Loads of gifts, gorgeously-decorated trees, kissing your sweetheart under the mistletoe… it doesn’t matter if you’re in Canada or Kerala, traditions like these never fail to usher in the Christmas spirit! We explore endearing Yuletide customs that have endured through centuries.
Words: Shantini Suntharajah Images: Inmagine
Wreaths are essentially an assortment of flowers, fruits, decorative baubles or other materials constructed into a ring. They were first designed in ancient Europe and popularly used as crowns by rulers and royalty. The Christmas Wreath or Advent Wreath is a 16th century Lutheran adaptation that symbolises the ‘coming of Christ’. Traditionally, Christmas wreaths are made from evergreens to represent the everlasting life that Jesus brought to his followers while the circular shape signifies God, with no beginning and no end.
The Nativity Scene
The Nativity Scene became a part of Christmas celebrations when St. Francis of Assisi first introduced it nearly 800 years ago. St. Francis’ main concern was that the true meaning of Christmas was becoming lost in the commercialism of gift giving. He resolved to shift the focus back to the deeper meaning of Christmas by depicting the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. St. Francis’ first nativity scene in Italy was a living one and included real animals and people who portrayed Joseph, the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and the Three Wise Men.
The 12 Days of Christmas
The 12 days of Christmas, which are also known as Christmastide or Twelvetide, refer to the dozen days beginning from December 25. These 12 days are generally recognised as festive days of Yuletide celebrations. Over hundreds of years, different churches and Christian sects have created their own timelines and traditions of the 12 Days of Christmas. For instance, Boxing Day, traditionally the day when employees and household staff receive their Christmas gifts, is celebrated on December 26 in the West and on December 27 in parts of the East such as the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Asia Minor.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the ubiquitous fir tree. German evangelist Martin Luther is said to have decorated the very first Christmas tree back in 1510 with candles as a way to recapture the beautiful sparkling stars amidst the evergreens. The tree might have remained a German custom if not for a fortuitous marriage between England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Germany. The Prince brought the German tradition of decorating fir trees to the United Kingdom in 1840 and the custom spread from there to other parts of the world. However, right up to the mid 1840s, people in America still considered celebrating Christmas with decorated fir trees a pagan practice.
Not all traditional Yuletide celebrations involve stuffed stockings and roast turkey. In Japan, Christmas means over-the-top decorations and an excuse to party while Christmas eve is about romance, much like Valentine’s Day in the West. Singapore is probably the only Asian destination that can possibly outshine Tokyo. The island nation literally lights up each December with thousands of twinkling lights adorning every possible space. In the Philippines, where Christmas is a major festival, the parol or lantern fixed to the end of a bamboo pole, is a favourite ornament. During the season, pretty parol processions are the norm and beautiful pastorellas or choir performances can be heard everywhere.
Ancient Druids believed that the mistletoe was a plant of many magical and mystical powers. It was also a symbol of sexuality. From these early beginnings, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe emerged, although the exact origin seems to be lost in time. Some say this Christmas tradition comes from Greek festivals and marriage ceremonies while others believe it started in Scandinavia where the mistletoe represents true love.
Having originated sometime during the 14th century in Britain, the original Christmas pudding was a porridge made of mutton, beef, currants, prunes, raisins and wine called frumenty. During the later part of the 16th century, eggs, breadcrumbs and dried fruits were added, creating a dessert that closely resembled the present-day pudding. During the mid 17th century, the pudding was banned by the Puritans who considered it a sinful dish, only to have it reinstated by King George 1 as part of a Christmas meal in 1714. There are many traditions and superstitions surrounding the Christmas Pudding, including the belief that placing a silver coin in the mixture will bestow the finder luck, a ring for a wedding in the family and a thimble for prosperity. The dish is also made with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and His disciples. It is also believed that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding mixture from east to west to honour the Three Wise Men and their journey.
The original songs celebrating the birth of Christ are said to have been first written in Latin during the 4th and 5th centuries but became part of the Christmas tradition only around the 13th century. The practice of going from house to house singing joyful songs of good tidings is linked to historical accounts from feudal times when the poor would literally sing for their supper. Other accounts say that the poor had to sing at the homes of the well-heeled, as they were disallowed to perform in churches. The concept of ‘wassailing’ is said to have originated from the practice of being offered a drink of wassail – a thick, spicy and hot beverage, not dissimilar to the present-day eggnog, that kept the chill at bay when the travelling well-wishers went from door to door singing songs of good tidings.
The Jolly Man in Red
Santa Claus was originally not a jolly, portly man dressed in red but a much-loved monk who lived centuries ago in an area that is now present-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was loved for his extremely generous nature and became known as a protector of children. The name Santa Claus developed from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname – Sinter Klaas. The now-familiar image of a Santa Claus who flies on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and showering gifts to children comes from the imagination of Clement Clarke Moore, an American biblical professor who wrote a Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, which later became famous as Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Christmas tends to coexist with commercialism through the tradition of gift-giving but the origin of this ritual could not be less superficial. The roots of giving gifts goes all the way back to the time when the Three Wise Men journeyed from East to West to welcome baby Jesus with gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. Exchanging presents at Christmas is meant to remind Christians of this significant event, as well as the gift of love.
Today, the roast turkey may take pride of place on Christmas tables everywhere but this wasn’t always the case. Before the turkey, the most popular Christmas birds were goose and chicken. In fact, even peacocks and swans ended up in the kitchen during the festive season, although it was usually only the wealthy who could afford these beautiful birds. The turkey made its grand entrance as a yummy Yuletide dish around the 15th or 16th centuries when it was introduced into Europe from America. It quickly became more popular than previous birds of choice because it was inexpensive, quick to fatten and able to feed large numbers of guests.