Christmas, as we know it today

By Akrita Reyar | Last Updated: Dec 14, 2011, 11:40 AM IST

Akrita Reyar

From the ordained day somewhere in 5 BC, when a little baby boy was born from the womb of a virgin in a humble, secluded inn and was laid in a manger with only domesticated animals for company, Christmas has become one of the most loved and extensively celebrated festivals of the world.

Through his life, Jesus, the Christ was doubted and disowned by his own people. It was in his death through the crucifixion that he healed the world of scepticism. His resurrection planted, at least, in his own disciples a deep belief that the man they had been accompanying for years was indeed a messiah.

And so they went on foot, boat or donkey to travel around the world and proclaim to all the people the truth of the Christ and spread among them his teachings of love and sacrifice.

As followers of Christianity proliferated, so did festivities marking the ultimate gift from God to them – the coming on Earth of his own son. While in the initial years, there was much sacred solemnity in celebration, with the passing of time, it got infused with generous measures of merriment.

Let us look at the root and meaning of some traditions which have become synonymous with Xmas revelry:

Candy Sticks: These sweet-mints were created to decorate Xmas trees in the 17th century. During this period various sweets were tied to the branches of the tree. Shaped like a Shepherd’s stick, candy sticks were attractive and also easier to hang.

Carols: Though sung since Middle Ages, they gained popularity in mid 19th century. The Victorians were believed to have revived the tradition in 1880s when songs in praise of the Lord were sung in churches and at gates of houses. Carollers were rewarded with mince pies and warm drinks.

Christmas Tree: The Green Fir tree has its roots in the 16th century in Germany. This tree across most of Europe was used to symbolize the story of Adam and Eve which ended with the prophecy of the coming of Christ. It was later popularized by England’s Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, who was a German.

Colours: Red represents the blood of Christ, Green represents life and immortality, White the purity of Virgin Mary, Silver and Gold the blessings of God.

Drinking to Good Health: Wassail is derived from the Old English words ‘waes’ and ‘hael’ which mean “be hale” or alternatively “good health”.

Greeting Cards: Have their origin in England in the 19th Century when Sir Henry Cole commissioned an artist to create a card with seasons’ greetings written in it, as he had no time to write personal compliments. The first batch of the cards was sent out to his family and friends.

Gifts: Have been exchanged since the Roman period on New Year. But over the years, the tradition shifted a few days ahead to the Christmas day. Earlier, mostly only fruits, nuts and hand woven toys and garments were usually gifted.

Holly & Ivy: The use of these is considered a Druid tradition. Later it was believed that the Holly sprouted from the footprints of Christ, its pointed leaves and red berries represented the crown of thorns that he wore and his blood respectively. The Ivy was used to symbolize immortality.

Humble Pie: Contained the “humbles” or parts of deer left for the servants to consume after their main meat was served to the rich in Europe.

Manger: The modest manager is one of the foremost and most direct symbols of the celebrations to mark the advent Christ and the scene of Nativity.

Mince Pies: Mince meat in England was baked in elongated dishes meant to represent Jesus’ crib. The meat was prepared with a combination of cinnamons, cloves and nutmeg, the gifts presented to Jesus by the Three Kings.

Mistletoe: Was long considered a magical herb with healing powers, some 200 years before Christ was born. This was because the plant had no roots, yet managed to survive in extreme winter. While the Romans used it to make peace, the Scandinavians felt the Mistletoe was a representative of the Goddess of Love. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was historically popular also in England.

Santa Claus: The concept of the cheery round faced plump Santa started in the 4th Century to represent St Nicholas - a generous man who loved children and giving them presents and treats. He is also the patron saint of many countries.

Star: The shining star in the firmament of the holy night that had given the divination of the birth of Jesus and revealed to the Three Kings the location of the celestial child has since been one of the most prominent symbols of Christmas.

Stockings: Legend has it that a man who had squandered his wealth had three daughters to marry but not sufficient money for their dowry. St Nicholas is believed to have shoved some gold coins down the chimney of their home which incidentally fell into one of the daughter’s stockings which were hung up to dry. Since then children place a stocking near the chimneys in the hope of receiving gifts from Father Christmas, especially gold paper wrapped chocolate coins.

Turkey: The bird was brought to Europe from America in the early 16th Century. It became popular as a Christmas food as it was relatively inexpensive and fleshy.

Xmas: This alphabet ‘X’ of the term Xmas represents Christ. "Xristos" is the Greek word for Christ, thus the abbreviation.

Yule Log and Yuletide: The Scandinavians used to have festivity in deep winter, awaiting the appearance of Sun and the sprouting of life. They would light a Yule log and called the carnival Yuletide. The lines in the Yule log also symbolized the wheel of time, and Vikings as well East Europeans would sing and dance around the bonfire. As Christmas fell in the same time of the year, slowly the yuletide tradition blended with Xmas.