All about Christmas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2006, 12:00am

Christmas is one of the best known holidays around the world, and one of the most unusual: it is celebrated as a secular and religious festival.

At its simplest level, Christmas is a time to relax, eat lots, and splurge on presents.

However, as this holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ - believed to be the incarnation of God by many Christians, and one of the Prophets by Muslims - it is also a very important religious celebration.

What makes Christmas really interesting is the rituals. Many of the ones we practise today have their roots in ancient European customs.

The reason for this lies in the date the holiday is celebrated: in the northern hemisphere, late December is marked by the winter solstice on December 21, the day with the shortest number of daylight hours in the year.

In the frozen lands of Scandinavia, this time of year was called Yule. It was a holiday associated with the Norse god Freyr, the god of sunshine and fertility.

Yule marked the death of winter, and celebrated the return of the sun. As Freyr was symbolised by a boar, Yule parties included huge banquets of roast pork, a tradition that survives today in the form of the Christmas ham.

The custom of setting up a Christmas tree also started in the cold north. Evergreen trees have needle-like leaves that stay green even in the harshest winter months, so they symbolised eternal life.

During the winter solstice, Scandinavian, German, and Celtic people decorated their homes with branches of conifer to bring good luck. They also brought in mistletoe, which was thought to have magical powers that could banish disease.

The idea of bringing a whole tree into the house and loading it with lights, sweets and ornaments became popular in the 19th century. But the tradition has some much older, very gruesome associations.

Many Scandinavians, Germans and Celts worshipped Odin or Woden, the Norse chief of the gods after whom Wednesday is named. His followers sacrificed people and animals, and hung their corpses from tree branches.

These rites were carried out before and after battles, to change bad luck into good luck, and to mark important occasions. These offerings were also made during Yule, possibly to ensure an auspicious year ahead.

Thankfully, the modern Santa Claus has a much more pleasant history.

Santa is based on the Dutch folk tale of Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, a 4th century bishop who was famous for helping the poor. Today, Sinterklaas turns up to reward all good Dutch children with masses of toys on his birthday on December 6.

The idea of the generous saint was brought over to the US about 200 years ago, but his birthday celebration was moved along a few weeks to coincide with Christmas.

Over time, the image of the thin, elderly saint changed to a jolly fat man in a red suit. As Santa became more commercial, he was given various additions, such as flying reindeer and

toy-making elves.

However you choose to celebrate the holiday this year - be it with a well deserved rest, a visit to church, or a party crammed with traditional fun for all the family - we wish you a Merry Christmas!


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All about Christmas

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