Christmas Myth Trivia: The days and nights before Christmas

Why do the Russians celebrate Christmas in January? What does Boxing Day have to do with piggy banks? What's the Christian interest in December 25?

Photo courtesy of Tim Evanson/flickr

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, December 23, 2015 — What better day to wrap up Christmas trivia than Christmas Eve eve?

Christmas Eve customs: One of the most time-honored Christmas Eve traditions is the Midnight Mass, which is especially observed in Catholic countries like Spain, Mexico, Italy and Poland. The custom was that the Mass was the only one allowed to begin after sunset and before sunrise of the next day. Hence the tradition of holding it at midnight.

When shortened, the Midnight Mass Communion Service become becomes “Christ-Mas.”

In many countries such as Germany, Sweden and Portugal, Christmas Eve is the time when presents are exchanged, leaving Christmas day for the arrival of Santa Claus during the night.

In other European countries, the night before Christmas is when the Christmas tree is brought into the house to be decorated. The Christmas tree itself seems to be a fairly new (500-years-old) tradition from northern Germany, Latvia and Estonia. In the beginning, the tree was usually hung upside-down from the ceiling. The decorated Christmas tree as we know it only became popular in the 19th century, when the tradition spread to the rest of Europe and North America.

It is also a tradition to bring the Yule Log indoors on Christmas Eve to be lit by a piece of the previous year’s log. The log would burn until Twelfth Night, or January 6.

One little known superstition from the United Kingdom said that Christmas Eve was a time when single girls could discover the initials, or possibly have visions, of their future husbands. A special cake known as a “dumb cake” was baked in complete silence. When it was ready, the girl would prick her initials on top of the cake before going to bed. The cake would be left by the fireplace and, at midnight, her true love would arrive to prick his initials next to hers.

The term “piece of cake” is a different story however, which we will save for another time.

Why Christmas on December 25?: No actual date of Christ’s birth is recorded in the Bible, so why do we celebrate on December 25?

There are, as always, multiple debates about the proper time for the celebration. It is generally accepted that Jesus was not born in AD 1 (Anno Domini, or “the Year of the Lord” 1), but probably sometime between 7 BC and 2 BC. There is no AD 0 on the calendar; not only had the Western world not adopted zero as a number when the Venerable Bede counted the years back to the birth of Christ, but it was positively antagonistic to the very idea of zero. The calendar goes directly from 1 BC to AD 1.

(Not incidentally, that’s why the new millennium began in 2001 and not in 2000.)

The first recorded celebration of Christmas on December 25 goes back to AD 336, under the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. A few years afterward, Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the official date to celebrate the birth of Christ.

That said, there are several explanations for why the specific date we use today came to be. One early Christian tradition says that Mary was told she would be the mother of Christ on March 25. Nine months after that date is the 25th of December.

Another theory has to do with the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. For pagans, and then for early Christian converts from paganism, the winter solstice meant the end of winter and the coming rebirth of the sun. The festiveal centered around the victory of light over darkness.

Scandinavian countries called this time of year “Yuletide,” while some countries in Eastern Europe referred to it as Koleda.

A Roman festival known as “Saturnalia” took place between December 17 and December 23 to honor their god Saturn. The Romans believed the winter solstice took place on December 25.

There is more to this story, however. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which is actually very slightly shorter, but more accurate, than the Roman or “Julian” calendar, which was named after Julius Caesar. Brilliant as the Romans were, their calendar gained one day against the mean tropical year in every 126 years. The Gregorian reform shifted dates back by 10 days and eliminated leap years on every hundredth year, reducing the effective length of the average year from 365.25 days (the Julian year) to 365.2425 days (the Gregorian year).

The Julian calendar continues to advance against the Gregorian calendar by one day in every 126 years. As a result, many Orthodox and Coptic churches, which still use the Julian Calendar, celebrate Christmas on January 7, 13 days after the Gregorian December 25. This also explains why in Russia, which only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918, the Bolsheviks’ November revolution is referred to as the “October Revolution.”

In some parts of the United Kingdom, January 6 is called “Old Christmas” even today.

Boxing Day: The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day. The tradition began in the UK about 800 years ago, during the Middle Ages. Collection boxes for the poor were opened on December 26 and the contents were distributed to the needy.

An interesting side note comes from Holland, where some of the collection boxes were made from a rough type of pottery known as “earthenware.” Earthenware containers were usually shaped like pigs, which is probably the origin of what we know today as “piggy banks.”

Finally, we have all sung the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas,” but did you know that it refers to an event on Boxing Day, in honor of a Bohemian king during the Middle Ages who brought food to a poor family?

Thus endeth our lesson on Christmas traditions. So as Santa Claus shouted at the end of Clement C. Moore’s classic poem The Night Before Christmas, “Happy Christmas to all, And to all a good night!”

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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