‘Tis the time to make merry! The air is chilly, but filled with the fragrance of festive preparations. Twinkly lights line the streets, as revellers bustle about finishing their last-minute shopping. Homes are adorned in festive decorations, as people busy themselves over pots of aromatic mulled wine, plum cakes, and goodies. Christmas is here. And it is time to get together with our loved ones and celebrate with warmth, love, and joy.
Christmas is celebrated differently in different parts of the world. Some people go door to door singing carols, while others prefer staying in the warmth of their homes with a glass of wine. Some have people over, while others head out on a vacation. No matter how different the celebrations are, there are a few traditions that are universal, and have become synonymous with Christmas. Soulveda explores the origins of a few such legends and traditions associated with the festival of joy and cheer.
A common image that Christmas brings to mind is that of a jolly old man in a red suit who shimmies down the chimney on the eve of Christmas to leave presents for the little ones of the house. Known as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, this man is said to ride a cart pulled by reindeers and is accompanied by elves.
The story of Santa Claus is said to have originated from the legend of Saint Nicholas, a wealthy fourth-century monk. While the mythical Santa Claus is believed to live in the North Pole, Saint Nicholas is believed to have lived in modern-day Turkey. It is said that he distributed his wealth among the needy. Some say, he was conferred sainthood for his piety and generosity.
The practice of hanging decorative stockings under the chimney has an interesting backstory. Legend has it that once there lived a poor man who had three daughters he needed to marry off. However, he had been unsuccessful, as he didn’t have enough money to pay as dowry to their grooms. People of his village knew of his plight but could do nothing to help him. When the word reached Saint Nicholas, he decided to help the man out. He visited his house in the dead of the night, climbed the roof and dropped a bag of gold through the chimney, which fell into a stocking that had been put to dry above the fireplace. The next morning, the man found the gold and was ecstatic. He married off his first daughter with the money. Months later, he found another bag of gold in one of his stockings, with which he married off his second daughter. When the time came for the wedding of his third daughter, the man wanted to find out who was giving him all the gold. So, he stayed up every night, keeping watch. Finally, when Saint Nicholas was caught red-handed, he pleaded with the man to not tell anyone about it. However, word spread and soon, every time people got surprise gifts, they began thinking that it was from Saint Nicholas. And thus began the practice of hanging stockings by the fireplace.
The Christmas season is when most of us binge on sweets, cakes, and desserts. Plum cakes made with rum are a Christmas staple in most countries.
Long before the advent of Christianity, Northern Europeans celebrated winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of winter, around December 22. The punishing cold in the region made people think that the Sun God was ill. Evergreen trees like pine, birch, and fir reminded them of summer and reassured them that the cold weather would make way for warmth and sunshine soon. Hence, they began decorating their homes with leaves, branches and whole sections of these trees in the form of wreaths, hangings, etc. This tradition was also upheld by early Romans during their solstice feast called Saturnalia. The evergreen decorations signified the victory of good over evil.
Today, Yule log is the name of the scrumptious chocolate cake that is baked in the shape of a wooden log. The dessert is but a representation of the wooden log that Nordic people threw into the fire during Yule, the celebration of the winter solstice in Northern Europe. It was customary for families to cut down an entire tree and bring it home on the day of winter solstice. The largest end of the tree was placed in the fireplace, while the rest of the tree lay across the room. For the next 12 days, they basked in the warmth of the burning wood and celebrated Yule. On the Twelfth Night (which usually fell on January 5 or 6), they packed the leftover wood and stored it for the next year.
The Christmas season is when most of us binge on sweets, cakes, and desserts. Plum cakes made with rum are a Christmas staple in most countries. The origin of this tradition, it is believed, was a complete accident. It is said that a fruit seller discovered that he could preserve fruits for long periods of time if he soaked them in loads of sugar. It was a great way to export his produce. Soon, however, he realised that he had to find a way to dispose of tons of leftover fruits. He then decided to throw in spices, butter and, spirits and bake them into cakes. This idea caught on in cultures across the world, it is said. And thus, the Christmas plum cake became a worldwide tradition.