Traditions of the annual celebration known and loved the world over stretch back thousands of years, with its roots in pagan midwinter festivals, later merged by early church leaders with Jesus' nativity celebrations.
The Christian holiday dates back to the fourth century and since that time Christmas customs have gradually changed over the years. But many of the ancient symbols and religious expressions of the season have been adopted and adapted, and persist to modern day.
One of the most recognisable and iconic symbols of the holiday season is the Christmas Tree, a 16th Century Germanic innovation, which was adapted from the pagan practice of decorating homes with natural greenery. The familiar triangular shape of the evergreen tree was later adopted by the Christian
celebration to represent the holy trinity - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
The Celtic tradition of bringing plants, like holly, into the home during midwinter is also said to have sparked the tradition for decorating at this time of year in colours of red and green. This was later built upon by the Christian belief that red symbolised the blood of Christ. More recently, Coca-Cola can be attributed to cementing the festive connotations of red and green when, in 1931, they created an advertising campaign depicting Santa dressed in rich red against a deep green background, punctuated with images of holly. Although Santa and his red clothing was not an idea conceived by Coca-Cola, their ads were so widely distributed over around a 30 year period, and have since resurfaced year after year that they have helped the palette become synonymous with the season.
Along with bright and bold green and red, gold is a colour strongly connected with Christmas. Said to originate from Celtic midwinter festivals, decorating with the colour gold (or yellow) would bring warmth to the home during the cold and dark season. And in Christian traditions gold was one of the gifts brought to Jesus by the three wise men – fitting for the babe born to be “king of the Jews”, as the colour is also said to symbolise 'royalty'.
Candles were another Germanic tradition, the glow of light representing the glimmer of hope in the darkness of the Winter months. In the middle ages the Catholic Church adopted the use of candles to symbolise the four weeks of Advent (prayer, penance, preparation, and rejoicing) and Jesus Christ as
“the light of the world”.
At this time of year Angels can be seen adorning greetings cards and sitting atop brightly decorated trees, derived from Christian holiday traditions and representing the Angels who appeared over Bethlehem to tell of Jesus' birth.
Another emblem of the festive season is the robin redbreast, a tradition which is said to be linked to a story that, whilst giving birth to Jesus in the stable, Mary saw a small brown bird flap its wings, which reignited the diminishing flame of the fire. A stray ember is said to have scorched the bird's breast,
turning it red and representing its 'kind heart'. A more contemporary tale of origin regards the emergence of sending Christmas cards in Victorian
times. At that time, postmen in England were nicknamed 'robin' or 'redbreast' due to their bright red clothing. Many Christmas card illustrations centred around the subject of 'delivery’, depicting postmen, letterboxes and such.
Eventually, artists began to draw the red breasted birds themselves instead of the postmen, and the bird's strong association with the Winter months has meant that the tradition is as strong as ever today.
Depictions of deer are often seen, from reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh to timid doe and regal stags in snowy woodland scenes. They are reported to represent innocence, especially significant when considering the birth of a child, and from a religious point of view serve to remind people to be compassionate and kind. Again, particularly poignant given that it is the season of “goodwill to all men”.
giving. The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas in the UK didn't occur until the late 1800s (previously gifts were given on New Year's Day, as a blessing for the year ending), although it is now inextricably linked with the festive season.