2017-12-20 / Features

Christmas: A Sprig Of Mistletoe For The Occasion


A Christmas tree, at first undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany in the first half of the eight century A.D. A Christmas tree, at first undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany in the first half of the eight century A.D. The holiday known as Christmas arose in the fourth century A.D. as the Christian religion, still in its infancy, struggled for supremacy with the official Roman state religion, Mithraism. Over the centuries, customs and traditions from many different cultures came together eventually to result in the familiar holiday season.

The date of the birth of Christ is still unknown. In 4 B.C.E., birthdays were not celebrated. The day of one's death had greater significance. The birthday of Jesus, born to a peasant woman in humble circumstances, would have attracted attention from no one except his immediate family. Early church authorities even maintained that celebrating Christ's birthday as if he were earthly royalty was sinful. Also, according importance to Christ's natural birth diminished his divine origins.

Some theologians nevertheless attempted to find the exact date of the Nativity. All that resulted was confusion as several different dates, among them Jan. 1st, Jan 6th, Mar. 25th and May 20th, all

had their adherents. The strongest case could be made for May 20th, as the Gospel according to Luke cites shepherds "watching over their flocks by night." During lambing season in spring shepherds maintained a 24-hour watch over their animals. In winter, by contrast, sheep were kept unattended in corrals. The argument remained unresolved.

Mithraism, Christianity's major competition, arose in Persia and by 274 A.D. was so popular that Emperor Aurelian made it the state religion of the Roman Empire. By the early years of the fourth century A.D., Christianity was beginning to be overshadowed by the cult, which celebrated Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the invincible sun god, Mithras, on Dec. 25th. December was also a month when the Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, god of agriculture, was held. Both holidays called for weeks of feasting and celebration. To compete, the Christian church needed a reason for celebrating in December. The church fathers

made Dec. 25th the day of Christ's birth not because they were certain that this was the day he had come into the world, but because devout Christians would celebrate Christ's birth instead of that of Mithras.

The first celebrations of the Nativity were low-key in contrast to the pagan celebrations with which they competed. Instead of feasting and riotous living, the day would be marked in prayerful observance with a mass—Christ's mass, which evolved into the word Christmas. Christmas became a permanent fixture of the Western world's calendar in 337 A.D., when Roman Emperor Constantine was baptized and united the empire and the church with Christianity the state religion.

Celebrating under a sprig of mistletoe was one of several customs from another culture which became assimilated into the Christmas tradition. Some 200 years before the birth of Christ the Druids, the educated class of the Celtic Britons, celebrated the beginning of winter by gathering mistletoe and burning it as a sacrifice to their gods. Homes in ancient Britain also were hung with sprigs of the yellow green plant with waxy white berries to ensure a year's good fortune and family harmony. Twigs on the outside of a house welcomed travelers. Enemies who chanced to meet under a tree that bore mistletoe, a parasite on deciduous and evergreen trees, were required to lay down their arms and forget their differences for one day. Mistletoe was a plant of peace, hope and harmony not only for the Celts, but also for Scandinavians, who gave the plant the name by which it eventually became known. Known to the Celts as omnia sanitatem, "all heal," mistletoe was known in Scandinavian cultures as mistilteinn, from mista (“dung”), as evergreens are propagated by seeds in bird droppings. Mistletoe in Scandinavian countries belonged to Frigga, goddess of love, and it is through the association with her that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed to have originated.

The plant was closely associated with Mithraism and the Saturnalia, and the early Christian fathers forbade its use to eliminate associations with the two pagan religions. Holly, with sharply pointed leaves symbolizing the thorns in Christ's crown and red berries drops of his blood, became a nativity tradition instead. Mistletoe was banned by the Christian church throughout the Middle Ages. As late as the 20th century some churches in England forbade wearing mistletoe sprigs and corsages during their services.

Plants and Christmas celebrations continued to be closely associated. The custom of symbolizing Christmas with a tree, at first undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany in the first half of the eight century A.D. According to legend, St. Boniface, a British monk and missionary, was preaching a sermon on the nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids. Druids regarded the oak tree as sacred and inviolable, and to indicate its less than divine status, Boniface felled one. The toppling tree crushed every bush surrounding it except for a small fir sapling, and Boniface seized the chance to interpret its survival as a miracle. "This be called the tree of the Christ child," he declared. Fir saplings were planted on subsequent Christmases. By the 16th century trees, cut and brought indoors or left growing outside, were decorated. Adornments included roses made of colored paper, apples gilt, sugar and wafers. Martin Luther, 16th-century Protestant reformer, is believed to be the first person to put candles on a Christmas tree; legend has it that walking home while composing a sermon, Luther saw stars twinkling through evergreen branches and wired candles to Christmas tree branches to replicate the scene for his family.

Christmas trees came to England in 1840 when Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in central Germany married Queen Victoria. The Pennsylvania Dutch, actually Swiss German immigrants, are considered to be the group to bring the Christmas tree to America, a claim substantiated by the diary of one Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which contains the first mention of a Christmas tree in the New World on Dec. 21, 1821.

Poinsettias are a relatively recent introduction to Christmas celebrations. In 1828 Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to America. As early as the 18th century, Mexicans had begun calling the plant, with its small yellow flowers surrounded by large red leaves "flower of the blessed night" because of its resemblance to the Star of Bethlehem. In America the plant was renamed in Poinsett's honor and by his death in 1851 had become associated with Christmas.

Santa Claus harks back to the early fourth century church. Saint Nicholas was born in the southeastern Turkish town of Lycia and entered a monastery at the early deaths of his parents. He became the patron saint of sailors when on a boat journey to Palestine he is said to have extended his arms and calmed a stormy sea. While still a young man he was appointed bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. He was imprisoned and tortured on the order of pagan Roman emperor Gaius Diocletianus. When Diocletianus abruptly abdicated he was succeeded by Constantine, who freed Nicholas. After his conversion to Christianity Constantine convened the first church council at Nicaea in 325 A.D., and Nicholas attended as a prominent member. He is believed to have died Dec. 6, 342, eventually becoming the patron saint of Russia, Greece and Sicily.

Saint Nicholas began evolving into Santa Claus initially because of his legendary generosity and love of children, whose patron saint he also became. During the Middle Ages, he brought gifts to children while clad in his red and white bishop's robes, coaxing a donkey. He arrived on his feast day, Dec. 6th, and left fruits nuts, hard candies and wood and clay figurines. During the 16th-century Protestant Reformation Saint Nicholas was banished from most European countries and replaced by more secular figures: Father Christmas in Britain and Papa Noel in France. Neither was known as a giver of gifts to children. Father Christmas, in fact, sponsored adult feasts more concerned with amorous activities. Saint Nicholas remained a prominent figure in the Netherlands. The patron saint of sailors graced the prow of the first Dutch ship to land in America and the first church built in New York City was named for him. The Dutch brought with them also the tradition of children placing their wooden shoes by the hearth filled with straw for the saint's donkey; in return Nicholas left a small treat in each shoe, a tradition dating from the 16th century. In America shoes were replaced by stockings, which held more gifts. The Dutch "Sint Nikolass" became "Sinterklass" and when British forces took over New Amsterdam in the 17th century, "Sinterklass" was anglicized into Santa Claus.

The Santa Claus legend of a "right jolly old elf" with "a round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly" in a "miniature sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer" originated with New Yorker Dr. Clement Clark Moore, who composed the poem to read to his children in 1822. Sent by a friend to a newspaper without the author's name on it, it was picked up by publications throughout the country. Illustrator Thomas Nast completed the transformation through a series of illustrations that showed the Santa Claus familiar today.

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