“Here we come a’ wassailing,” the Christmas song goes. The word “Wassail” comes from a Saxon expression “waes hael,” meaning “to your health.” The wassail bowl, something like our punch bowl, was very common in England at Christmas, and great fanfare and ceremony was made while drinking from it. As years went by, “wassail” meant any sort of Christmas toast.
Many of the Christmas traditions, customs and beliefs we hold have a rich and fascinating history, and often there’s far more to the story than you might know. For example, we celebrate Christmas day on December 25, and our calendar year, 2007, is determined by counting the number of years since Christ was born. But the exact date of Christ’s birth is not precisely known, although historians and astronomers have used references in the bible to determine a probable birth date of springtime around the years 4 to 6 BC.
But if the date is uncertain, why was December 25 chosen for Christmas? Who chose it?
Well, for thousands of years before Christ, many cultures worshipped the sun. Many other ancient cultures also had some sort of “festival of lights” during the winter solstice to mark the New Year, seasonal renewal, or honor a pagan god. Saturnalia, one of the greatest pagan festivals honoring the Roman harvest God, ended on December 25, the same date of the pagan “feast of the unconquered sun.”
Sometime in the fourth century AD, when Christianity was declared lawful by the Roman emperor Constantine, the bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril, was given permission by the Pope to determine a proper date to celebrate the birth of Christ. Many dates were considered. The task took years, and finally December 25 was chosen. It is believed that Pope Julius I adopted the December 25 date to replace the pagan feast of the “Sun” with a celebration of the birth of the Son of God and to give new and special meaning to an old pagan holiday, and so that rather than thank a pagan deity for the new year, the people would be thanking the Son of God. (This is also why All Saints Day was moved to November 1, to overshadow and replace the Pagan celebrations of October 31).
Since then, most churches celebrate Christmas on December 25, except for the Russian, Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, which celebrate Christmas on January 6. This day is also called the Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the three kings who paid homage to the baby Jesus. Referred to in the gospel of Saint Matthew as “wise men from the East,” they were identified by historians as Melchior (ruler of Arabia and Nubia), Balthasar (of Ethiopia) and Caspar (or Tarsus). They were also referred to as “magi,” or august persons. Their three gifts were gold (which symbolized that they believed Jesus to be king), frankincense (a sacred and rare resin burned by holy people, because they believed Him divine), and myrrh (a substance used in preparation of the dead for burial, which was prophetic of Jesus’ death). Legends have it that Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, met the three kings years later in India, where he baptized and ordained them.
As the centuries passed, Christmas was observed in various forms, and often in very wild celebrations. In fact, some of these parties grew so disorderly that Christmas was actually canceled and outlawed in England in 1642. The Puritans declared Christmas celebrations as “rowdy and pagan,” and anyone caught celebrating Christmas in any way would be punished or jailed. Those sentiments made their way across the big pond; in 1659 a similar law was passed in Massachusetts, and it would be over two centuries before Christmas was celebrated openly here.
Of course, Christmas was celebrated with much enthusiasm in other parts of the world, and one of the most well known Christmas figures is the big guy in the red suit with the toys. The inspiration for Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, was born in Asia Minor in the fourth century. Stories about the miraculous bishop speak of his great kindness and profound love for children. Miracles, including raising people from the dead, are attributed to him. He is also considered the patron saint of sailors; legend has it that when a violent storm hit during his return sea voyage from the Holy Land, Nicholas knelt on the deck and prayed, not only calming the storm but bringing the ship to safe harbor.
The “Santa Claus” gift-giving supposedly began when Nicholas, on three occasions, secretly left gold for three young sisters who had no dowry. Later named patron saint of Russia, the man who the Dutch called “Sinterklaas” and the Germans called “Kris Kindle,” became famous world wide for his generosity and gift-giving.
Because Saint Nicholas’s feast day, December 6, is so close to December 25, it merged with Christmas in many countries. Over the centuries, the Saint’s image has changed. Writer Washington Irving described Saint Nicholas as chubby, jolly, and mentioned the reindeer. Clement Moore loved that image, and wrote “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” creating the image of Santa Claus we know today.
Another wonderful Christmas custom is caroling, and one of the most beloved Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” was born in the tiny village of Obendorf in the Austrian mountains. The day before Christmas Eve in 1818, Father Joseph Mohr, pastor of Saint Nicholas church, had discovered that the church organ was broken, and he was deeply saddened because there would be no music at the Christmas midnight mass.
As he was lost in thought, a woman came calling and asked him to go see a young couple who’d just had a baby boy. Despite a harsh blizzard and deep snow, Father set out on the difficult journey. At his destination, the sight that greeted him was right out of the nativity: A newborn son with his mother, and the father looking on admiringly. Father Mohr blessed the baby and mother, and headed back home, inspired. The scene had overwhelmed him, and now the snow covering the land and the silence seemed beautiful, not difficult. The night seemed holy. Quiet. Sacred.
When he returned home, he began writing. He wrote all night, finally falling asleep in the morning of Christmas Eve. That day, he took the new song to his friend Franz Gruber, a school teacher and musician, and Gruber set it to music. At midnight mass, Father Mohr and Gruber, accompanied only by Gruber’s guitar, sang the gentle song, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” for the first time.
Christmas Carols are often sung at the lighting of Christmas Trees, and one of the most famous trees is in nearby Boston, at the Boston Common. Ablaze with over 15,000 lights, the tree attracts visitors and tourists from everywhere — but did you know that the tree is a thank you gift from the people of Canada?
During World War One in Nova Scotia, ships carrying troops, ammunition, and relief supplies regularly gathered in Halifax Harbor to sail the Atlantic together for protection against German U-boats.
Early in the morning of December 6, 1917, the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, which carried four hundred thousand pounds of TNT and other explosive compounds, was preparing to moor to await a convoy, when the Belgian ship Imo entered the wrong channel. To avoid a collision, the Mont-Blanc turned toward Halifax, but the Imo struck the ship, sending showers of deadly sparks everywhere. The crew of the Mont-Blanc abandoned the burning ship, leaving it on a dead course for Halifax.
The Mont-Blanc exploded, causing the biggest man-made explosion until Hiroshima. Two thousand people were killed, another 9000 injure
d and 200 blinded. The explosion that destroyed all the northern part of Halifax was so massive that it shattered windows some 60 miles away. (My grandmother, a 15 year old student at the time, recalled that morning and said that her schoolhouse windows shook and the floor rumbled — and she was 250 miles away from the blast.)
The surviving Halifax hospitals couldn’t possibly treat all the injured and a blizzard struck the next day. Relief came from around the world, but the people of Halifax were particularly touched by the generosity of the city of Boston, which was the first to send people and relief supplies. Starting then and continuing to this day, the city of Halifax sends Boston a beautiful Christmas tree every year, which used to be displayed at Prudential Center, and now is placed on Boston Common.
Well, this ends the history lesson for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this “behind-the-scenes” look at Christmas — and hope your own holiday traditions bring you happiness. I sincerely wish all of you a very safe, healthy and happy holiday season.