The 12 myths of Christmas
By Christopher Howse in the Daily
Prince Albert invented Christmas trees
The tree that Queen Victoria and he set up for their five children in
1848 was depicted in the Illustrated London News and the custom, still
seen then as a Germanic importation, was taken up by the prosperous
classes. But another royal consort, George III's wife, Charlotte of
Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had made the Christmas tree a feature of life at
court from 1761.
2. Mistletoe was banned from churches
Roud points out in his learned The English Year, there is no evidence
of mistletoe being banished by law from churches, nor even that it was
used in "pagan" ceremonies in England. Pliny (in the first century AD)
describes Druids harvesting mistletoe with a olden sickle, but that was
in Gaul centuries before the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain.
3. Decorations should come down on January 6th
19th century, people would keep the decorations of holly, ivy, box,
yew, laurel and mistletoe up until February 2nd, Candlemas Day, the end
of the Christmas season, 40 days after the birth of Jesus. Robert
Herrick in his poem Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve writes, "Down with the
rosemary and bays, / Down with the mistletoe; / Instead of holly, now
up-raise / The greener box, for show." In the reign of Victoria
decorations came down on Twelfth Night, Jan 6, and generally were burnt.
6th is the Orthodox Christmas
celebrate Christmas on Jan 7 by our calendar because their calendar
does not incorporate the Gregorian reforms of the 16th century. For
some years their calendar was only 12 days adrift, and their Dec 25
fell on our Jan 6. This is when, in the West, the Epiphany falls, the
feast of the discovery of the child Jesus by the three wise men or
magi. This feast is important to the Orthodox, usually being called the
Theophany. But they will be celebrating it on Jan 19.
5. We three kings of Orient are
not called kings in the Bible but "wise men from the east" (Matthew
2:1). They are taken to be kings because in the prophet Isaiah (60:3),
it says, "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the
brightness of thy rising." They are taken to be three because of their
three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The incense signifies the
divinity of Christ, since it was burnt in divine worship among the Jews
and in the pagan world, too. Gold stands for royalty and myrrh for the
future sufferings of Christ, who was offered wine mixed with myrrh to
drink on the Cross, and whose body was anointed with myrrh and aloes
before his burial. Their names came later: Caspar, Melchior and
Balthazar (the last usually represented as black) are the names
supplied in the sixth-century mosaic in the church of Sant'Apollinare
6. It is illegal to eat mince pies on
An Act of
June 8 1647, declared that "forasmuch as the Feasts of the Nativity of
Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and other Festivals commonly called
Holy-Days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed, be
it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, that the
said Holy Days be no longer observed". Mince pies were not singled out.
In 1657, the diarist John Evelyn was arrested at a forbidden Holy
Communion service on Christmas Day and interrogated as to why he "durst
offend, & particularly be at Common prayers, which they told me was
but the Masse in English". The anti-Christmas laws of the interregnum
lapsed at the restoration.
7. Santa Claus is American
Nicholas was Bishop of Myrna, in what is now Turkey. But his
transmogrification into Santa Claus was indeed accomplished in America,
largely through the popularity of a poem, The Visit of St Nicholas,
usually known from its first line as The Night before Christmas,
published anonymously in 1822 by Clement C. Moore, an Episcopal
clergyman from New York, until then better known as a Hebrew scholar.
He incorporated customs connected by the Dutch with the feast of St
Nicholas, December 6th.
8. Santa Claus is the same as Father Christmas
personifications of Christmas hundreds of years ago, Sir Christmas or
Father Christmas. In a 16th-century manuscript there is a carol
nowell, nowell, nowell."
"Who is there
that singeth so,
"I am here, Sir
lord, Sir Cristesmasse."
9. Nowell means "good news"
Nowell is a
word fraught with misunderstanding. It comes through Old French from
the Latin natalem (accusative), "birthday", referring to the birth of
Christ. It does not come from nouvelle, the French for "new". It was
used centuries ago in English as an exclamation of joy, not just in
carols (where it survives), but also in circumstances unconnected with
Christmas (as in the welcoming home of Henry V from Agincourt). Only in
the 19th century did it come to be used (in the form noel) as a synonym
10. Adeste Fidelis is an ancient carol
carols are in Latin but the words of Adeste Fidelis are found in a
manuscript dating only from 1750, written by John Wade, a scholar of
plainchant. It is assumed that he invented them. The words were
translated into English by Frederick Oakeley in 1841. "Carol" was at
first the name for a dance, and the songs that went with the dance came
to be called carols too. They were not at all limited to Christmas
subjects, touching on love, mortality, devotion to the Holy Trinity,
war, lullabies and the Virgin Mary. There are plenty of manuscripts
from the 15th century. The phrase "Christmas carol" appears in an early
printed book sold by Wynkyn de Worde, the colleague of Caxton, in the
early 16th century.
11. Good King Wenceslas looked out
The Feast of Stephen is Boxing Day,
and Wenceslas did exist. He was known as Vaclav to the Bohemians he
ruled and he was murdered by his brother in 929. He is the patron saint
of the Czech Republic, so there is no quarrel with the adjective
"good". Much of the rest comes from the prolific pen of John Mason
Neale, who published the lyrics in 1853 to go with a medieval tune he
had come across that had originally fitted a song about the spring,
Tempus adest floridum, which was printed in a collection called Piae
Cantiones in 1582. Though the historical basis is lacking, it is
unkind, as some hymnologists have, to call Neale's verses "doggerel".
12. Christmas cards originally had
In 1843 John
Calcott Horsley, a painter, designed a Christmas card for sale for Sir
Henry Cole, the great designer and founder of the Victoria and Albert
Museum. The cards were lithographed by Joseph Cundall, were
hand-coloured and sold at the high price of a shilling each. The first
card sold 1,000. The picture was of family cheer, not a religious scene.
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