From 10,000 BCE-ish
Let’s start our merry adventure deep in pre-history, where the desire to kick ones heels up at what we now call Christmas first began…
The tradition of feasting and celebrating at the end of December in Europe stretches back many, many thousands of years. It was a celebration of light, birth and fertility in the darkest days of winter. It was the mid-winter solstice, when the shortest day of the year was observed, and from then the days would start to get longer. This was an immensely important time because the people were economically dependent on cycle of the seasons (SOURCE).
The winter solstice was seen as the birth or rebirth of sun, and that the year was reborn. Which was a great source of hope and positivity in the middle of a pretty grim winter.
It was an important time for the people who built Stonehenge from 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE. The tallest stone in the circle lines up with sunrise on the winter solstice. They held great feasts and drank beer and mead. They might have sung songs, played bone flutes and jumped over bonfires in honour of the sun, encouraging it to return (they couldn’t be sure it would, like we can) and make the days longer again (SOURCE).
This, to me, is already beginning to sound a bit like what we now call Christmas. Wrapping up the year with feast and frivolity, even in the warm weather of the Southern Hemisphere, feels like a fitting thing to do.
From 1200 BCE
Firstly, ‘Pagan’ is a catch-all term for rural folk across Europe who worshipped a whole range of gods, particularly nature-based gods (rather than that one big Christian chap), and lived from the Iron Age until the Christianisation of Europe. Christians tended to group all kinds of other folk together and call them Pagans. Those groups included the Vikings/Norse, Saxons, Celts, early Romans, Germanic tribes and generally non-Christian peasants. As Christianity spread across Europe, many of these older cultures faded away, but as we’ll see, some of the early pagan traditions endured and form the bones of what we now call Christmas.
All hail the sun!
The most prominent Pagan forerunner to our modern Christmas was a celebration to encourage the sun to return in mid-winter. Most pre-Christian religions had at least one sun god or goddess, while some, like the ancient Romans, had multiple! Worshipping the sun in a time before science was of the utmost importance for people across Europe, the Americas, Indonesia, India, Africa, China and most famously those ancient Egyptians really loved their sun gods too (SOURCE).
The sun was respected as the giver of life, and the thing that sustained the people throughout the cycle of the year. And when the sun started to retreat and the days got shorter, the people, understandably, started to worry. So, over millennia, they developed ceremonies and rituals to coax the sun to come back, which gave the people a heady dose of hope and joy. This would occur on or around what we now know as the winter solstice, which is 21st December in the northern hemisphere.
A forerunner to Santa?
In Germanic-pagan times, the God Odin appeared in the mid-winter holiday, flying around on a horse at night, scaring the wits out of people, and deciding who was ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’ (SOURCE). This is already sounding a little familiar.
The beginnings of festive greenery
The history of the Yule log stretches all the way back to Europe’s Iron Age. Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would gather to welcome the winter solstice at December’s end. People would feast to celebrate the days finally becoming longer, signalling the end of the winter season. To cleanse the air of the previous year’s events and to usher in the spring, families would burn logs decorated with holly, pinecones or ivy (SOURCE).
Along with a Yule log, also dragged inside was evergreen foliage for decoration. It was the one plant in northern Europe that stayed green and abundant all winter long, and this greenery proved that life persisted in those those dark days. It bought optimism into the house (SOURCE).
There are many long bows that you can draw (and have been drawn on the internets) about the real origins of the Christmas tree, including biblical references, and records of greenery being brought inside in other parts of the world. But I think what becomes a popular tradition in northern Germany in the late merry medieval times (as we’ll soon learn), the Christmas tree origins surely, definitely, could have begun many thousands of years before the common era, with our pre-Christian northern European Pagan friends and their enduring tradition of celebrating mid winter by bringing evergreen foliage in to decorate their homes.
During the 200s CE, the Christian church had a conflicting story on their hands that they were keen to sort out once and for all. Some people thought of the Jesus figure as a spiritual being, while others thought he had actually been alive on earth at some point. So the Christian powers-that-be decided to stick with the latter story, and give Jesus a birthday.
Before we can discuss that though, let’s rewind for some backstory from before Christianity. For millennia, the Ancient Romans celebrated mid-winter with a festival that peaked twice. The first peak was called Saturnalia, which lasted from the 17th to the 23rd of December. Saturn was the god of the birth of the world. It was a festival of fun and games and silliness. But then on the 23rd, everything would go quiet in Ancient Rome, and people would wait (and dry out) for a couple of days. They waited for the sun. They noticed that it rises incrementally later in the day, shortening each day until it slows right down and the time of sunrise appears to stop moving all together. But on the 25th of December, the sun rises slightly earlier, picking up pace over the next few days. After a week, they’d hold a birthday party for the sun, on the 1st of January (SOURCE). So interesting!
Back to the Christian folk and their dilemma, they decided that the already popular date of 25th December would be a clever date to borrow for Christ’s birthday. The people were already into celebrating at that time anyway… and so they switched out ‘the birth of the sun‘ for ‘the birth of the son‘ and thus Christ was born!
The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25, 336 (SOURCE). Although it wasn’t called Christmas just yet.
But Pagan the party still kicks on
The Christian rebrand of the mid-winter knees up adopted many of the established pagans practices that came before it, like bringing evergreen decoration into the home, and celebrating uproariously by feasting, drinking and singing.
One new addition at this time was to hang apples up with the evergreen decoration, symbolising the Garden of Eden, which would eventually become red Christmas baubles (SOURCE). Cool hey?! And holly, which had long been a traditional evergreen decoration with its bright red berries, was recast to become Christ’s crown of thorns (SOURCE).
The leaders of the Christian church weren’t big fans of raucous Pagan-ish partying, but if the great unwashed would call themselves Christians and observe to birth of Jesus at some point during the party, then the church was cool with it. Celebrating and feasting in the dank depths of winter was a such powerful force, that even the church couldn’t fully take control of it.
It’s interesting that non-Christian folk nowadays tend to see this celebration on the 25th as a historically Christian affair, but it’s fascinating to learn that it was actually a melting pot of customs and rituals from many cultures developed over many thousands of years in Europe and further afield.
500 - 1500
We’re now in the Medieval period, which has a bad reputation for being a tough time to be alive. Imagine: famine, disease, high infant mortality, early death rates, violence and lawlessness. Sounds pleasant, hey? But thankfully, the shining light in the medieval calendar was Christmas!
This is a typical Christmas for our those who survived another year in this 1000 year time period…
From Advent Sunday, which was 4 Sundays before Christmas, the Christian church expected a period of fasting, and so the rich and poor would have to restrict their normal diet. The poor ate a basic diet of bread and grains, and the rich might have just given up pudding for 4 weeks (SOURCE). Not only was fasting supposed to focus the need for something greater, ie. God, (though after fasting for that long I can only imagine my greater need being would be food), it also was to encourage people to live more simply, and was probably a pretty good way of conserving food stockpiles during the leanest time of year.
But after the fasting period, medieval people really let rip with twelve full days of Christmas festivities from the 25th of December, and reaching a crescendo on 6 January, ‘Twelfth Night’, when presents were exchanged. These celebrations commemorated Christ’s birth and the name Christmas (Christ’s Mass) is first recorded in England in 1038 (SOURCE).
Carols, originally dances accompanied by sung choruses, were also increasingly popular at Christmas; their words might be religious, worldly, or even rude (SOURCE).
All the customs from centuries earlier, like boozing, feasting, the burning of the Yule log, decorating houses with evergreens and general shenanigans on the streets and in the homes at Christmas continued with gusto. Blending religious devotion with drunken partying, was all the medieval Christmas rage (SOURCE).
As we’ve just learnt, bringing evergreen foliage into the house is a pre-historic idea that brings life and hope into the darkest days of winter. But bringing a whole tree inside is not something that seems to happen until the 16th century.
The earliest known firmly dated representation of a Christmas tree is (in) a private home in Turckheim, Alsace (then part of Germany, today France), with the date 1576 (SOURCE).
In 1610, a big evergreen covered in candles was put up in the cathedral in Strasburg, Germany. This idea took off in Germany and was popular into the 18th century. Then, Germans fleeing from Napoleon took it to England (SOURCE) where it was a bit of a niche German ex-pat thing to do until the Victorians got on board, which we’ll learn about soon.
When it comes down to it, the Christmas tree is a gift that Germany gave to the rest of the world (SOURCE).
Focussing now a for minute on England, we find in the early 17th century that religious reform sweeping through the country. The Puritan movement, who were intensely religious and against decadence, led by Oliver Cromwell, overthrew the king in 1649 and outlawed Christmas for its reputation for drunkenness and other misbehaviour (SOURCE & SOURCE). Good grief! But the people wouldn’t have a bar of it. And the holiday went underground.
Thankfully Christmas (along with the monarchy) was restored in 1660, and some say the monarchy was restored mainly to get Christmas back on the calendar, such is the powerful love of Christmas by the people.
We can thank ‘Good Queen Charlotte’, the German wife of King George III, for setting up the first known tree (in England) at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, (SOURCE) at a party she gave for children in December, 1800 (SOURCE).
That year, Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor. And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon. It certainly did. When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds (SOURCE).
Dr John Watkins, one of Queen Charlotte’s biographers, who attended the party, provides us with a vivid description of this captivating tree ‘from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles’. He adds that ‘after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted’ (SOURCE).
After a long pagan history of magical beings dropping in on you via the chimney (SOURCE), probably the the most famous early Santa-type character was Saint Nicholas. This legend started out with a Greek Orthodox bishop named Nicholas of Bari, hailing from what is now Turkey, and on December 6th he would give good children gifts. He went on to become the patron saint of children, and one of the most popular saints of the middle ages.
From there his legend spread across Europe, and became particularly popular in the Netherlands, where he was called Sinterklaas. ‘Sinter’ for ‘Saint’ and ‘Klaas’ was a Dutch shortening for Nicholas instead of ‘Nick’, as we’d know him. In the Netherlands the legend became that he was known to ride about on a white horse, which reminds us of our old friend the God Odin, from Pagan times.
Fast forward to America in 1822, in New York City, home of many Dutch migrants and cultural influences from the Netherlands. A poem was written by Clement Clarke Moore, which was later was named The night before Christmas, described Saint Nicholas on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children (SOURCE).
The new poem was widely published and bought those early ideas of the patron saint of children to the new world. Our new St. Nick had dropped his dignified Catholic bishop’s garb and stature, in favour of a plumper, furrier, more elven vibe. By the 1840s the magic of this reimagining of Saint Nick, Sinterklaas or Santa Claus had spread across the country, changing the way Christmas was celebrated from that time on.
As English Victorian Christmases developed into child-centric family festivals, the popular American myth of Santa Claus popped back across the Atlantic. By the 1880s the new customs had become established, with the nocturnal visitor sometimes being known as Santa Claus, and sometimes as Father Christmas, an earlier English version of our jolly old elf (SOURCE).
This earlier English version, Father Christmas, was brought into being in 1616 by poet, Ben Jonson, to personify Christmas at a time when it was under attack by Puritans, as we’ve just been learning about. Though he was more an uplifting ‘spirit of Christmas’ rather than a giver of gifts, until later on when his character merged with the St. Nick from across the pond (SOURCE).
In the ye olde mid- to late-1800’s, the English royal family were the rockstars of culture and trends, influencing people not only in the motherland, but also across the entire empire and beyond. So when Victoria and Albert yearned for the then little-known Christmas tree tradition from their homeland, Germany (yep, that’s where they came from), the idea spread hastily among wealthy families of their realm.
In her childhood journal for Christmas Eve 1832, Queen Victoria, at that time a delighted 13-year-old princess, wrote:
“After dinner … we then went into the drawing room near the dining room … There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees … (SOURCE)”
In December 1840, Prince Albert imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg, in Germany, to serve as Christmas trees. (SOURCE).
And in 1847 Prince Albert wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas trees is not less than ours used to be” (SOURCE).
A boost to the trend was given in 1848 when The Illustrated London News, in a report picked up by other papers, described the trees in Windsor Castle in detail and showed the main tree, surrounded by the royal family, on its cover (SOURCE). Then on the custom of setting up such trees in homes really caught on amongst the general public in England (SOURCE).
By the Victorian era, the rowdier celebrations of middle ages were toned down into a quieter family-focused festival. Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert, with their nine children, played a big part in these changes after the push in this direction from Queen Charlotte earlier in the century. Many now-familiar elements of Christmas also originated in this period, including printed Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, and eating turkey (instead of the traditional goose), the Christmas pudding, and giving presents on Christmas day instead of new years day or after, as was the previous custom (SOURCE).
Back to Christmas trees, though. Having a real green tree, covered in candles in your probably quite dark pre-electricity Victorian living room, would have been a life giving object, and was still seen many hundreds, even thousand of years after Europeans first bought evergreen into their home, as a symbol that life is just around the corner after the winter solstice.
As the colonies looked towards the English royal family as a shining example, so the Christmas tree found widespread popularity in Australia and even America, despite its Puritan origins and its strong sense of independence from the motherland.
A few decades later, the people of England and the Commonwealth, saw the Christmas tree as a German tradition, and anti-German sentiment after World War I briefly reduced its popularity, but the effect was short-lived (SOURCE).
Thankfully, by the mid-1920s the use of Christmas trees was back in vogue and had spread to all classes (SOURCE).
It seems that the Christmas tree was such an essential part of the modern version of Christmas, that it soon became a globally loved and ubiquitous symbol of the season.
Here in Australia we have a funny mix of northern European traditions that come along with our own particular down-under flavour of Chrissy: pressies, barbies, nibblies, cherries, coldies, the fireries and the rellies. We sing about white boomers, how to make gravy and drinking white wine in the sun, but really, most of our other carols and traditions are winter themed. Those deep ancient roots are hard to shake. And sometimes it seems like a bit of a mess. But we’re standing at the end of a long line of people who have added their own bits and bobs over the centuries and bought it over the seas to us.
It has been so interesting to question what we think of as Christmas. The festival of capitalism and relentless glorification of busyness that Christmas sometimes seems to be, can wear us out, and make us forget what it’s really about. But since time immemorial, we human folk have either kicked up our heels at this time of year, worshipped our respective gods, or done both with gusto. And I think, like our ancient Neolithic ancestors found, it still feels so right to punctuate the annual cycle with a great big merry celebration, with traditions and symbols of hope and optimism. Special food, gift giving, snogging under the mistletoe and the centrepiece, the Christmas tree, are all things that still bring us joy, excitement and anticipation for the coming year, just like it has done for thousands of our ancestors before us.
There are 4 key elements that have always formed the back bone of celebrations at this time of year; keeping cheerful, charity (helping others keep cheerful), blessing for the coming year and misrule (or festive partying!) (SOURCE) and over the millennia traditions have morphed and changed, but these 4 element still remain. As our dearest English Heritage Podcast suggests, the idea of Christmas is an ever evolving thing, and perhaps our very Victorian Christmas is due for an overhaul, to turn it into something that suits us in our time. (SOURCE)
What is our version of keeping cheerful, charity, blessing and misrule? Maybe something more multicultural? Something more suitably seasonal? Definitely something human-centred, and not stuff-centred. And of course, I can’t imagine we’d go without a sprinkling of that enduring Pagan magic after all these centuries.
Well, I feel a renewed sense of love for Christmas after all of that! What a merry adventure.
Here’s to Christmas and the Christmas tree!
Wassail, drink hail!
(To your health… and drink ale, or something non-alcoholic, what’s ever takes your fancy.)
PS. If this has piqued your interest, I can highly recommend the English Heritage Podcast, Episode 38 – A weird and wonderful history of Christmas, find it here.