Category Archives: Christmas
December 25, as we all know, is Jesus Christ’s birthday, a Christian celebration in which the myth of three kings who travelled far and wide to give gifts to the “new born king” inspires the modern Christian tradition of gift giving. Early gifts used to be fruits or nuts, but as this act took on more importance, gifts became larger and less modest, and were placed under a tree.
Midwinter has been a period of festivities for millenia, but Christmas as we know it today has its origins in Victorian Britain. It was in Victorian times that the idea of Christmas as a family holiday, with gift giving, a tree, and an intimate dinner became central to this celebration. Britons traditionally celebrate Christ’s birth with a religious mass. Hence the words “Christ” and “mass” coming together to form the word Christmas.
Charles Dickens defined the British Christmas with his story, A Christmas Carol, which linked Christian values with the idea of sharing and a “festive generosity of spirit”. His book helped popularise what was already occurring in Britain, and is credited with spreading the traditions of the festival. His book sold out in its first printing in 1843 and set the tone for the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas holiday by reflecting and reinforcing the Dickensian vision of Christmas.
An early English folkloric tradition associated with this holiday celebration is “Old Father Christmas”, who can first be found in the mid-17th century as a symbol of good cheer. In the early part of the 19th century, he was depicted as a skinny man who promoted drinking and partying during the holiday season. But by 1874, Father Christmas had evolved into a round jolly man wearing red and green fur lined robes and holly on his head.
This early version of Father Christmas was mostly associated with the adult celebration, but during the Victorian times with their new focus on the family, Father Christmas began to be linked to the idea of giving gifts. Images of Christmas were reproduced in popular culture through mass mediums of newspapers; magazines and theatre. These images visually defined Christmas and how it should be celebrated.
By the 20th century, mass advertising became commonplace. Consumer messages were now broadcast to the public through billboards, magazines, radio, and later the moving image of television. Mass advertising was what allowed the slowly developing idea of Christmas as a time to give gifts to go mainstream, and eventually, to define Christmas itself.
Businesses realised that Christmas could be a brilliant money spinner. Seasonal advertisements began to emphasise the act of “giving gifts” as a major part of Christmas time by having Father Christmas physically display branded products to a growing consumer market. The link between this Christmas icon and consumer goods was made very obvious in advertising, as illustrated in this ad from Newball & Mason to sell an assortment of alcoholic spirits. Advertising took the fable of Father Christmas and linked him with physical brands, turning myth into a reality, something that could be touched, smelled, and experienced.
In 1937 Coca Cola introduced the world to a simplified and more accessible version of Father Christmas dressed in Coca-Cola red, this time without the traditional cape. In their ads he was named Santa Claus, in accordance with American tradition. Santa Claus became a personification of the brand and gave the brown liquid a personality and a face, associating the drink with one of the happiest yearly western celebrations. Coke repeated the same message every December, and the name “Santa” slowly replaced “Father Christmas” in popular parlance in the UK too. This led to the red suited man becoming the icon most associated with Christmas.
In Britain, brands continued to express the idea reflected by Dickens that Christmas was a time to celebrate and unite the family. Queen Victoria and Albert celebrated with a Christmas tree, and slowly the concept of putting presents under a decorated tree took hold. In the 20th century the idea of Father Christmas bringing presents and leaving them under the tree became popular, thereby linking the concept of Santa delivering presents with the joy of sharing.
One 1965 ad selling tape recorders, for example, shows a white British family opening presents on a Christmas morning recording a child playing on his new drum. This image attempts to convince the consumer that they can demonstrate “love” through the act of giving gifts, an idea that still has real traction today.
Modern Christmas advertising has moved on again in order to reflect our multicultural and ever more secular societies. In the latest Selfridges television ad, “A Christmas for Modern Times”, a multiracial group of friends are shown celebrating “future fantasy” of Christmas. This “chosen family” share gifts, food and drink with one another, and then go dancing in a nightclub. The addition of going to a disco to continue the Christmas celebration reflects ever newer forms of cheer and highlights just how far the idea of Christmas is now removed from religion.
Thankfully, the white nuclear family casts are now, mostly, consigned to historical Christmas ads. The 2019 John Lewis ad “Excitable Edgar” and Ikea’s #WonderfulEveryday both feature multiracial casts celebrating Christmas together. These visual representations of Christmas signpost the holiday’s evolution from a white one to an inclusive one. Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday – but a time to be celebrated by everyone.
This is of course something we should be thankful for – but now that it has been replaced by a religion of conspicuous consumption, it’s big business which will be most pleased of all.
The idea of hanging up decorations in the middle of winter is older than Christmas itself. Decorations are mentioned in ancient descriptions of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which is thought to have originated in the 5th century BC.
Some 900 years later, a Christian bishop in Turkey wrote disapprovingly about members of his congregation who were drinking, feasting, dancing and “crowning their doors” with decorations in a pagan fashion at this time of year.
The 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great took a different line. The Venerable Bede, an English monk, records that English pagans had celebrated the start of their year at the winter solstice and called it “the night of the mothers”.
Gregory recommended that these celebrations should be reinvented rather than banned. So the construction of green boughs and natural adornments was instead focused on churches – using plants that have retained their festive significance to this day.
Nature, of course, has a role to play. In countries like the UK, midwinter greenery is limited. The leaves that are available – holly, ivy and mistletoe – became obvious choices for decorations. Mistletoe had long been revered by druids, while holly and ivy were celebrated in English songs at least from the 15th century.
King Henry VIII composed one which begins: “Green groweth the holly, So doth the ivy, Though winter blasts blow never so high, Green groweth the holly.” (I have modernised the spelling, but it was never very catchy.)
Greenery was cheap and perhaps for that reason is not mentioned in descriptions of domestic decorations from medieval Europe. Aristocratic households preferred to display their wealth by bringing out their best tapestries, jewels and gold platters.
Wax candles were another form of conspicuous consumption, as well as a nod to religious significance. But descriptions of Christmas festivities well into the 17th century focus on the decoration of the person rather than the house. Strange costumes, masks, role-reversing clothes and face-painting are all repeatedly mentioned.
Early emphasis on domestic decorations does appear in a Christmas song by the English poet and farmer Thomas Tusser, written in 1558. It opens: “Get ivy and hull [holly] woman, deck up thine house.” Clearly, the decoration of family homes was considered to be work for women – and this too has become a persistent tradition.
In the following century, Christmas celebrations became a matter of heated argument between reformers and traditionalists, with the reformers attacking what they saw as pagan revelries.
Creating modern traditions
It was the Industrial Revolution which came much closer to destroying Christmas than the puritans managed, by taking away traditional holidays in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Social reformers responded by energetically reinventing traditions.
The emphasis remained heavily on female responsibility for decorations, however. The British magazine, The Lady, asserted in 1896 that any hostess whose decorations were “meagre” was a disgrace to her family.
What then would be expected by this date? A middle-class woman might have been guided by the song which opens with the celebrated instruction to “Deck the hall[s] with boughs of holly”, published in 1862.
This song is itself a good example of the ongoing recreating of traditions throughout history. The new English lyrics were written to accompany a 16th-century Welsh melody, whose original words made no mention of holly or decorating. The 1862 lyrics were almost immediately updated to remove encouragement of heavy drinking.
Still relatively new in Britain and the US at this time, though rising in popularity, was the German custom of the decorated Christmas tree, which was first recorded in the Rhineland in the 16th century.
Its decorations were mainly candles and small presents, which were often homemade food and sweets. By 1896 the tree might be accompanied by a display of printed Christmas cards bearing images of holly, mistletoe, seasonal food and bells. Newer images included robins and, of course, Father Christmas. Another innovation was the arrival of electric lighting in the 1890s, which made possible the invention of fairy lights.
Arguably, the Industrial Revolution, having failed to destroy Christmas, eventually absorbed and expanded it. Affordable, mass-produced toys, gifts and decorations turned Christmas into the festival we know today and made decorations possible for almost all households, even in big cities where foliage was scarce.
One man who played a major part in creating and spreading affordable versions of decorations was the American entrepreneur and retail mogul, F W Woolworth. His decision to import large quantities of glass baubles and stars, originally produced by family workshops in Germany, did much to spread this new medium.
Alongside these came paper garlands and decorative Christmas stockings, as well as painted tin toys. Another idea which started in Germany was tinsel. This was originally fine, sparkling strips of silver, but was later mass produced – first in cheaper metals, and then plastic.
Today, of course, plastic is widely out of favour. As a result, perhaps we will see further reinvention of our Christmas decorations and traditions – which, from a historical perspective, is a tradition in itself.
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century CE bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century.
He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation
The naughty list
St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s CE, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home.
Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer
None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas.. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying.
The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears
A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So with Santa Claus once again coming to town, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
This story contains images of people who are deceased.
Aboriginal missions, which existed across Australia until the 1970s, are notorious for their austerity. Aboriginal people lived on meagre rations – flour, sugar, tea and tobacco – and later, token wages. At some missions, schoolgirls wore hessian sacks as clothes or skirts made from old bags.
Christmas, however, was a joyful time on them. Old people remember Christmas for food, gifts and carols. But the celebration had a sinister edge. For years, missionaries hoped the joy of Christmas would replace Aboriginal traditions. But Christmas actually became an opportunity for creative cross-cultural engagement, with Aboriginal people adopting its traditions and making them their own.
The food was a respite from the usual diet of damper, rice or stew. On the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, missionaries would shoot a bullock, and the old women remember feasting on beef and mangoes on the beach.
Missionaries used food to attract people to church. Christmas might be the only day of the year that it was distributed to everyone. Cake was a favourite. On Christmas Day at Gunbalanya in western Arnhem Land in 1940 the superintendent called it “the happiest we’ve experienced here. Ten huge cakes for Natives – no complaints – 106 at service” (suggesting that church attendance was linked to cake quantity).
For elders on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, turtle-egg cake was a highlight of Christmas in the 1940s. As Jabani Lalara recalled:
We used to have a lovely Christmas … In front of the church, that’s where they used to put the Christmas tree and that’s where we used to get a present. Especially like cake, used to make from turtle egg. I love that cake. True.
Gifts were another drawcard. On Christmas 1899, the Bloomfield River Mission in far-north Queesland was said to be “overflowing” because Aboriginal people “heard there would be a distribution of gifts”. These included prized items such as handkerchiefs, pipes and knives. At some missions, Santa (often the superintendent) distributed gifts.
However looking back, old people have mixed feelings about the gifts. As much as they loved them at the time, they discovered their treasures were only toys that white children had rejected. As one person told me:
We didn’t have much in them days, it was tough, but we were happy. We were happy with those secondhand toys at Christmas from the Salvation Army. We didn’t know they were secondhand toys at the time. I found out in my later years.
Missionaries and Aboriginal people alike loved carols; they were an opportunity for shared enjoyment. Tiwi women look back fondly on their time singing with nuns. Said one woman:
Sister Marie Alfonso, she used to play organ and all of us girls used to sing in Latin, but we still remember… Every Christmas [the old women] sing really good. They all can remember that Latin. It’s really nice.
There were also nativity plays, with Aboriginal children proudly performing for their communities. Said another:
When there was Christmas or even Easter Day there was a role-play… On Christmas Day I used to read. Three of them was the Wise Men and the other one was Mary and the other young boy was Jesus.
Behind the lightheartedness came an agenda. As one priest commented, Christmas was to be a “magnet” to draw people into missions. Ultimately, missionaries hoped the celebration of Jesus’s birth would prove more attractive than Aboriginal people’s own ceremonies.
For those who would not settle on missions, Christmas was used against them. At Yarrabah in Queensland the “unconverted heathens” were invited to join the festivities, but their exclusion was symbolised by them walking at the back of processions, sitting at the back of the church and being the last to be served their meal.
In missionaries’ eagerness to use Christmas to spread Christianity, they started to use Aboriginal languages (with Aboriginal co-translators). At Ngukurr in southern Arnhem Land and Gunbalanya, the first church services in Aboriginal languages were Christmas services (in 1921 and 1936).
Aboriginal people loved carols, so these were the first songs translated. On the 1947 release of the Pitjantjatjara Hymnal, Christmas carols were the most popular (The First Noel sung in parts being the favourite). On Groote Eylandt, translation began with Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas readings in the 1950s. At Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, the annual Christmas Drama was in Yolngu Matha from 1960.
Translation was meant to make missionary Christianity more attractive, but it opened the way for more profound cultural experimentation. Aboriginal people infused Christmas with their own traditions. On the Tiwi Islands, in 1962 there was a “Corrobboree Style” nativity on the mission told through traditional Tiwi dance. Dance traditions missionaries had previously called “pagan” were now used by Tiwi people to share the Christian celebration.
At Warruwi on the Goulburn Islands in western Arnhem Land, Maung people began “Christmas and Easter Ceremonies” from the 1960s, blending ceremonial styles with Western musical traditions as well as their own music and dance. At Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, “Church Lirrga” (“Liturgy Songs”) include Christmas music, sung in Marri Ngarr with didjeridu. The Church Lirrga share the melodies of other Marri Ngarr songs that tell of Dreamings on the Moyle River.
Many who embraced Christianity sought to express their spirituality without missionary control. At Milingimbi in the NT, Yolngu people developed a Christmas ceremony with clap sticks and dijeridu outside the mission and free of missionary interference.
At Ernabella Mission in South Australia in 1971, people began singing the Christmas story to ancient melodies, with the permission of their songmen. Senior Anangu women at Mimili, SA, later sang the Pitjantjatjara gospel to their witchetty grub tune, blending Christmas with their Dreamings and songlines.
Christmas was woven into community life. Just as introduced animals found their way into Aboriginal songs and stories, Christmas became part of the seasons and landscape, as Therese Bourke explained at Pirlangimpi on the Tiwi Islands:
They used to have donkeys [here] and the donkeys used to come round in December. And my mother’s mob used to say, “they’re coming around because it’s Christmas and Jesus rode on the back of one.”
The missions transformed into “communities” under a policy framework of self-determination in the 1970s, although missionaries themselves often remained active in the communities for decades. Meanwhile, many Aboriginal people have mixed memories of the missions – fondness for some aspects, anger at others – including Christmas.
But regardless of the missionaries, Christmas became an Aboriginal celebration in its own right. Some missionaries even came to appreciate Aboriginal ways of celebrating Christmas in line with their Dreamings. Though missionaries had wanted to replace Aboriginal spirituality with a “white Christmas”, it became a season of deeper meetings of cultures.
Singing and Christmas seem to go naturally together, like plum pudding and custard. Even those who would not normally attend a choir concert or church service throughout the year might happily participate in a civic Carols by Candlelight or a Midnight Mass. In these settings, the carols come thick and fast, and everyone joins in, almost involuntarily. But what is the origin of the choral music which adorns these settings?
The tradition of carol singing dates from the Middle Ages, and was not restricted to the Christmas season. There were carols for Easter, for New Year, and sometimes even for political events such as the Battle of Agincourt.
The poetic form was simple: a succession of stanzas with different texts, interspersed with a recurring refrain. In more recent times, the term “carol” has come to mean any song associated with Christmas.
Medieval carols from England and elsewhere have survived, though much transformed.
Good Christian Men, Rejoice dates from the 14th century, though only its text has been reliably attributed, to the Dominican friar Heinrich Seuse (Suso). The melody is known in Latin as In dulci jubilo (in sweet joy), and has been frequently used as the basis of extended instrumental or vocal compositions.
This song found its way into English through the 1853 publication Carols for Christmastide by J.M. Neale. This and other volumes of carols contributed materially to the Victorian era’s wholesale adoption of seasonal trimmings, along with royally sanctioned Christmas trees and greeting cards.
During the centuries between the first iteration of a carol tradition and the Dickensian revival of the Christmas spirit in the mid-1800s, there was comparatively little in the way of English composition of new works in this genre. A few pieces that are more appropriately termed Christmas hymns were, however, produced during the 18th century.
One of these is Adeste fideles or O Come, All Ye Faithful. Its authorship is disputed, but the most likely source is the 1751 volume Cantus diversi, published by John Francis Wade. Like most other Christmas carols, its text has clear Christian references.
Interestingly, it is also thought to contain covert Jacobite symbolism, with the phrases “all ye faithful” and “to Bethlehem” referring respectively to the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie and England itself. Wade fled to France after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, but his hymn soon came into regular use, particularly amongst English Catholics.
An indication of its wider adoption is the inclusion of O Come, All Ye Faithful within the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, a familiar modern day tradition inaugurated at Cornwall’s Truro Cathedral in 1880. In the age of mass media, this most renowned Christmas ceremony, as practised in King’s College Cambridge has become universally familiar, firstly on radio and then television. Choirs around the world also perform their own Lessons and Carols programs every December, and most often conclude with this piece.
The most famous Christmas carol of all time is undoubtedly Silent Night, Holy Night. The original words for Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816 and the melody two years later by Franz Xaver Gruber, when both were living in villages near Salzburg.
The German version was published soon afterward, and the familiar English translation in 1859, since when it has become known in nearly 150 languages. Due to its universality, Silent Night was in 2011 designated by UNESCO as an intangible item of cultural heritage.
With its stereotypical overlay of European winter costumes and snow-covered fir trees, the translation of Christmas traditions around the world is problematic. In Australia, there have been several attempts to develop parallel traditions of carols that eschew northern hemisphere references, in favour of local culture.
The best known are those composed by W.G. James, former federal controller of music for the ABC, to texts by John Wheeler. Outback images of drovers, summer heat, red dust and red-gold moon, dancing brolgas, mulga plains, Christmas bush, gully creeks and grazing sheep recur throughout these songs.
They were published in several sets, commencing in 1948. Despite several recordings by major ensembles, their familiarity and popularity has fluctuated greatly. However, two of James’ carols recently made it into a “top 10” list of Aussie Christmas songs by the Australian Times, whose target audience is expats living in the UK.
The tradition of singing Christmas carols is embedded in the season, even though the contexts where they are performed may differ widely from that where the words and music originated. We happily ignore the obvious disconnect between the imagery of some familiar carols and our hot Australian summers, and there is something reassuring about hearing and singing them once again, with feeling, every Christmastime.