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History of Christmas Trees   History of Christmas Trees    History of Ornaments   ● History of Candy Canes   History of Lights

elebrations during the mid-winter season were common, even before Christmas was celebrated on December 25.

Christmas 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 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. Some Christian church sects, called old calendarists, still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (previously Dec. 25 of the Julian calendar.)

Many of the traditions associated with Christmas (giving gifts, lighting a Yule log, singing carols, decorating an evergreen) hark back to older religions.

Some traditions described here are reminiscent of modern day customs, and others, like the Festival of the Radishes in Mexico, are bizarre and fascinating.

Winter Solstice
Winter Solstice celebrations are held on the eve of the shortest day of the year. During the first millennium in whatNorthern Lights is today Scotland, the Druids celebrated Winter Solstice honoring their Sun God and rejoicing his return as the days got longer, signaling the coming of spring. Also called Yule, this tradition still lives today in the Wiccan traditions and in many cultures around the world.

A huge log -- the Yule Log -- is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a great bonfire. Everyone dances and sings around the fire. All the noise and great excitement is said to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep, hurrying spring on its way as the cycle begins once again and the days grow longer than the nights.

Dosmoche -- Tibetan Celebration of the Dying Year
Lasting five days, this festival centers around a magical pole covered with stars, crosses, and pentagrams made of string. Dancers dress up in hideous masks to frighten away the evil spirits for the coming year. Feasting and prayers fill the days and the finale is when the pole is torn down by the townsfolk.

Feast of the Ass -- Middle Ages Christian
At one time this was a solemn celebration reenacting the flight of the holy family into Egypt and ending with Mass in the church.

The festival became very popular as it transformed into a humorous parody in which the ass was led into the church and treated as an honored guest while the priest and the congregation all brayed like asses. The Church suppressed it in the fifteenth century, although it remained popular and did not die out until years later.

Chaomos -- Pakistan Winter Solstice
The ancient traditions of Pakistan pre-date the Christian era. During winter solstice, an ancient demigod returns to collect prayers and deliver them to Dezao, the supreme being. During this celebrations women and girls are purified by taking ritual baths.

The men pour water over their heads while they hold up bread. Then the men and boys are purified with water and must not sit on chairs until evening when goat's blood is sprinkled on their faces.

Following this purification, a great festival begins, with singing, dancing, bonfires, and feasting on goat tripe and other delicacies.

Wassailing the Apple Trees
This humorous tradition was documented in 1851 in a London Newspaper. In Devonshire, England, on Twelfth Night (January 7), the farmers get their weapons and go to their apple orchard. Selecting the oldest tree, they form a circle and chant:

Here's to thee, old apple tree
Whence thou mayst bud and whence thou mayst blow
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow:
Hats full, caps full,
Bushels, bushels, sacks full,
And my pockets full too!
Huzza! Huzza!

The men drink cider, make merry, and fire their weapons (charged only with powder) at the tree. They return to the home and are denied entrance no matter what the weather by the women indoors. When one of the men guesses the name of the roast that is being prepared for them, all are let in. The one who guessed the roast is named "King for the Evening" and presides over the party until the wee hours.

La BefanaLa Befana -- Italy's Santa Claus
La Befana, a kindly witch, rides a broomstick down the chimney to deliver toys into the stockings of Italian children. The legends say that Befana was sweeping her floors when the three Wise Men stopped and asked her to come to see the Baby Jesus. "No," she said, "I am too busy." Later, she changed her mind but it was too late. So, to this day, she goes out on Christmas Eve searching for the Holy Child, leaving gifts for the "holy child" in each household.

Ganna - Ethiopian Christmas
Legend has it that the shepherds rejoiced when they learned of the birth of Christ and they waved their hooked staffs about and played Ganna. This is the origin of the game called Ganna that is traditionally played on Christmas Day (January 7 - the older date of Christmas) by all the men and boys in Ethiopia.

Night of the Radishes
This unusual event takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico on December 23 each year. It dates to the mid-nineteenth century and commemorates the introduction of the radish by the Spanish colonists. Radishes in this region grow to the size of yams but are not the rounded shape we usually see. They are twisted and and distorted by growing in the rocky soil. These unusual shapes are exploited as local artisans carve them into elaborate scenes from the Bible, from history, and from the Aztec legends. Cash prizes are awarded and the evening culminates with a spectacular fireworks display.

Hari-Kuyo -- Japanese Festival of the Broken Needles
This is a Buddhist celebration held on December 8 each year throughout Japan. It is a tradition that has been carried on since at least 400 AD. Once only observed by tailors and dressmakers, today anyone who sews participates.

A special shrine is made for the needles containing offerings of food and scissors and thimbles. A pan of tofu (soybean curd) is the center of the shrine and all the broken and bent needles are inserted into it. As the needles go into the tofu, the sewer recites a special prayer in thanks for its fine service over the year. The needles find their final resting place at sea, as devotees everywhere wrap their tofu in paper and launch them out to sea.

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