History Articles

History of the 12 Days of Christmas: They’re after Christmas?

December 7, 2021 /
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PartridgeTHE HISTORY OF THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS: THEY’RE AFTER CHRISTMAS?

The 12 Days of Christmas are the dozen days in the liturgical or ecclesiastical calendar of the Western Church between the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child (Christmas Day, December 25) and the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, to visit at his house in Bethlehem (Epiphany, January 6).

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates during Epiphany rather than the Western Christmas Day. January 6th is observed as Three Kings Day in Hispanic and Latin American culture, or simply the “Day of the Kings.”

 

Question: Aren’t the 12 Days of Christmas the days before Christmas when you shop for presents?

Answer: No, the four-week season before Christmas is called Advent, meaning “the coming” of Christ.

Epiphany

The dozen days following Christmas are the 12 Days of Christmas; the last is known as Twelfth Night. The Twelfth Night is the holiday that marks the twelfth night of the Christmas Season, the Eve of Epiphany.

During the Tudor period in England, the “Lord of Misrule” would run the festivities of Christmas, ending on this Twelfth Night. Shakespeare‘s play by the same name was intended to be presented as a Twelfth Night entertainment and was first performed during this time in 1602.

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History of Santa Claus: Saint or Elf?

December 6, 2021 /
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Santa Claus

St. Nicolas

HISTORY OF SANTA CLAUS

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day.” The name Santa Claus is a kind of a contraction for Saint Nicholas. The German name Sankt Nikolaus can be pronounced San’t(a) ni-KLOuse (sounding like house.)

 

Origin of St. Nicholas

He was born in the late 3rd century, perhaps in A.D. 270. Nicholas became a bishop in Greece and gained distinction in the councils of the church. He was especially famed for unexpected gifts and later associated with the giving of presents during the season at the end of the year.

“I am Nicholas, a sinner, Nicholas, servant of Christ Jesus.” 

the old saint would say. He was imprisoned during the great persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 303 but freed by the decree of Emperor Constantine. After that, he served as Bishop in Myra for another thirty years. Nicholas participated in the famous ecumenical church Council of Nicaea in 325. He died on December 6, about 343, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is now held on that day.

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History of Mistletoe: Why is it the Kissing plant?

December 5, 2021 /
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MistletoeHISTORY OF MISTLETOE

We’ve mentioned previously that mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The Druids used the mistletoe of their sacred oak as part of their ritual five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice.

In the Middle Ages, it was hung from ceilings or placed above stable and house doors with the belief that it would drive off evil spirits and ensure fertility.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees. Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album sends its roots into the tree’s bark and derives its nutrients from the tree itself, though it does engage in photosynthesis.

 

Etymology of Mistletoe

The word can be traced back to 2nd century Anglo-Saxon “mistel” for the word dung and “tan” for a twig, mistletan being the Old English version of the word. This suggests the belief that mistletoe grew from birds, though we know now that it is the bird’s droppings in trees or the seed’s sticky nature that adheres to tree bark. (more…)

History of the Christmas Creche: Origin of the Manger scene

December 4, 2021 /
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CrecheHISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS CRECHE: ORIGIN OF THE MANGER SCENE

One of the most enduring Christmas traditions is setting up a creche during the Advent season. A creche is a model of the scene of the Manger on the first Christmas at Bethlehem. A creche can be a small model set up in the home or a large scene at a town square, church, or lawn.

Creche in Europe

The word crèche is the French word for a manger.

  • Several years ago, I was in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral. On display in the cathedral was a large creche that featured a miniature scene of the village of Bethlehem, pictured below. This extended for about 50 feet, much larger than the small display that typically appears on a tabletop or yard.
Notre Dame

Crèche in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

  • The following week I was in Brussels, in the Grand Place town square, where an “actual size” manger display was displayed in the city center in front of the Town Hall.

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History of Christmas Music: More than just Carols?

December 3, 2021 /
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Carol MusicHISTORY OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC

Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and deemed too theological for popular use. Under Francis of Assisi‘s influence in the 13th century, we began to see the rise of the carol written in the vernacular. The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music.

In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a familiar or festive style. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas and includes some of the noblest compositions of great musicians. (more…)

History of A Sacred Oratorio: How was popular Christmas music considered scandalous and profane?

December 2, 2021 /
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Sacred Oratorio

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, pre-1808

HISTORY OF A SACRED ORATORIO

The genteel reception accorded the original debut performance stood in marked contrast to the savage hostility which greeted the work less than a year later in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, London. The English aristocracy and churchmen began an unrelenting campaign against the work and its creator. They labeled it “a profanation,” scandalized at

“the sacrilege of converting the Life and Passion of Christ into a theatrical entertainment.”

Some clergymen objected so strongly to the idea of printing the actual title on the program that the author was obliged to announce his great work as “A Sacred Oratorio.” (more…)

History of Christmas Traditions: Some pre-Christian?

December 1, 2021 /
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Traditions HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS

Many of the customs that we commonly associate with Christmas come from previous pagan or pre-Christian European backgrounds. Let’s look at some of these familiar traditions and some connections to other folklore elements with which we may be unfamiliar.

 

Christmas Traditions

  • The word Yule comes from the Germanic jōl or the Anglo-Saxon geōl. It refers to a twelve-day celebration starting on or around December 21 among Norse and Germanic people associated with the Winter Solstice. Yuletide later became associated with Christmastide.
  • Evergreens played an essential role among Vikings who would decorate evergreen trees with food and carvings.
  • Yule logs were not sweet confections but a whole tree that would burn for twelve days on the hearth. The large end would be lit with the remnants of the previous year’s log, wine would be poured over it, and each person would take turns feeding the whole length of the log into the fire as it continued to burn. It was considered bad luck to let it go out.
  • Mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The plant had no roots yet remained green. The Norse associated it with their goddess of love, Frigga, perhaps the origin of kissing under it, as we’ll discuss in a later article.
  • The wassail bowl was first known in Scandinavia as the Old Norse ves heil. We are familiar with it by the more modern Anglo-Saxon “toast” wassail, which means “be thou hale” or healthy and is traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night.
  • Holly was used for decoration in the twelve-day Roman holiday known as the Saturnalia, ending on January 1, and is where we get the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

 

Christmas Trivia

Did you know that Americans spend more than $8 billion per year on Christmas decorations?

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History of Christmas: The Year – How Could Jesus be born 4 B.C.?

November 30, 2021 /
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Denis the Little

Dionysius Exiguus

HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS: THE YEAR

It’s obvious that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1 (Anno Domine, “the year of our Lord”), right? Not so fast.

OK, was it in Year Zero?

No, there wasn’t a Year 0; the calendar went from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1.

We know that Herod the Great (who killed all the babies in Bethlehem younger than two years of age) died in the Spring of 4 B.C., according to the Jewish historian Josephus1. The king was quite alive during the Wise Men‘s visit in the Nativity story told in the Gospel of Matthew. So Jesus would have to have been born before this time, anywhere from 7 B.C to 4 B.C. (Before Christ, or before himself!)

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History of Christmas: Nativity Season — Snow in Bethlehem?

November 29, 2021 /
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Nativity

HISTORY OF THE NATIVITY SEASON

You’ve seen those greeting cards that show Joseph along with Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintry snow.

Have you ever wondered: could Jesus have been born during the close of the year, perhaps even with snow on the ground?

 

Nativity Weather

Snow is not uncommon in this part of Palestine every 3 or 4 years. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Bethlehem is in the desert. But desert means dry, not necessarily hot. Where I live in Colorado is officially the high desert, and we frequently have snow, although we’re at an elevation of 6,500 feet.

In early January 2013, there were 12 inches of snow across parts of Palestine, 16–28 inches of snow fell in Jerusalem in December 2013. But the Biblical narrative doesn’t say there was snow on the ground.

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History of Chanukah: The Festival of Lights

November 28, 2021 /
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Chanukah Menorah

Menorah

HISTORY OF CHANUKAH

Today at sundown, November 28th, begins Chanukah. It is more commonly spelled Hanukkah; both are a transliteration of the Hebrew word חֲנֻכָּה‎ meaning “dedication.” This Jewish holiday traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.

 

Events Leading Up to Chanukah

At that time, the Jewish people were living under the oppressive government of the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV (a somewhat ironic name — Epiphanes means “God Manifest”), a descendant of Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, he left no legitimate heir (that survived); instead, his empire was divided among the Diadochi, his surviving generals. For several centuries the divided empire was ruled by the rival dynasties of two of his generals:

  • Ptolemy controlled the south in Egypt; Cleopatra was the last of his line in the first century B.C.
  • Seleucus controlled Syria in the north; his descendant was Antiochus Epiphanies IV, who ruled Judea in the 2nd century B.C. (more…)

History of Advent: Why We Celebrate Christmas on December 25

November 28, 2021 /
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AdventTHE HISTORY OF ADVENT: WHY WE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS ON DECEMBER 25

Here begins our series of articles on the History of Christmas. The traditional season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, begins today. It is celebrated in the church calendar as one of the most festive seasons of the year.

 

Meaning of Advent

“Advent” from the Latin adventus means the “coming” or “arrival” of the Christ Child and is marked by the four Sundays preceding Christmas, commemorated in churches and homes by lighting four Advent candles. This year it starts on Sunday, November 28, and ends on December 19.  The Greek word in the New Testament for Jesus’ arrival is parousia, (παρουσία) a word commonly used during that time in anticipation of the arrival of a king, emperor, or official.

As we shall see, many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots, while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history. (more…)

History of Black Friday: One Day Only?

November 26, 2021 /
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Black FridayHISTORY OF BLACK FRIDAY: ONE DAY ONLY?

While it is difficult to connect this term to the start of the Christmas shopping sales season before its use in the mid-1960s in Philadelphia, the concept appears to go back to the 19th century when Christmas sales followed Thanksgiving Day parades. In 1939 President Franklin D Roosevelt set the date of Thanksgiving to the next-to-last Thursday in November rather than the last Thursday of the month, allowing an extra week of shopping before Christmas.

 

Black Friday History

On December 26, 1941, Congress officially made Thanksgiving the 4th Thursday in November. Though procrastinators usually make the shopping days immediate before Christmas the most profitable, Black Friday is undoubtedly one of the busiest shopping days of the year, if not the busiest. Below are some helpful definitions for specific holiday terms used during this time of year:

  • Black Friday: a shopping holiday that begins earlier each year, once beginning at 7 am, then at 4 am (or even midnight), on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Starting in 2013, it slipped into Thanksgiving Day. Recently, Target stores opened Thanksgiving Day from 5 pm to 1 am Friday, then re-open at 7 am Friday morning. At one time, Black Friday was the official opening of the Christmas shopping season, given its name due to the belief that retailers would now be “in the black” (profitable) as opposed to “in the red” (losses), both historical accounting terms. However, this particular connotation of Black Friday did not arrive until the 1980s. The opening day phenomenon of Christmas decorations is now being eroded by Christmas Creep.
  • Christmas Creep: as I’ve written previously, this is the tendency of retailers to introduce the beginning of the Christmas shopping season along with attendant decorations and music earlier in the year to drive consumer behavior. Once occurring around Thanksgiving, it is now happening before Halloween. To give Black Friday Creep new meaning, this year, Amazon announced its Black Friday-worthy deals on October 4. That will teach the 2021 supply chain some lessons!

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