Winter holidays facts & stories

Since we are close to Christmas holidays I thought I would share some of the pictures I took at the markets of this year, along with sharing a few facts/myths/stories, etc about Christmas that I have found to be interesting.

Jingle Bells is not a Christmas song – This song was written in 1857 by American James Pierpont and originally was called ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’ because it was meant to be about Thanksgiving. If you take the time to listen to the song it does not mention Christmas at all. This was the first song played in space on December 16th 1965 during NASA’s Gemini 6A space flight.

Since we are talking about songs, I also found out that We wish you a Merry Christmas was originally used as a threat by lower-class crowds of servants demanding alcohol from their masters in the festive seasons.

Jesus was not born on December 25th – In fact nobody really knows when he was born, but the Bible does mention that the shepherds were in the field which in winter time it is just not possible. Some believe that this date was set as it fell during the Winter Solstice – a pagan tradition that was already Christianised. Others believed that Jesus was born during the Spring Equinox – which works with the shepherds and fields – and just worked out the months back to the birth date and landed on December 25th.
When Christianity was still a new religion, nobody even thought to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Only in the fourth century did Pope Julius choose to celebrate the occasion on December 25th, conveniently timed to overshadow and absorb the traditions of Yule and Saturnalia. A bloody battle between pagan holidays and Christian rule ensued, and by the middle ages, Christmas had almost completely replaced the ancient pagan holidays.

As said already, Christmas was believed to have taken place in the The Winter Solstice, but this solstice was a time to celebrate the fact that the worst of winter was over and the people could look forward to longer days with more sunlight in the near future. Ultimately, everyone was celebrating the fact that they were the ones to have survived another winter.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule (or Yuletide) from December 21st right through to until January – burning fires and feasting for a full 12 days. Yet the holiday took a more fearful turn in Germany, where many people believed that the pagan god Odin would observe his people from the sky during the winter solstice, deciding who would survive the winter, and who would not…almost as if he was making a list, and checking it twice?

In warmer regions such as Rome, the people celebrated Saturnalia during December in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture – once again to celebrate the end of the worst of the winter. It was a time when the social order was turned on its head, slaves and peasants ruled the city and celebrated with plentiful food and drink – the first instance of the winter solstice as a charitable season.

In Belgium, the Netherlands and Austro-Bavarian cultures, misbehaving children in could expect a visit from the terrifying Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon that at best would leave a lump of coal, and at worst would kidnap the child, never to be seen again. In some parts of Austria, adults will still dress up as Krampus every year and scare children into behaving.

In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote the tale A Christmas Carol which spread a message of charity and kindness which resonated with both English and American societies. Dickens wrote this novel in October to be quickly released in December as he needed the money for his family. From the first print of the book of 6.000 copies were sold out by Christmas Eve. In only one year, Dickens’s book was printed in other thirteen editions.

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

Christmas trees became even more popular thanks to the cultural influence of the British Royal Family. It was Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, who first brought the Christmas tree to the royal household in December 1800.

Decades later, in 1848 an illustration of the Royal family depicting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was published, they were all gathered near the tree and therefore the tradition continued and the light shone on the Christmas tree.

(Bettmann Archive)

Germany is believed to have started the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Another fact that I found is about the kiss under the mistletoe. It seems that Frigg the goddess of love from the Norse Mythology promised to kiss anyone who passed under the berry-laden plant after it saved her son’s life. It wasn’t until the 18th century, however, that the Christmas custom picked up steam in England.

Although gingerbread houses date back to the 1600s, the tradition became widespread in Germany after the story of Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812. During medieval times, gingerbread was served as a sweetmeat at the end of a meal as part of the ‘void’ or ‘voidee’. Initially, the ‘void’ was the term used for the clearing of the table between courses. By the fifteenth century the voidee described the sweet course served at the end of the meal to aid digestion and sweeten the breath. Curious enough, the original recipe from the fifteenth century does not have any ginger.

On the left, moulds for making traditional gingerbread in Torun which has a long history of making traditional gingerbread.

According to English journalist and sociologist Henry Mayhew, in the early nineteenth century a gilded King George on horseback was popular and ‘was eaten with great relish by his juvenile subjects’. Occasionally, the moulded figures would be more unusual. For example, Horsham Museum has a nineteenth century gingerbread mould on display featuring a chicken wearing trousers! The relevance of this has been lost in time although Mayhew describes it an edible ‘toy’.

But wait – there’s more about gingerbread and is quite fascinating! Many people believed gingerbread in certain shapes was charmed – those searching for mates or hoping to ward off evil devoured heart-shaped pieces. Gingerbread rabbits were supposed to increase fertility. Young unmarried women ate man-shaped gingerbread figures called “husbands” in hopes of attracting a live husband. The flip side of believing an object will confer good fortune is fearing it will bring bad luck. Superstitions sprang up that humanoid sweets had demonic powers. Within a few years of Queen Elizabeth’s death, the gingerbread pendulum had swung to the dark side. The sweet fell so far out of favor that Dutch magistrates declared it illegal to bake or eat the molded cookies. Witches supposedly made gingerbread figures, ate them, and thereby caused the death of their enemies. Even after the persecution of witches ended in the 18th century, the evil witch persisted in oral traditions. The Brothers Grimm drew on folklore for their tale of a cannibalistic witch luring children into a gingerbread house. To save themselves, Hansel and Gretel push her into the oven where she planned to bake them. A grim tale indeed.

To make things even more jolly the original tale of the gingerbread man from an 1875 issue of the St. Nicholas Magazine.

Now that you know some of the history of the holiday you can check these links to read how was the “vibe” at a 1800s or 1900s Christmas day as well as some gift guides from that time. Very interesting facts if you ask me.

Bonus fact – and this I have researched due to being a Big Bang Theory fan – Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642 according to the Julian calendar. Or on January 4, 1643 if we use the Gregorian calendar.

Did you know any of these facts? If so, which one?


Published by Roxana B

A weirdo.

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