So much about this holiday captures our attention: gifts waiting by the tree begging to be opened, awkward kisses under the mistletoe, all the festivities to attend and cards to hand out. And who can ignore that stale fruitcake destined to be repackaged and given to a co-worker or neighbour?
You may not realize that each aspect of this holiday is entrenched in rich traditions that, for the most part, were actually adopted from non-Christians.
Gifts for the Season
As it turns out, exchanging gifts was never originally associated with the birth of Christ. Romans and early Europeans already held celebrations during the winter season, long before it was associated with Christ’s birth. Europeans would have grand feasts using their livestock that would not survive through the winter, while the Romans held carnival-like festivals to celebrate their god of agriculture. Since these holidays overlapped with the birth of Christ, “Gifts, hospitality, music and celebrating have been a part of Christmas since the beginning,” says Gerry Bowler, professor of history at the University of Manitoba and author of The World Encyclopedia of Christmas.
Other traditions we celebrate today also date back to over 2000 years ago, and some have nothing to do with Christ. Take, for example, the Christmas tree, which is falsely credited to St. Boniface, a missionary who sought to convert nonbelievers to Christianity in the 8th century. According to Bowler, the legend suggests St. Boniface used the “evergreen tree as a Christmas symbol in the 720s, but it’s not until the 1400s that we see mention of conifers being erected on the streets or brought into homes in December.” It turns out greenery was being used as decorations by the Romans and other early peoples to celebrate their own festivals.
Only for the Unwashed
Another common decoration and tradition involves the mistletoe, due in part to the Celts of Western Europe. Bowler suggests that the tradition of offering a kiss to whomever you find yourself under the mistletoe with was actually relegated to the lower class until the 19th century, when it was adopted by the middle class. Now, however, the embarrassingly exciting exchange of pecks is shared across class-lines.
The Real Tradition
Though so many traditions seem adopted from earlier festivities of non-Christians, the fruit cake, for better or for worse, actually appears to be directly related to early celebrations of Christmas. Bowler points out that “surprises were placed inside the [fruit] cake and the lucky recipient was often asked to preside over the night’s festivities.” Though there is nothing necessarily “lucky” about receiving a fruitcake anymore, you should feel honoured to participate in a legitimate Christmas tradition.
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