Dec. 21 is the winter
solstice, the shortest day of the year. After the solstice
the days become longer. Pagan religions that worshipped sun
gods believed that the longer days indicated that the sun was
In the month of December, the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia,
a time of year for feasting and gatherings. Saturnalia was recognized
as a festival of fertility, as the return of the sun will result
in the vitality of spring.
At that same time of year, northern Europeans celebrated a
holiday known as Yule, by making great fires that people
around in hopes for the winter season to end. Thus, Yuletide
and Yule Log are common words in the Christmas vocabulary.
On other continents, American Indians enjoyed religious dances
to correspond with the winter solstice. The Native Americans
celebrated to ensure the ending of the winter season and the
coming of the sun.
In the Pacific, the Polynesians boasted winter festivities.
In Hawai‘i, the months from October to January, known as the
makahiki, were regarded as a period of rest and feasting. No
fighting or conflicts were permitted during this time. This period
led Hawaiians into the New Year, hence, Hauoli Makahiki Hou or “Happy
It wasn’t until 200 years after the death of Christ that
Christians began to celebrate his birth. In truth, no one really
knows the exact birth date of the babe, but Franciscan monks
chose the month of December in order to lure people away from
Saturnalia, a celebration of pagan customs and pagan gods.
St. Nicholas is the source of today’s Santa Claus. St.
Nick was a Catholic bishop who lived in the 4th century in
what, today, is Turkey . While not much is known about him,
it is known that he devoted his life to helping needy children.
Years after his death, he was canonized the patron saint of
Putting Santa Claus in a red suit is a Scandanavian development.
His leap down the chimney to fill stockings with goodies is
from the Netherlands. Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer
is of Swiss origin, and our Christmas parades are derived from
lavish Latin American processions.
Giving Santa a slightly fattened physique and having him deliver
gifts on Christmas Eve, toted by eight named, flying reindeer
(c.1822) and Rudolph (c.1950s) too is a result of North American
influence – very much packaged, encouraged, and delivered
by the media.
It was common in the festival of Saturnalia that Romans would
decorate a tree in the home. On top of the tree was placed
an image of Apollo, the Roman god of the sun. The Druids
brought evergreen trees into their homes as a symbol of life.
However, the Christmas tree as we know it resulted from the
efforts of Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who decorated
trees with shining lights to symbolize stars shining through
German settlers in America preserved Luther’s actions
by decorating trees with fruits, candy, and roses made out
of paper. Ritual tree decorating did not catch on generally
in America until the early 1800s.
Ancient Romans saw mistletoe as an emblem of fertility. It
was commonly believed that a woman would be blessed with
children if she kissed under the mistletoe.
In the Druid culture, the mistletoe plant was symbol of
peace, friendship, and generosity. They believed that
the plant had
the power to heal and to make enemies drop their weapons
in battle in a quest for peace.
Kissing under the mistletoe began in 16th century England.
Visitors to England found it unusual that men and women
frequently exchanged kisses in greeting and leaving.
It was this custom,
as well as the belief that mistletoe was a symbol of friendship
that kissing under the mistletoe became a common practice.
In England, a woman who received a kiss under the mistletoe
was guaranteed marriage and good luck.
The Exchange of Gifts
The earliest exchange of gifts occurred in ancient Rome
during the festival of Kalends, usually the first day in
The Roman emperor expected his higher-ranking administrators
to present him with gifts of sweets, cakes, and honey.
According to the Christian story of Jesus, the visit of
the three kings was the first gift exchange. The kings
gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby, and
it is from this act that we exchange gifts today.
The exchange of Christmas cards dates back to 1843 when Sir
Henry Cole of England sent the first greeting cards to his
friends. Some sources state that Sir Henry was too busy to
author personal letters, so he commissioned J.C. Horlsey
to design a card. This practice became widespread with Britain’s
first Penny Post or public mail service. Improved printing
procedures allowed the mass production of cards, which began
Eggnog began as a medical elixir and not a festive drink. Some
historians track eggnog to Germany’s egg punch comprised
of milk and wine. The drink came to colonial America from
Europe and was spiced up with rum and/or whiskey. “Eggnog” is
actually an American name for the drink derived from an English
drinking container called a “noggin” or “nog.” It
was common to drink the creamy substance during any big social
occasion. It was a common beverage to serve at holiday parties
and gradually evolved into the American Christmas tradition.