Christmas: From Solstice to Santa (Orca Origins)
Christmas: From Solstice to Santa (Orca Origins)
Greenery was an important part of many pre-Christian midwinter celebrations, a symbol of the growing season that would eventually return. No one is quite sure when trees were first used as part of Christmas celebrations. One theory is that the Christmas tree evolved from the “paradise tree,” the main prop in a popular mystery play in the Middle Ages telling the story of Creation from the Bible. The tree, often a fir tree, was decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden. When the plays were no longer performed, people may have decorated their own paradise trees on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve.
The first records of decorated Christmas trees in Germany are from the 1600s. Tree decorations included roses (symbols of the Virgin Mary), apples, wafers, candies, sugar lumps and, finally, in 1660, candles.
Tate and Tate-Stratton are a mother-daughter team that have written several works together for Orca. Nikki Tate is a prolific writer for children and teens. This volume in the “Orca Origins” series blends historic information with personal stories that illustrate individual experiences of the celebration of Christmas. Most of the personal stories or anecdotes are drawn from three generations of the authors’ family, but one personal account is from a non-family member. As with other books in the series, the volume makes effective use of stock images with captions plus photographs drawn from family albums.
The authors smartly organize the content into three chapters with similar features. The first chapter on the ancient origins of Christmas emphasizes the midwinter celebrations that once flourished in northern Europe where the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) coincided roughly with December 21. The early Christian church gradually established fixed days to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus and settled on December 25th. The technical reasons for this decision are explained in a sidebar with the general heading, Christmas unwrapped. Facts and interesting side stories appear throughout the book in like-named sidebars. The tendency to incorporate pre-Christian rituals and ceremonies into new Christmas customs met fierce opposition from a Protestant sect, the Puritans, but many customs, including feasting, singing carols, and gift-giving, endured. The authors incorporate some personal examples in the narrative, but the main individual reflections are delivered through two reminiscences printed at the end of each chapter. A further personal touch is the inclusion of a simple seasonal baking recipe near the end of each chapter. True to their original form, the recipes provide units of measure in imperial units and baking temperature in Fahrenheit. Elsewhere in the book when the outdoor temperature is noted, both the metric and imperial units are stated.
The middle chapter discusses the origins of modern Christmas. The downplay of Saint Nicholas and the popularization of Santa Claus, the publication of classic tales including Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” known more commonly as “The Night Before Christmas”, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the creation of popular Christmas music ranging from “Jingle Bells” composed in the mid-1800s to “Frosty the Snowman” composed in the 1960s, and the history of the Christmas Tree are all explained in the chapter.
The final chapter discusses the celebration of Christmas around the world. Readers with little interest in history or religion may find this the most interesting section. Despite cultural differences in Christmas traditions, some common features emerge. Light is a core custom, even in the southern hemisphere where the official start of summer coincides with Christmas. The days may be long there, but fireworks may fill the night sky. Feasting is a common feature of human celebrations, but traditional Christmas dishes vary tremendously. Gift giving is a widespread Christmas custom that is sure to enthrall young readers. It is fascinating to learn about local variations in the bringing of gifts and the timing of the gifts. North Americans have Santa while the Italians have La Befana, the Russians have Baboushka, the French and Belgians have Le Pere Fouettard (Father Whipper, or, Father Switch), and, in Iceland, there are the 13 trolls called the Yule Lads and their monstrous house cat, the Yule Cat, that is said to eat children who do not have new clothes—because they have not done their chores. It is practically universal that children were threatened with physical discipline, lumps of coal or even rotting potatoes in lieu of candies and other desirable gifts, all dependent upon the children’s personal behavior. Another aspect of Christmas festivities that is briefly noted in the chapter is games.
From Solstice to Santa can be used in secular classrooms as well as faith-based schools. While the Christian story of the Nativity is one part of Christmas, for many, Christmas has become a secular holiday or time of festivities. Even in Japan, a country with few Christians, Christmas lights are common in public places and at KFC outlets where each restaurant’s model Colonel Sanders is dressed up as Santa and several million Japanese households dine on fried chicken at this time of year. The finished version of the book will include a glossary, index, and list of resources organized by chapter and type: print/online.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Toronto’s Ryerson University who should use the app described in one sidebar in order to keep track of gifts purchased and where they are safely stored until needed.