It’s not long before we can spread good cheer and happiness as we celebrate the Christmas holiday.
The main ways in which we celebrate and understand the occasion are very similar around the world. It’s all about the time, community, food sharing, gift giving, and general merry celebrations.
While Christmas is an ostensibly Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, many of its rituals and traditions come from other cultures, both secular and spiritual.
The first Christmas
The path of Christmas to the modern celebration that we enjoy today was not a straight one.
In the fourth century, it was recorded as the first Christmas celebration. Christmas is celebrated in December around the time of the northern Winter Solstice.
The similarities between the Saturnalia festival, celebrated by the Romans in December, and our own Christmas tradition are obvious.
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Saturnalia emphasized the sharing of food and drink and spending time with loved ones as the colder winter period arrived. There is even evidence that the Romans exchanged little gifts of food to mark the occasion.
Saturnalia is still celebrated today by some people with food and drinks. Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Saturnalia was a cultural tradition that was carried over into the Christmas traditions we know today.
Turning an eye to the Germanic-Scandinavian context also provides intriguing connections. Yule, a winter celebration in the Norse Religion, was celebrated around the time we associate today with December.
Yule began with the Wild Hunt. This was a spiritual event when Odin, the Norse God of Thunder, rode across the sky in his white eight-legged horse.
Odin, who rode by each house, would leave small gifts. This was exciting for children and families.
Yule, like the Roman Saturnalia, was a time to prepare for winter when a lot of food and drinks were consumed.
Yule celebrations included bringing branches of trees inside and decorating them. This was likely the beginning of the tree that we know today.
The decorated Christmas tree has its origins in Northern Europe. Laura LaRose/Flickr CC-BY
In Norwegian and Danish, “Jul” is the word used for Christmas. This shows the influence of Yule in the celebrations of Northern European countries. This connection is also maintained in the English language, which refers to Christmas as “Yuletide.”
Santa Claus is coming.
We can see that Odin is connected to Santa Claus through the gift-giving concept, even though Santa Claus is a modern invention. This was made clear by the famous poem The Visit of St Nicholas, also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” which was attributed in 1837 to American poet Clement Clarke Moore. However, the debate over the author of the poem continues.
The poem received a great deal of attention and became popular immediately. Its fame spread far beyond America and reached all corners of the globe. This poem is responsible for many of the images we now associate with Santa Claus, including the very first mention of his reindeer.
Even the Santa Claus figure is a constant manifestation of customs, traditions, and representations.
Santa’s evolution has echoes not only of Odin but also of historical figures like Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who was known for his charitable works — and the legendary Dutch figure Sinterklaas, which derived from him.
Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, looks very similar. Hans Splinter/Flickr, CC BY-ND
Christmas in Australia during the summer
In the Northern Hemisphere, the idea of tying Christmas to winter festivals or bringing in customs is most appealing during the colder months.
In the Southern Hemisphere, countries like New Zealand and Australia have developed their brand of Christmas celebrations that are more suitable for the summer months.
In these regions, Christmas is a foreign event that serves as a constant reminder of the expansion of European colonialism during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The European tradition of celebrating Christmas is still present, as it is a time to be merry, give gifts, and foster community spirit.
Even the traditional food is still influenced by Euro-British tradition, with Turkey and Ham being the most prominent.
There are different ways of celebrating Christmas in New Zealand as well as in other regions, which have no connection to winter festivals.
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Barbecues and beach days are prominent new traditions, as borrowed practices co-exist with novel ways of adapting the event to a different context.
Try pavlova for a more summery Christmas in New Zealand. Marco Verch/Flickr CC-BY
Pavlovas, with their fresh fruit toppings on a meringue-based base, are often substituted for the wintery puddings.
It is only logical that the Southern Hemisphere will celebrate Christmas outside due to the warmer temperatures.
It also shows that both cultural and geographic factors can influence the evolution in which important festivals are celebrated. If you want to have a really cold Christmas, then there’s always the mid-year ChristmasChristmas in July.