How has Christmas been celebrated over the years?

Published: Monday 25th December 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Merry Christmas from everyone at HEY Today and KCOM! We’ve travelled back in time to find out how the festive period has been observed throughout history.

Most of us know the story of the Nativity. It has been annually retold across generations in schools, on TV and in films. But what if we told you that celebrations of Christmas date back to before Jesus was even born?

Yes, that’s right – well sort of. The middle of winter, commonly known as the winter solstice, has been honoured by many different cultures in a variety of ways around the world for thousands of years.

The Norse in Scandinavia observed Yule from the 21st December right through to January. This festival would recognise the return of the sun and the days getting longer. People would bring home large logs and feast whilst the fire burnt out. This could take up to twelve days, which is thought to be where the idea for the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from.

In Europe, December was also when a lot of cattle would be slaughtered. For many communities, this was the only time of the year when they would be able to enjoy fresh meat, plus a lot of the beers and wines would be finally fermented during these months.

This period was also a special time for the Romans. Saturnalia, a holiday in honour of the god of agriculture, was a full month of fun. Roman social order was turned on its head and, incredibly, slaves would become masters, peasants were in command, and businesses and schools would close so everyone could feast and drink.

The 25th of December was reserved for the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun. This is probably why we celebrate Jesus’s birthday on the same date. Up until the fourth century, Easter was actually the main Christian holiday and the birth of Christ was not commemorated at all. However, the church officials during this era decided to change this. It is commonly believed that the day was chosen so the practices of the pagan festivals would be adopted and absorbed by the Christian faith. By the medieval period this had worked, and Christian belief was more popular and widespread than pagan religions.

Unbelievably, in the early seventeenth century, Christmas was banned in England. It’s true – Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans that were in charge of the country from 1645 strived to go back to basics and rid the holiday of its decadence and indulgence. However, in 1666 the popular feast day was restored and people could once again be merry.

The nineteenth century is when many of our modern Christmas traditions and customs were first recorded. Charles Dickens penned the classic A Christmas Carol and pretty much defined the Victorian holiday with a strong message of the importance of goodwill towards all men. It was also the first time when families really got the chance to spend money and buy gifts for their children without appearing like they were spoiling them.

What do you get up to on Christmas Day? Do you have any long-standing family traditions? 

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Published: Monday 25th December 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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