 1600s. The Puritans banned him, but the Royalists supported him and Father Christmas was brought back with the restoration of the monarchy. He only became a children’s gift giver in Victorian times when he was associated with Santa Claus.

Image: Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.331
Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.331

Reindeer

The names of Santa’s reindeer were created in the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas which is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The names are: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. The original idea of a skyborne gift giver is said by some to come from Norse tradition. Their chief Norse god Odin rides a horse called Sleipnir (which possesses 8 legs) through the sky on a wild hunt. He is also accompanied by two ravens Huginn and Muninn who could listen at chimneys and tell Odin about the good and bad behaviour of people. The idea supposedly becomes Christianised and Odin gives out gifts in mid-winter, however, Odin is associated with the wild hunt in the sky, riding his horse Sleipnir along with other supernatural creatures. Seeing such a hunt could prefigure a catastrophe or a death.

The ninth reindeer Rudolph appears at Christmas 1939 in a short story book. It then becomes immortalised in a song in 1949.

Irish Christmas 200 years ago

There is not a great deal of tradition associated with an Irish Christmas 200 years ago. Ordnance Survey notes from 1830 mention the giving out of food and clothing to the poor by rich landowners and Anglican clergy. People, even the poorest, would try to have better provisions put by for the Christmas meal. There does seems to be a tradition of a good cleaning of the home and the farmyard. It is described as such in the 1820s by William Charlton. He also talks of holly and ivy wreaths being hung up and dances being organised. Ideas about Christmas in Ireland would have been imported from England and lagged by several years.

Image: The Mellon at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
The Mellon at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

Early Christmas in America

Christmas was not embraced by early American society. Puritans in Boston made it illegal with a five shilling fine for its celebration from 1659 until 1683. It had already been banned by Puritans in England in 1647. Congress held a session on Christmas day 1789. Only 100 years later was it proclaimed a federal holiday. However southern states such as Virginia did celebrate the day in the 1700s with balls, parties and hunting. However, the Scots Irish in the Appalachians went about their ordinary business on that day much to the disappointment of a Presbyterian missionary, Philip Fithian. He complained that “Not a gun is heard--Not a shout--No company or cabal assembled--Today is like other days every way calm & temperate.”

Image: Log cabin at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Log cabin at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

Christmas Cards

Christmas cards seem to have evolved independently in America and England around the 1850s. Some of the first were distributed in America by a printer in New York. The idea really took off under Louis Prang in 1873 and by 1880 he was printing five million Christmas cards. By the late 1800s cheap cards from German flooded the American market. The sending of Christmas cards in England took off in the 1870s. The Post office reduced the cost for sending printed material in unsealed envelopes from one old penny to half an old penny. The same applied to postcards. The big increase in Christmas cards sent were thought to be a passing fad of the time.

Post used to be delivered on a Sunday and Christmas day. The Sunday post was stopped during World War One. The Post on Christmas Day continued until 1960. The postman had a hard time delivering so much mail during such short daylight hours on his bicycle.

Image: Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.10
Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.10

Mummer’s Plays

Mummers’ plays are performed in Ireland around Christmastime. Similar plays are also staged in England. The Irish plays conform to a set model. The Knight or Saint George fights the Turkey Champion, and after the hero dies, he is cured by Doctor. There may be appearances by Saint Patrick and Oliver Cromwell, as well as Beelzebub and Devil-Doubt. The play would be performed in the open air occasionally but more usually would be taken from house to house in a locality, the players would receive money and some hospitality.

There was a theory held by folklorists that these plays had origins in pre-Christian pagan ceremonies. The role of the quack doctor was held to be part of a fertility rite bringing the dead back to life echoing the transition from winter to spring. This has been debunked. The history of these plays only goes back a few hundred years. The lines were first published around 1750 in England. The Belfast Christmas Rhyme Book was printed in Belfast around 1803 with the lines of the Mummer’s play in it. There is no mention in the written records of these plays before then.

Mummers have a historical record going back to 1200; they are described as dressed in masks and associated with the aristocracy and being involved in games of dice. Such practises were found in Europe and involved going from house to house. As time went on it seems to have been practised by commoners as well as nobles. It also took the form of guising and was carried out at Halloween in Scotland. The practice usually involved begging for some money.

It is highly likely that the actual plays were based on the drama of Italian Commedians who first came to Britain in the 1600s. They seemed to fuse with the mumming tradition and became what we see today. The typical mumming play encountered in the North of Ireland has direct parallels in the North of England, around the Cotswolds. English settlers would have brought the idea to Ulster where it seems to have been embraced by the native Irish as well as the settlers. The tradition then was exported with Irish and British emigrants to parts of Canada and the USA. Philadelphia has a very large Mummer’s parade, here it seems to have taken on German and Swedish traditions along with the British ideas of mumming.

Mummers are also known as Christmas Rhymers or Straw Boys and in places as Wren Boys. The Wren Boy tradition is slightly different. Taking place on Saint Stephen’s day (Boxing day), it involved the hunting of a wren, taking it either dead or still alive around the countryside and saying rhymes and asking for money. The wren boys would also be made up in masks and straw suits.

Image: Mummer’s play performed at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Mummer’s play performed at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

Midnight Mass

Christmas Midnight Mass have been recorded in the early Christian Church since the year 380. It was special being one of the few occasions in the year where a priest could say three masses on the same day. William Charlton describes a Midnight Mass in his Tales and Traits of the Irish Peasantry. He tells how in the 1820s all Catholic families would go to such a Mass. He describes how the chapel was too small to hold all the people and most had to stand outside on the Chapel green. The scene was lit up by many blazing torches. The Midnight Mass is also known as a Vigil Mass. Nowadays the vigil usually takes place much earlier in the evening.

Image: Tullyallen Masshouse at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland
Tullyallen Masshouse at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland

The Date

The Bible does not give a time of year for the birth of Christ. However late December seems to have become established as the period that Christ’s birth is celebrated by the year 300 in the Western Church. This time coincides with older pagan celebrations such as the winter solstice and the Roman festival of Saturnalia. It was a date that was close to the Epiphany (visitation of the three wise men). In some areas and during some time periods the Epiphany is the main holiday. The Roman holiday of Saturnalia was a spell of carnival and involved lights and gift giving. It also allowed for a slave to be the equal of their masters over the holiday. The date was also close to the pagan Germanic festival of Yule which involved feasting and light.

Image: Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.131
Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.131

The Epiphany

The first Christmas presents were given by the wise men on the Epiphany. The gifts were frankincense, a perfume associated with the worship of God; gold, associated with Kings; and myrrh, a perfume which was used on dead bodies to fragrance them. Thus, a gift for a God, a king and a man. The early Church would have recognised the Epiphany as the main feast day.

The wise men are not named in the gospel, but later tradition has them as Melchior a Persian scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar; Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar. In many Spanish speaking countries, they perform the role of Santa Claus bringing children gifts on the 6th January.

Image: Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.126
Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.126

Gift Giving

The giving of gifts at Christmas dates back to the gospel and the story of the wise men. Only in the past 150 years has it become associated with the giving of toys or gifts to children. Presents would have been exchanged in the past between adults with a commercial connection, shopkeeper and customer or within a social circle to reinforce bonds of friendship. There would also have been charitable giving. The giving of toys to children would have increasingly occurred from the 1850s and would have reflected increasing levels of affluence. The practice would have come late to rural Ireland due to lower levels of economic growth.

Image: Scrapbook cover from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2014.17.144
Scrapbook cover from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2014.17.144

The Christmas Dinner

Turkeys are native to America and first appeared in Britain in the 1500s. King Henry VIII had turkey on his Christmas menu. However, it was Edward the VII in 1900 who started to popularise it as the Christmas dinner of choice. Even then it was only the rich who could afford it. It was only in the 1950s that the tradition of the Christmas turkey dinner became established. Goose would have been the usual choice before that. Other countries have different food traditions.

Image: Image of geese from the Green Collection © National Museums Northern Ireland HOYFM.WAG.1979
Image of geese from the Green Collection © National Museums Northern Ireland HOYFM.WAG.1979
Image: Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.270
Christmas Card from the collection at the Ulster American Folk Park © National Museums Northern Ireland OMAFP.2013.43.270