A child discovering the delights of Christmas for the first time is presented with a wonderful array of good things: trees with sparkling lights, carol singing, rich food such as iced cakes and biscuits, presents tucked into bulging stockings and days of excitement and parties. The modern holiday is in fact a cornucopia of widely different traditions, all combined into what we think of as Christmas. Some traditions come from religious sources or social customs, while others have their origins in folklore and magic. Over the centuries, the traditions have become entwined and embellished to create a fascinating ritual.

Christmas Day

Feasts held in deep midwinter to celebrate the winter solstice, or shortest day, were common long before Christianity, and have been traced across Europe to ancient Babylon and Egypt. One of the most notable was the Roman Saturnalia, from 17 to 24 December.

The Christian church chose various dates for Christ's birthday before settling finally on 25 December, a deliberate substitution for the pagan festival celebrating the rebirth of light in the winter gloom. Some of the rituals and customs used in the pagan celebrations, such as the “greening” of public buildings and houses with branches, were also rapidly absorbed by the Christian church.

The Tree

Tree worship dates back to prehistoric times, and the Christmas tree probably has pagan origins, being an evergreen and thus the one tree in the forest with the promise of survival to spring. Fir trees decorated with apples, paper flowers and candles were introduced into Britain by German immigrants, and then made popular in the 19th century by Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria.

He also introduced decorations made from spun glass, miniature wooden toys and paper ornaments.

By the end of the 19th century, decorations were being made commercially, and now most people buy mass-produced baubles, tinsel and other decorations rather than making their own.

Green boughs, mistletoe and holly were all used in pagan celebrations long before the advent of Christianity. Mistletoe was particularly prized by the Celtic Druids, who believed that it warded off evil and promoted fertility. Other cultures used it too, including the Greeks and Romans, and in Norse mythology it represented peace. While holly was adopted by the Christian church – its red berries symbolizing Christ's blood – mistletoe with its powerful pagan symbolism was banned in churches, though no doorway is complete without a bunch of mistletoe or a kissing bough.

Cards & Gifts

The ancient Romans gave lavish gifts to each other during the feast days of the Saturnalia, but it took many more centuries to see a widespread adoption of this present-giving. Not until the late 19th century and the beginnings of consumerism did it become usual to give and receive gifts. Originally, these simple home-made offerings were unwrapped, but they later came to be elaborately presented in special boxes and papers to signify the season.

Cards were yet another Victorian addition to Christmas. At first they were quite unseasonal in their designs, occasionally bawdy and usually sentimental. Images such as the Christmas robin and snow scenes became popular with the advent of colour printing. In 1843 Henry Cole, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, produced the first commercial cards. The introduction of the penny post in Britain meant that card-sending gained momentum, and people were encouraged to “post early for Christmas”.

The Origin of Santa

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nicholas and Sinterklaas are basically all the same person, descended from the Roman King of the Saturnalia. The original St Nicholas was a 4th-century saint. His cult became popular in the Middle Ages, and in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands he was linked with gift-giving on his feast day, 6 December. The image of a white-bearded man in a white suit is very recent. A century ago, Santa Claus was usually depicted in a long brown robe or furs carrying a cross and wine flask with a holly crown on his head. In 1885 a Boston printer, Louis Prang, first devised the red-suited Santa and this theme was later developed by the Coca-Cola ad artist Haddon Sundblom in the 1930s, producing the modern image of a jolly character in a red suit trimmed with white fur. The reindeer that carry Santa Claus through the frosty night probably came from stories of the Norse god Woden who rode through the sky with reindeer and 42 ghostly huntsmen. Clement Moore's famous poem A Visit from St Nicholas (“Twas the night before Christmas”) sealed the image of Santa Claus, his reindeer and the magical flying sleigh loaded with sacks of presents.

Customs & Traditions

There are endless games and pastimes, quirky customs and odd traditions that happen only at this time of year. Many have their origins far in the past, such as the yule log. To most people this is now a delicious chocolate cake shaped like a log of wood, but originally the yule log was dragged home from the woods with much ceremony and then lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the sun and its warmth. A picture of a man was once chalked on the log in parts of Britain, perhaps a long-forgotten reference to ancient sacrifices made at the winter solstice.

An Englishman called Tom Smith invented the tube-shaped cracker as we know it, with a fire cracker inside to produce the bang. The paper hat in the cracker may be related to the hats worn in Tudor times by the Lords of Misrule, who were the leaders of the Christmas revels.

Games, singing and dancing were all seasonal entertainments and still are, albeit in very different forms. People gathered together on the dark nights of the winter solstice centuries ago and broke out into merriment and wild behaviour, fuelled with plenty of food and drink. Not much changes! Pantomimes too have a long tradition, and usually include role reversal of the sexes and of authority, and dressing-up. The modern version can be traced through Saturnalias festivities and mumming plays up to the 18th-century harlequinades.

Food & Feasts

The concentration on food and feasting at Christmas is hardly surprising – centuries ago before the days of canning and freezing it was difficult to survive the winter without stores of preserved food. Summer preserves and the last of the fresh food were brought out for a festive feast, while hardship was forgotten for a brief time of rest, celebration and merry-making. Some traditional Christmas recipes hark back to those times when foods such as dried fruit and nuts were luxuries saved for feasting. Spices and flavourings are important in many of these recipes, bringing echoes of earlier dishes in which these precious ingredients were gathered from all over the known world. Most countries have dishes that are special to this time, such as the heavy fruit cakes and round Christmas puddings from Britain, the roast goose from Germany stuffed with apples and nuts, and the spiced cakes, biscuits and breads of central Europe.

Australia is of course a mixture of all traditions. With so many immigrants mingled with our own style of traditions, there really isn't any one traditional Christmas way. We all adopt our own styles depending on where we live, what is our heritage or who we spend Christmas with.

Source: Ultimate Christmas by Jane Newdick (RD Press 1996)