*** holiday attire : Christmas Kerstmisse Il natale navidad NoŽl Weihnachtsfest yule

Seasonal Holliday Attire: Christmas

Christmas smock
Figure 1.--This boy outfitted in the 1890s shows his Christmas presents. Note his doll, a boy dall dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, even though he himself has not yet been breeched. I'm not sure if the boy is wearing a smock or dress.

The modern conception of Santa Claus as an elf, for whom offerings of milk and cookies are left, is possibly a modern continuation of leaving offerings for the Alvar and other nature spirits. The idea of children staying up all night in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Santa Claus may be a remnant of people staying awake to mark the long night and remind the sun to return. (In the latter case it's considered an adequate substitution for those who need their sleep to leave a candle going all night to light the way for the returning sun.) The American image of Santa Clause is in fact a drawing that appeared in a Coca Cola advertisement. Yule was a week long festival, not just a single holiday. The Yule season begins on the solstice, which is the Mother Night of Yule, and ends with Twelfth Night/New Years. As a point of interest, January seventh is St. Distaff's day, which Nigel Pennic has suggested may have been a day sacred to Frigg, whose symbol is the distaff. While one might expect a rather dour theme to a holiday held in the darkness and cold, Yule is a time of feasting and gladness, another major similarity with modern Christmas.

Word Origins

The world Christmas obviously means Christ's Mass. Indeed one of the spellings used until the late 19th century was Christmass. The term first appears in England in late Old English as is Cristes Maesse, meaning the Mass of or for Christ in 1038. Spelling until the mid-19th century was highly invidualistic. The term appears again as Cristes-messe in 1131. The Dutch term is quite similar, Kerst-misse. The Latin term was Dies Natalis which was the origin for the French NoŽl, the Italian Il natale, and the Spanish navidad. The German term is different--Weihnachtsfest. his apparently was derived from the preceeding sacred vigil. Scholars differ over the origins of the term Yule. [Catholic-CE]

The Day

Celebrating Christ's birth for Christians presented a problem in that no one knows when Jesus was born. It almost certainly was not December. Cattle "lowing in the fields" does not sound much like Christmas. Christmas is, however, celebrated on December 25 throughout Christendom, as the birth of Christ primarily because of the importance of Saturnalia in Roman culture. December 25 was also the most important feast day in the Mithris cult--one of the most important of the many cults competing with Chistianity in the 1st century AD. ChChristmas was once a moveable feast celebrated many different times during the year. The choice of December 25 was made by the Pope Julius I in the fourth century AD, in oart because this coincided with the pagan rituals of Winter Solstice, or Return of the Sun. The intent was to replace the pagan celebration with the Christian one. In 1752, 11 days were dropped from the year when the switch was from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The December 25 date was effectively moved 11 days backwards. Eastern Orthodox Christians, still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (previously December 25 of the Julian calendar.)

Historical Background

Christmas is a Christian festival held annually to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This was complicated somewhat because the birthdate of Jesus is unknown, but of course the choice of the winter soltice can not be accidental. The origin of Christmas celebrations is unknown. Scholars believe that it is in part derived from the pre-Christian rites of Germanic and Celtic tribes held in celebration of the winter soltice. Christmas was not celebrated by early Christians. One source suggests that the Emperor Constantine the Great in the Fourth Century chose December 25th to celebrate Jesus' birthday because it was the holy day of Mithras--Christianity's chief rival at the time. The early Church as a way of converting the pagans commonly tured pagan celebrations into Christian celebrations. Christmas is just one such holiday. Modern Christmas is thus a blend of Christian mixed with Celtic, Roman, Zoroastrian, and other influences. The acrual infliences vary from country to country meaning that the celebration of Christmas varies around the world.

National Celebrations

Celebrating Christ's birth for Christians presented a problem in that no one knows when Jesus was born. It almost certainly was not December. Christmas is celebrated on December 25 throughout Christendom, as the birth of Christ primarily because of the importance of Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival in honor of Saturn the god of Agriculture, in Roman culture. Besides adopting some of the feartures of Saturnalia, there are many non-religious customs and practices which have developed over the years. These customs are in many cases peculiar to different countries. Germany has played an especially important role, in part because of the Christams traditions Prince Albert brought from Germany when he married Queen Victoria, many of which have since been past on to America. Many modern Christmas traditions are based on these English Victorian traditions. Here are the many Christmas traditions we know of around the world. We hope that HBC readers will tell us something about Christmas traditions in their countries.

Figure 4.--Christmas cards, often post cards, in the early 20th century through the 1920s still commonly featured children, although they were less commonly in skeleton suits or Fauntleroy suits. This English boy in a card probably made in the 1910s wears a wide white Eton collar and bow tie.This boy was shot in several different poses for a series of cards. This was a common practice for posr careds in the early 20th century.

Saint Nicholas

Nicholas was one of those children who come along once in a while who are clever than most others in some way or another. For many their extraordinary ability is something which they have throughout their life. For others it lasts until the end of their childhood. Other children, such as Nicholas have a gift which is nurtured through childhood and reaches its full potential in adulthood. History often contains well documented stories about the doings and achievements of children. Nicholas was born long ago so the historical record of his achievement is buried in tradition and legend. The facts associated with Nicholas are merged into a fanciful story that has been embellished by time. Paintings of his image exist but only from his adulthood. I have not been able to discover the boy?s family name only his first name in my searches about him.

Christmas Cards

Chrismas cards are one of the many Christmas traditions that we have inherited from the Victorian era. Christmas cards became an important part of Europen and American Christmas traditions in the late-19th century. YThey are used to share the joy of the holiday season as well as bring wishes of joy and health to family and friends. They allow family and friends to remind each other that they are thinking about them. People use the annual Christmas card to "keep in touch" with family and friends. These cards have evolved over time, but the purpose and sentiment has remained little changed.

Christmas Traditions

Christmas traditions vary widely from country to country. One of the most common is the Christmas tree which has Celtic/German origins. The tradition came to England with Price Albert (1840s) and became a Victorian staple. The Germans who emigrated to America brought it with them. Many southern European and Latin American families have Christmas chreches. With mother media these traditions have tended to blend somewhat with creches under the Christmas tree. Decorating the gouyse with greenery is another Celtic cistom which has found its way to the modern home. The characters involved in Christmas also vary as do the specific day celebrated and the nature of the celebration. Gift giving is a common Christmas celebration, although the day chosen for this is not always Christmas. A popular tradition in Europe is an Advent calander. We have begun to see this in America although it is not very common. Food is a major aspect of Christmas celebrations, but this varies wsidely from country to country. There are also religious differences because there are so many Christian denominations.

Christmas and Children

Christmas of course is the number one holiday for almost all Christian kids. Often children are dressed up in their best party clothes for Christmas. The girls seem to enjoy this, but the boys are less excited about it. Of corse, most children are willing to put up with a great deal given the loot they collect on December 25. Of course the holiday most associated with dressing up is easter.

Christmas Outfits

Children have traditionally dressed up for Christmas events, or probably more correctly mums insist that they dress up. Special dressy outfits are often brought for Christmas. This tradition has declined, but not disappeared. We have little information on historic periods. Many of these outfits in the 19th and most of the 20th century were dressy outfits, often suits for the boys and formal dresses for the girls. In the late 20th century Christmas outfits have become increasingly more casual. Christmas in Europe and North America is commonly associated with cold weatherwear. This is of course not the case for countries in the southern hemisphere--although their traditions come largely from northern hemoisphere countries.


"Christmas," Catholic Encyclopedia (CE).


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Created: December 27, 1998
Last updated: 6:23 PM 1/15/2007