Tracing festive rituals

GETTING INTO THE FESTIVE SPIRIT: Paper hats and crackers are all part of the dinner table on Christmas Day and have their origins as gimmicks to entice more sales at a London sweet shop.
GETTING INTO THE FESTIVE SPIRIT: Paper hats and crackers are all part of the dinner table on Christmas Day and have their origins as gimmicks to entice more sales at a London sweet shop.

IT'S a time of family and giving, but few people know why Christmas is celebrated on December 25.

The date was marked officially as the birth of Jesus by the Christian traveller Sextus Julius Africanus, in 221.

It was, under the Roman Empire, a popular holiday that celebrated the winter soltice, heralding a fresh spring and summer.

But it wasn't until the 9th century that December 25 became a date of importance among the Christian community, of similar rank to Easter.

And it wasn't until another 700 years later, in 1605, there was a recording in Strasbourg of fir trees, decorated with apples, to mark Christmas Day.

The Christmas tree was decorated with candles by a Silesian duchess in 1611.

There were traditionally four candles denoting the four Sundays of the Advent season, a custom which was transported to North America in the 1800s.

By then, another tradition emerged, that of the advent calendar, with 24 windows, to be opened on consecutive days from December 1.

The calendar can be traced to a Munich housewife, tired of endless questions from her children about when Christmas would come.

Gift giving at Christmas time dates to the 15th century, when it was common practice for family members to exchange presents.

The practice has theological roots, reminding Christians of God's gift of Jesus.

This enhanced the theory that Christmas was a secular holiday, focused on family and friends.

No Christmas dinner table is complete without the crackers, or bon-bons, which originated in London in the mid-1800s.

The bon-bons originated as a gimmick, made out of lolly-wrappers, when there was a slump in the sale of sweets and bon-bons at Tom Smith's shop.

(Years later, after inheriting his father's business, Walter Smith added to the idea of bon-bons with paper hats.) Hollywood has cashed in on the annual celebration with a score of films that have become classics.

Among these are It's a Wonderful Life (1946), along with White Christmas (1954) and A Christmas Carol (1938).

Boxing Day, December 26, dates to ancient Christian ritual, with the idea that Christmas should be marked for a week.

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