Ancient and other Customs of Christmas
Christmas as a holiday period was instituted and celebrated at about the same time as other winter solstice festivities because church leaders at the time believed that would make more people participate in the new holiday period. That objective was achieved, but people also carried over some pagan celebrations and traditions into the religious Christmas celebrations.
As an example, people would attend church and then take part in a raucous, drunken and carnival-like celebration, that has some similarities to Mardi Gras. During this celebration every year, there would be a crowning of a beggar or student as the 'lord of misrule.' Those taking part in the activities would pretend to be loyal subjects to the 'lord of misrule,' During this time some of the poor would also visit the rich in their houses and ask for some of their best food and drink. Those among the rich who didn't cooperate would be subject to rowdy behavior and mischief by the poor. For their part, the rich used Christmas as the time when they would reach out to the poorer members of society by tolerating them in such visits or by leaving out food and clothing for them.
For many centuries before the birth of Christ and the recognition of Christmas, there had always been celebrations in many countries during the middle of winter. During the darkest days of winter for example, the early Europeans were said to celebrate light and birth. The winter solstice was a period of rejoicing for many people because it meant that the worst part of winter was over and they could therefore look forward to having days that were longer with more hours of sunlight.
In that tradition, the Norse peoples in Scandinavia would celebrate a period of Yule from Dec. 21, which was the winter solstice or start of winter, through January. To recognize the re-emergence of the sun, fathers and their sons would take large logs home and set them on fire. There would then be a big feast until the log was completely burned out. That could take as much as 12 days to happen.
The custom also was one of hope for the Norse because there was the belief among them that every spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born in the New Year. Many parts of Europe also thought that the end of December was a perfect time to celebrate because during that time, a lot of cattle would be killed to avoid having to feed them during winter. For many people, the end of December was the only time during the year when they had a significant amount of fresh meat. By that time of year also, wine and beer that was made earlier in the year would have fermented and be finally ready for drinking.
The tradition of Santa Claus has also been an ancient legend with slight differences or variations in olden days from the 1700s in some countries. In German and Switzerland, children who were well behaved would receive a Christmas present from Christkind or Kris Kringle. Christkind, which means Christ child, was believed to be an angel-like figure that went along with St. Nicholas on his holiday journeys to deliver gifts.
A jolly elf by the name of Jultomten was believed to deliver presents in Scandinavia in a sleigh that was pulled by goats. And in France, Pere Noel is the one who fills the shoes of French children with Christmas gifts, sweets or treats at Christmas time.
In Russia, there's a legend that Babouschka was an elderly woman who gave incorrect directions to Bethlehem to the three Wise Men so that they wouldn't find Jesus. She later felt sorry for doing so but couldn't find the Wise Men to tell them about the error. Today in Russia, it is believed that on Jan. 5, the day before the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, Babouschka visits Russian children and leaves presents by their bedsides in the hope that one of the children will be Baby Jesus and will forgive her.
Ancient and other Customs of Christmas