Christmas from Pagan Times

26th December 1835
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A look back on Christmas traditions from times gone past as published in the Clonmel Herald on Saturday 26 December 1835

CHRISTMAS

The birth of the Redeemer of the world is generally supposed to have taken place at the time of the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles, about the autumnal equinox, and four years earlier than the received computation—hence the year 1836 should be 1840. It was not employed as an era until the reign of Justinian, in the Sixth Century; but Dionysius, a Roman Abbot, at whose persuasion that Emperor was induced to patronise it, not possessing any very correct or extensive literature, miscalculated its period; and the Venerable Bede, in haste to subscribe to chronological date so honourable to Christianity, soon afterwards introduced it into Britain, and thus established the error. 

But though the year and the day of this wondrous event be matters of some uncertainty, the event itself is unquestionable; and has been perpetuated by a general observance from the earliest age. "It is a faithful saying, and Worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."

Our vernacular name for this season of the year is drawn from the services by which it is distinguished. The term mass was originally used in the church for a form of dismissal from religious exercises, and from it derived from the Latin missus, sent; such form used at the close of the Lord's Supper was called missa fidelium, the dismissal of the believers. By the policy of the clergy, this afterwards gave its denomination to that ordinance which, subsequently converted into sacrifice, is the mass in the R.C. church. Christmas, then, is literally the festival of the birth of the messiah, the name of our adorable Saviour which, like the Greek, Christos, means anointed. Amongst the Jews, Prophets, Priests, and Kings were set apart to their respective offices the anointing with oil. Jesus is the prophet and priest, and King of his church, consecrated by the Hour Spirit (Isaiah c. 41. v. I. 2. Luka c. 4. v. 11.) 

Christmas was, in Britain, first instituted for a festival of the idol Thor; and bore the name of Yuletide word about which there is great difference opinion among etymologists—some of whom refer it Danish, others Gothic, others Saxon origin, and others to the Jubilum.

  • The Gothic word jute means make merry; hence the word hule, holy, holiday; the Icelandic word jol imports turning round to the same point; and it to to be remarked that this word (jol) is pronounced almost like the word wheel.
  • This also is the French word haule, whence the tin verb volvo; the former meaning a wave of the sea, the latter to roll round; it may also observed that there is some affinity between the word and the Greek word kulio, which means to roll round.
  • It may be observed here as a curious coincidence in very different languages, that the Persian word for a turban, the headdress so universal in the Eastern countries, is a compound one, the first part of which (dool) meant revolution wheel, etc. The turband, we need scarcely observe, is made of two parts, the cap, and the muslin, linen, or silk band, which wound round the head, and which is several yards in length; all these terms referring to the year as having completed its revolution. 

This substitution grafted many of the profane observances of the Paganists upon the Christian holiday, which was easily desecrated into a season of sensual indulgence. The boar, first hunted down in the forest, supplying at all times a favourite dish to our rude ancestors, was uniformly served on this occasion. Later periods added the feast plum-pudding and minced pies. A preparation of spiced ale, called from its softness, "Lambs wool" supplied the wassail bowl; and whilst the yule log lighted up the otherwise unfurnished hearth, the carol, or song helped to give expression to the boisterous mirth of the sinful carnival. The now absolute custom of lighting up candles on the eve of Christmas day, as a pagan ceremony, used in reference to the passing away of the shortest day of the year, the priesthood, in like manner, perpetuated and appropriated to remind their semibarbarous disciples "of the day spring from on high having visited us to give light to them that sit in darkness” as by eating boar’s flesh at this season they taoglit them to express abhorrence of Judaism; and by plum puddings and mince pies, to call to remembrance the offerings presented to the infant SaVioUß'by the eastern Magi. It is perhaps deserving of a passing notice, that the bear’s head is still annually served this day in the hall of Queen's College, Oxford, and introduced with monkish carol. 

The practice of ornamenting houses and churches with evergreens still continued, and thought by some to identify the season with the period of the Feast of Tabernacles may be regarded as proper and innocent expression oQoy. (See Levit. c. 23 rerse 40; Matt. c. 21, r. 1 14.) In every age, this season has rery properly been distinguished by acts of liberality. Anciently the dears of the rich were open to their tenantry and vassals, where, by prescriptive right, the guests were met in the festive ball with smiles and greetings, echoed back by the grateful and responsive salutation of a merry Christmas and happy ’Sew Year." To deal our bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to our house” must be regarded a* a must appropriate mode of acknowledging the unspeakable blessing which this festival is appointed to commemorate, and though the altered state of the tiroes has superseded the rude hospitality of earlier periods, Christmas has not lost, happily, this distinctive feature of ancient benevolence.— know the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for our takes became poor, that through his poverty might be rich." Let Unit same mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." 

The origin of Christmas boxes has been referred to the advantage taken of this seasonable liberality during the darker ages of the church, by some of the profligate ministers of religion; for masses or religious services were then devised for every purpose that could gratify cupidity and avarice; and amongst others for the safety of ships that took long voyages—(this was long before the invention of the Mariner's compass.) 

To pay for this, a box was kept by the officiating priest, for the reception of money or other valuable bestowments, and that no persons interested might neglect to make oblations, the poor were encouraged to beg of their neighbours under the term box money. The box was opened at Christmas, and the name became soon the denomination of its contents. 

The observance of Christmas is not morally obligatory but may prove useful as prudential help to grateful recollections, and the opportunity of discharging charitable duties—observances of this kind are also important historical data. Leslie in his "short and easy method with the Deists" has laid down some rules as to matters of fact, which, whenever they occur, render them indubitable, "They are—

  1. That they be such that men's outward senses their eyes and ears, may be judges of them.
  2. That they may be dune publicly in the face of the world.
  3. That not only public monuments be kept up in memory of them, but some outward actions be performed.
  4. That such monuments, and such actions, and observances be instituted and do commence from the time that the matters of fact were done."

Hence he argues in favour of the mission of Moses from the observance of the Passover; and of the death of the Saviour, from the continuance of the Lord's Supper. A similar argument fur the birth Christ is found in the observance of Christmas. But let us always keep in view that "he that regardeth the day to the Lord he regardeth it." 

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