Christmas rites and rituals



Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, revolves around many customs and traditions handed down through the generations. Many of these myths, legends and customs are of pagan origin.1 In some countries, Christmas is associated more with customs of good omens than religion.2

Christmas in Singapore
In Singapore, Christmas celebrations are not unique.3 Christmas in Singapore is like that in any cosmopolitan city – malls are decked with glittery tinsel, twinkling fairy lights, Nativity scenes and other lavish decorations. The trend for buildings and malls dressing up in festive finery started in the early 1980s. The Christmas light-up along Orchard Road has become a tourist attraction.4


Christmas is traditionally a time for thinking about the less fortunate. Various charitable organisations are involved in caring and sharing the festivities. The Christmas Kettle is one fundraising activity organised by the Salvation Army. Christmas Kettles were first launched in 1988 at the Wisma Atria shopping centre.5 Volunteers play Santa, taking turns at ringing the bells.6

Traditional dishes include roast turkey, smoked ham, plum pudding with brandy sauce and mince pies.7 There are also superstitions and rituals about the festive foods, such as consuming 12 mince pies in the belief that this would ensure 12 happy months ahead.8

Santa Claus
Santa Claus is a 19th-century American invention.9 The image of this cheerful character was popularised by Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom as part of an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola in 1931. From the 1860s to 1880s, this figure was caricatured by cartoonist Thomas Nast.10 This image originated from Saint Nicholas, who lived during the fourth century. Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, Lycia (in present-day Turkey), and was noted for giving gifts to the poor.11 In Holland he became known as Sinter Klaas, and in Germany, Sankt Nikolaus. Saint Nicholas was often depicted as a thin man in bishop’s robes.12


Gifts
Gift-giving is an integral part of Christmas. This is another ritual derived from ancient paganism, namely the Roman Saturnalia and Kalends festivals. The practice was adopted by the Christian faith as it paralleled the gift-giving by the Magi to the Christ child, which symbolises Christ’s gift of salvation to the world. In the past, the courts of kings regulated the exact amount to be spent for gift giving during Christmas. In Batavia (Jakarta), it was thought that the infant Jesus himself delivered the presents, so they called him Liebes Christkind (Dear Christ Child).13

In the Western way, the recipient of a gift normally opens it in front of the giver and expresses thanks, but this is unusual in Singapore.14

Christmas tree
The use of Christmas trees during Yuletide festivities was first noted in the early 17th century. Its origins can be traced to pagan tree worship.15 Rituals involved sacrificing or decorating homes with greenery to ensure a good harvest the following year. A Christian association is the legend of Saint Boniface, who cut down a sacred oak on Christmas Eve, beneath which human lives had been sacrificed. Placing candles on the branches of the tree is another practice, and this is attributed to Martin Luther King, who struck upon the idea one Christmas Eve.16 The Christmas tree is also a symbol of Christ as the Tree of Life amongst Christians.17

It is easy to assemble plastic replicas of the Christmas fir tree.18 Although real Christmas trees are still popular – even in Singapore – some may prefer the convenience of an authentic-looking artificial tree. There are even pine-scented sprays for fake trees.19 The Christmas tree is the most widespread of festive symbols that heralds the season. In Singapore, it is found outside hotel porches, forecourts, in offices, sitting room corners of homes and in some churches. The modern Christmas tree is lighted with glittering ornaments and adorned with presents placed beneath.20

Christmas card
The first Christmas card was produced in 1843 with the advent of the penny-postal system in Britain.21 The practice of sending Christmas cards became popular when improvements in the printing process made the cards more affordable.22 Today, sending good wishes has become a tradition.23

Mistletoe
The mistletoe is described as the “crown” of all the evergreen traditions associated with Christmas. A doorway adorned with mistletoe is a pledge of peace and friendship.24 Besides the mistletoe, homes are also decked with holly, a practice descended from the Roman Saturnalia festival.25


Bells
The ringing of Christmas bells originates from pagan midwinter celebrations, when the cold or lack of sun was believed to be an indication that evil spirits were present, and that the ringing of bells would drive these spirits away. The practice later became incorporated into the Christmas festivities, symbolising rejoicing and goodwill.26

Carols
Christmas carols originated in Italy.27 They date back to the 12th century, when people danced to secular songs during festive occasions. Carols did not become Christmas songs until the 16th century; by the 19th century, they had become synonymous with Christmas hymns.28 Christmas is the only festival for which carols have been written.29


Candles
Candles are lit everywhere during Christmas; in the modern world, they are often replaced with fairy lights. Candles are a common element in pagan festivities of the winter solstice, while the Christian community uses the lit candle as a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world.30



Author
Suchitthra Vasu




References
1. Westaway, M. (1949, December 8). Pagan customs still survive. The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tan, G. (1987, December 13). Charming traditions live on. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Ross, A., Goh, M., & Lee, C. S. (1983, December 18) Toasting X’mas conformity. Singapore Monitor, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Cheong, J. (2007, December 23). Untitled. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Grosse, P. (1995, December 10). Time to ponder the true spirit of Christmas. The Straits Times, p. 2; Salvation Army puts its kettle on. (1989, December 11). The New Paper, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Zuraidah Ibrahim (1987, December 13). Singapore’s own volunteer Santa brigade. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Vaidyanathan, S. (1991, December 15). Wetide in Santa's own hometown or on the beach. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Jones, B. (1986, November 30). Some customs and beliefs. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Christmas around the world. (1981, December 17). New Nation, p. 48; Chan, S. L. (1995, December 22). The many faces of Santa Claus in history. The Business Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, p. 144. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI)
12. Jones, B. (1986, November 30). Some customs and beliefs. The Straits Times, p. 12; Tan, B. (1991, December 1). Time for just the family. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tan, R. (1997, December 14). Thoughtful giving. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, p. 152. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI); Nash, R. (1987, November 29). What some traditions mean. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, p. 153. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI)
18. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Tree of a kind. (1999, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Yeo, K. S. (1988, November 27). The mystery of the Christmas tree. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Buday, G. (1971). The history of the Christmas card. Detroit: Tower Books, p. 6. (Call no.: RART 741.68 BUD)
22. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Buday, G. (1971). The history of the Christmas card. Detroit: Tower Books, p. 3. (Call no.: RART 741.68 BUD)
24. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, pp. 20–21. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI)
25. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, pp. 20–25. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI); Jones, B. (1986, November 30). Some customs and beliefs. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, pp. 67–70. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI)
27. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, p. 40. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI)
28. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Crippen, T. G. (1971). Christmas and Christmas lore. Detroit: Gale Research Co, p. 43. (Call no.: RUR 394.268282 CRI)
30. Kerk, C. (1996, December 21). A tapestry of traditions. The Business Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Connelly, M. (1999). Christmas: A social history. London; New York, NY: I.B. Tauris.

(Call no.: R 394.2663 CON-[CUS])

Gulevich, T. (2003). Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's celebrations. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics.
(Call no.: R 394.261 GUL-[CUS])



The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Christmas--Singapore
Philosophy, psychology and religion>>Religion>>Christianity
Ethnic festivals
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Christianity--Singapore
Festivals--Singapore
Ethnic Communities>>Festivals and Celebrations