Origin of the
1. St Valentine
3. St. Martin
5. St. Nicholas
7. The Magi
The story of St Valentine
How long is it since
Cupid sent his arrow to your heart?
50 years, 20 years, 10
years, one year? However long it is, do not forget that the
celebration of lovers has existed for many, many years. Of
course, it has evolved, but St Valentine is always a unique
occasion to declare our love to the one who has won our heart,
as well as to our friends and our parents. Although today, St
Valentine is synonymous with joy and love it must not be
forgotten that poor St Valentine gave his life to defend the
rights of people who love each other.
Valentinus was a Christian
priest on whom the Roman Emperor Claudius the second exercised
his wrath. He performed secret marriage ceremonies for soldiers.
But the Emperor had forbidden these marriages because he thought
they were not compatible with the profession of soldier.
Claudius ended his activities in an extremely bloodthirsty way:
Valentine was thrown into prison, then beheaded on the February
14th (sometime between 268 and 273 AD). While he was waiting for
his sentence to be carried out he met his jailer's blind
daughter. A friendship developed between them and Valentine
restored her sight. Just before he was martyred, he offered the
young girl leaves in the shape of a heart with a message "from
your Valentine". Later, Valentine was canonised in memory of his
sacrifice in the name of love.
Two centuries after his
death, European Christianity included other pagan rites such as
the Festival of Lupercus (synonymous with exuberant rejoicing)
which took place on the February 15th as a souvenir of the Roman
period. This was the perfect occasion to celebrate fertility. It
was recognised by the Catholic Church thanks to the intercession
of the Pope who was keen on commemorating it. It was also
associated with St Valentine who was called the protector of
loving couples. It was only in 1496 that St Valentine officially
became the patron saint of lovers on the orders of Pope
Alexander the VI.
Still today, lovers take
the opportunity of St Valentine's Day to exchange cards and give
gifts such as flowers and chocolates, which are always
synonymous with passion as a token of their love.
Easter around the world
The background to
the Easter celebrations?
Easter was originally a pagan festival, or a festival celebrated
by non-believers. To start with Easter was a spring festival in
honour of light and springtime: Eastre. Easter falls on the
first Sunday following the first full moon in spring. The
festival was held to celebrate the renewal of life. This is why
symbols of fertility, such as rabbits and eggs, are associated
with Easter time. Hence Easter was not originally a religious
festival. Later on the festival took on a specific meaning for
believers, a meaning that was an extension of the original
meaning. The Christian meaning of Easter is a celebration of the
resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Easter festival is celebrated
in almost every country in the world but the festivities differ
from one country to another.
The people of the United Kingdom celebrate Easter, while the
Germans celebrate Ostern. These names refer to Austro, the
German goddess of spring. The triumph of light and life is
celebrated with the lighting of bonfires during these festivals.
Azymous bread and eggs are also an important feature of these
Where do Easter eggs come from?
It all began in Persia and Ancient Egypt. Friends and family
members would offer each other decorated eggs at the vernal
equinox, which for them marked the beginning of a new year. The
egg was regarded as a genuine symbol of fertility, because
people thought it was a miracle for a living creature to be able
to emerge from such an object. The egg had a much less hormonal
meaning for Oriental Christians. For them it represented the
tomb Jesus escaped from. They, too, enjoyed colouring their eggs
and red was the colour of choice. It was supposed to symbolise
the blood of Christ. Consequently, all believers could
participate in Christ's resurrection. The practice of hiding
eggs is said to be a universal custom.
Easter is inextricably linked with eggs. To discover how the egg
became a key item of this festival we have to travel far back
through the mists of time. Our Germanic ancestors celebrated
their spring festivals at this time: the end of winter, the
start of the summer months.
Consequently, it is only to be expected that they should
venerate their spirits by making offerings to the goddess of
fertility: Frigga. She was represented by the shape of a bird:
the one who gave birth to an egg. In the wake of these offerings,
the people would gather together for generous meals comprising,
eggs, loaves of bread and biscuits cooked with eggs.
The origin of all forms of life
The egg has long symbolised the origin of all forms of life, so
it is not surprising that the egg should be regarded as a symbol
of fertility in almost all countries, while being associated
with the spring festival.
The egg forms the background to a new world in innumerable
ancient histories. In India it was even believed that the sky
and the Earth emerged from an eggshell. A Japanese story about
creation relates that the sky and the Earth were not yet
separate from each other in the very beginning. The yolk and the
white of an egg is evoked to illustrate this theme. According to
this myth, the sky is derived from the light (white) and the
Earth from the dark part (yolk) of the egg.
Eggs may have originally been a pagan symbol, having no
connection at all with Christianity, but they ended up being
carefully paralleled in Christian doctrine in the 4th century:
the egg was regarded as a white tomb from which life emerged. By
the 12th century, the "Benedictio ovorum" had been introduced,
authorising the use of eggs on the holy days of Easter.
The Scottish Presbyterians tended to look askance at eggs,
regarding them as a symbol of papal adoration. In other places,
eggs were looked upon as beneficial delicacies: they were
offered in churches after people had spent weeks in the strict
observance of Lent. This ecclesiastic recognition served to
accentuate their magical power. Eggs soon became accepted as a
charm that had a special effect.
Innumerable Easter customs began to appear: collecting eggs,
breaking them, hunting for them and eating them in large
quantities in the form of loaves of bread and pastries, biscuits
and cakes (particularly in the United States and England),
marzipan, nougat, sugar, and, of course, chocolate. The remnants
of an ancient votive meal are concealed in azymous bread, which
also features traces of the Jewish azymous bread.
The bakers and confectioners of that time observed ancient
customs. They baked azymous bread, egg-based pastries, pasties
and egg biscuits. Chocolate makers prepared their chocolate eggs
and confectioners their marzipan and nougat in various shapes
and sizes. They produced enormous quantities of these items
decorated in thousands of different ways.
The Easter hare
The Netherlands is the odd one out on this score. Easter bunnies
are found all over the world, while the Dutch are the only
people to use a hare. Still, they are from the same family, are
When rabbits used to appear and disappear without any
explanation way back in time, people would see an obvious
resemblance between the appearances Christ made after his
resurrection. The first historical references to the Easter
bunny can be traced back to Germany. Documents from the 16th
century refer to a rabbit laying red eggs on Good Friday and
multicoloured eggs the evening prior to the first day of Easter.
The Easter bunny may be the unchallenged king of Easter symbols,
but other charming creatures also come into the picture. The
chick, for example, has been around as long as the egg. The
lamb's appearance at around Easter time has been a popular event
for centuries now. The lamb + chick + bunny combinations are
especially popular. The butterfly is less well-known. The
Christians saw a striking parallel between the caterpillar's
transformation into a butterfly and Christ's resurrection. The
lily also formed part of the Easter festival. This delicate,
pure white flower is particularly prominent in the works of art
of the ancient Christians.
Easter and culinary delights
As you may have read, lamb has not always been the first choice.
Fortunately for this creature, azymous bread, biscuits and cakes
have long been the favourite food items. From the edge of the
New World to the depths of Russia, azymous (or unleavened) bread
is by far the most popular one. The Russians eat "paska ", the
Germans "osterstollen" and the Poles "baba wielancona".
The ancient Christians looked upon Easter as a time for humour.
All week long people would be cracking jokes, larking about and
roasting large numbers of lambs. There would be singing and
dancing late into the night. The people were celebrating the
fact that Christ had taken the Devil and Evil down a peg or two.
On Easter Monday, the men would wake the women up with a few
drops of perfumed water along with the words "may you never
wither". The next day the women would wake the men up with
perfumed water. The subtle difference here was that the women
were allowed to pour the contents of a bucket over their
The Easter celebrations vary enormously nowadays. They differ
quite a lot from one country to another and very often from one
religion to another. The way the members of the Eastern Orthodox
Church celebrate the first day of Easter is even more outlandish
than their forefathers. The Lutheran Churches in Sweden and
Norway, conversely, have had to adapt to some of the people's
Most of people go on holiday to the mountains at Easter. Nothing
if not innovative, the Lutheran church has built one or two
mountain churches on the spot.
Why do the bells bring eggs?
The idea that the bells bring the eggs is linked to the fact
that the bells ring for the last time before Easter on Maundy
Thursday. Children are told that the bells have left for Rome
and will be returning on Easter morning with their eggs.
Why does Easter fall on a different day every year?
Easter Sunday is a bit different every year: it can fall as
early as 22 March and as late as 25 April. The reason for this
is quite straightforward: the Christians calculated the date
according to the lunar year rather than the solar one now used
for the calendar. The reference point is not the position of the
sun but the rising and setting of the full moon. Easter should
always fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon,
the Bishops of the Catholic Church decided during the Nicaea
Council in 325. The church leaders agreed that Easter should be
on a Sunday, to make a distinction between the Christian and
Jewish religions. During the second Vatican Council, in the
1960s, church officials mooted the idea of having a more set
date for Easter, one that was closer to the historical date of
Jesus' death, around 10 April. Easter Sunday would then have
been celebrated after the second Saturday in the month of April.
However, this idea never got off the drawing board: the
Catholics, Protestants and Orthodoxes failed to agree on a new
What are Christians actually celebrating at Easter?
Christians regard Easter as the most important day of the year.
The birth of Christ is celebrated during the Christmas
festivities, but Easter, the day when the man Christians believe
is the son of God was resurrected, is a much older festival.
Christmas was not originally celebrated unlike Easter. In the
final analysis, Easter Sunday marks the conclusion of an entire
week when Jesus was betrayed and sentenced to death after the
last supper with his disciples. He died on the Cross on Saturday
and on Sunday the rock in front of his tomb was discovered to
have rolled away and Christ's body had disappeared: Jesus was
not dead, but risen from the dead.
He appeared to his disciples a few more times before ascending
to Heaven 40 days later, during the Ascension.
Why do the French
call Easter "Pâques", the English" Easter" and the Germans "
The name "Pâques "originated with the Jewish Pesach festival,
when a lamb is sacrificed to celebrate the Jewish people's
deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Jesus and his disciples were
originally Jewish and Christ rose from the dead after Pesach.
The Christians regard Jesus as the Easter lamb which was
sacrificed to allow the deliverance.
The Muslim and Jewish practice of slaughtering a lamb every
Easter used to be a Christian custom, too, but this practice
gradually died out: Jesus sacrificed himself so why carry on
slaughtering a lamb? The tradition is still maintained by
certain groups of Catholics, however.
The English and German origins of the word are more complicated.
Ostara, the Germanic goddess of fertility and spring, forms the
background to the name. A historical investigation showed that
Ostara was not in fact venerated by the Germanic people and was
not mentioned in the literature until the 8th century. The other
explanations are linguistic in nature. Urständ, the high German
word for "resurrection", may be the basis for "Easter" but the
word may also be derived from a mistranslation of the Latin
phrase "hebdomenica in albis", " the week in white robes"
following Easter Sunday. It was then assumed that "albis" mean "aube"
(dawn) and not (white). The high Germany word for "aube" is "eostarun",
towards the east where the sun rises. The English variation was
then "Easter ", "Östern" in German.
The Easter bunny
How can a rabbit or
hare lay eggs?
The tradition of looking
for Eastern eggs originates with an old story about fertility:
The German goddess Freya had a pet: a hare, which rather than
game had belonged to the poultry family in a former life. This
is why the hare could lay eggs. At the start of the new year (springtime),
Freya would let her hare hide her eggs in the fields so the
peasants could be sure of having a bumper harvest.
Egg is synonymous with
However, there are lots
more stories involving the egg and spring. The egg has taken on
a symbolic meaning in almost all cultures over the centuries.
One example is the
mythological story of Kronos, the son of the sky god and the
earth goddess: Uranos and Gaia. They are said to have created an
egg from which emerged the many-headed god Phanes, whereupon the
Earth was formed. The exodus from Egypt is celebrated during the
Jewish Easter festival. The first two evenings of the eight-day
festival are called "seider". A special meal, the "seider" is
served then as well as the "matses" (azymous bread), spices,
parsley, horseradish and boiled eggs.
In this case the boiled
egg is also a sign of mourning for the former temple of King
Solomon. It is a symbol for an entire meal in commemoration of
the second festive offering formerly held in the temple.
The older an egg is the
more it floats. In order to check if an egg is fresh place it in
a basin full of water. A fresh egg stays on the bottom, whereas
one that is three or four weeks old will stand up on the bottom,
a six-week old egg will remain "suspended" in the water but if
the egg floats, it definitely should not be eaten.
St. Martin - Martin of Tours
The life of St. Martin
Martin was born in Sabaria,
Hungary, in the year 316, now called Szombathely (Pannonia) in
the eastern part of the country. His father was a magistrate in
the service of the Roman army. The family relocated to Pavia,
Italy, where he spent most of his childhood. Legend has it that
he joined the church as a catechumen (or a candidate for baptism),
despite his parents' resistance (legend most likely makes a
connection here between the evangelical story of the young Jesus
He enlisted in the Roman
army when he was 15 under Emperors Constantine and Julian and
joined the cavalry in Gaul (France). According to history, it
was during this time that he met a scantily dressed beggar at
the gates to the city of Amiens. The beggar asked him for alms
according to Christ's will. As he had nothing else with him
except his weapon, Martin offered part of his military cloak,
which he cut in two with his sword. At that time, half of a
soldier's clothes belonged to the emperor and the other half was
the soldier's personal property.
Christ then appeared to
him in a dream wearing the half-cloak. "What you did for the
weakest one of my brothers, you did for me". This dream
persuaded him that he should become a Christian and be baptised.
The ceremony was conducted by the Bishop Hilary of Poitiers.
During his time in the army he was increasingly tormented by an
inner struggle: whether to devote himself to the service of the
Roman emperor as a soldier or concentrate on his Christian
calling. In the end, he decided to leave the army.
He was baptised at the age
of 18 (other sources say 22) and was admitted into the
ecclesiastical body of the church. He completed his first work
as a priest in the region where his parents lived, in Lombardy,
where he proclaimed the Christian faith. He then clashed with
the Arians, a Christian movement that maintained the human
dimension of Jesus of Nazareth, refuting the divine origin of
Christ. Arianism had a large number of followers. Martine
refused to renounce his beliefs, so was mistreated on the orders
of the Arian bishop of Milan. He then went into hiding as a
hermit on the island of Gallinaria (now called Isola d'Albenga)
on the Italian Riviera.
He was able to return to
France in 361 and re-establish contact with Hilary of Poitiers.
He also became a hermit there, living in remote region and
devoting his life to God. As a result of attracting a great many
followers he was able to build the first monastery on French
soil, in 361. When St. Lidorius, the bishop of Tours, a city in
the western part of France, died in 371 or 372, the Christians
and the priest living there asked Martin if he would like to
become their bishop. However, he wanted to remain a hermit.
Legend has it that Martin was drawn to the city as a result of a
trick. Once he reached Tours, he was unable to renounce the
episcopate. The people elected Martin as bishop of Tours in 371.
He continued to live the life of a monk. He founded a monastery
in Tours in 375 and worked with his followers in spreading the
Christian religion in France.
He continued to live his
monastic life as a bishop and acted as a major proclaimer of the
faith. He founded several monasteries, including the one in
Marmoutier. He had the pagan sanctuaries destroyed, while being
tireless in his efforts to denounce the heresies of the time.
He was already regarded as
a saint during his lifetime, while several miracles were
attributed to him. He died in Candes at the age of 81 during a
mission on 8 November 397. He was buried in Tours on 11
November, his current feast day. He may not have died a martyr
like so many of his predecessors, but he was immediately
regarded as sacred by all of the people. Several miracles
occurred around his grave and one century later king Clovis
named him as the patron saint of France. Thousands of churches
in France have been dedicated to him, including the famous St.
Martin Basilica in Tours. His reputation also extends northwards,
particularly in Flanders and the Netherlands, along with a part
of Germany, which used to belong to France. Several St. Martin
parishes are found in Flanders, spread throughout the region,
mainly in the villages, of course, whose names refer to St.
Martin. Examples are Sint-Martens-Bodegem, Sint-Martens-Latem,
Sint-Martens-Leerne, Sint-Martens-Lennik, and
The word "chapel" is
also derived from a relic of St. Martin's.
A cape is "cappa" in Latin
and the diminutive of this word (it was in fact only part of the
cape) is called "cappella" in Middle Latin. This term gradually
started to be used to refer to the tent where the cape was kept.
By the 7th century, any small house of prayer that was not a
parish church was called a "capella".
The word now appears in all contemporary languages : "kapel"
(NL), "Kapelle " (D), "chapel" (E), "cappella" (I), "capilla"
(ES), "chapelle" (FR).
Take the French word for Aken, the residence of emperor
Charlemagne : Aix-la-"Chapelle ". In the this case, "chapelle"
no longer means a tiny church but the dome dedicated to Mary and
not Martin, as we might mistakenly deduce from the origin of the
word "chapelle ".
By the 16th century, royal
personages were accustomed to inviting singers and musicians to
their castles during religious festivities: they were also an "orchestre"
("kappel" in Dutch). Musicians subsequently passed the word onto
laypeople, an example is the French "chef d'orchestre"
(conductor or " kapelmeester " in Dutch).
The origin of Halloween.
Halloween began as an
ancient Celtic ceremony called Sawhain, held on the evening of 1
The Halloween festival
appeared between 500 and 1000 BC and is supposed to have been
the Celtic "New Year". These people regarded 1 November as the
Sawhain (pronounced: Saw-En), meaning "the end of summer"
This day was a special one
marking the end of the previous year and the start of the new
one. Dead people were supposed to return to earth. Some people
believe the spirits wanted to inhabit a body, which is why fires
were extinguished inside homes and fires were lit outside to
chase away the spirits.
What form the celebrations
took during the festivities is still shrouded in mystery but one
thing is certain: they were held to celebrate the end of the
fertile year and the start of winter. Once the cereals and fruit
had been harvested, prior to the onset of winter, any surplus
animals were slaughtered. This is why the month of November was
called blodmonath in old Anglo-Saxon literature or slachmaent in
Middle Dutch. The final fruit had to be picked before the
Sawhain festival, as anything hanging on the bushes after that
date was intended for the spirits. Two bonfires were lit during
the festivities. This period was devoted to the commemoration of
the dead. This formed part of the worship of the Celtic
ancestors and may therefore have been less restrained than
The Celts believed that the dead had gone onto "another world",
sometimes an island in the middle of the sea, sometimes an "inverted"
subterranean world. During the Sawhain festival, the separation
between the two worlds was very slight and the spirits entered
were said to enter our world at exceptional times to warm
themselves at their descendents' fires. These pagan festivals in
November continued for a long time in this part of the world,
only to be absorbed by the Christian religion in Europe. The
Christians also organised their own commemorations for gods.
They did not evoke spirits but saints. However, as there were so
many saints it was impossible to earmark a special day for each
one. This is why the day of commemoration was shared by the
community of saints after the 7th century.
The day was celebrated everywhere in Europe in springtime but
not necessarily on the same date. All Saint's Day was moved to
November in the 9th century under the influence of the Irish
church, anxious to abolish pagan customs. The Day of the Dead
suffered the same fate. This was a service where prayers were
offered up in honour of the souls of the dead. These prayers
were highly popular in the French abbey monasteries and went
from strength to strength to become a separate feast day.
This festival also took place in the spring but was moved to
November for the same reason. The evening before All Saints' Day
was called All Hallows Eve, which evolved into Halloween. The
pagan and Christian commemorations for the dead were merged to
become a single festival, whose popular components still often
refer to pagan customs, where the religious dimension has become
Halloween became hugely popular in the United States owing to
the large wave of immigration in the wave of the Irish potato
famine, according the Lauvrijs. Millions of Irish people sought
refuge in the United States in the 19th century. And it was
these Irish emigrants no less that introduced the Halloween
festival into North America.
Halloween is now
celebrated on 31 October in EU, while the special offers start
early in October and last until the first week of November.
The items of food
associated with this special day were: carrots, apples, special
types of bread... and of course sweets for the children!
This festival has become a
major commercial event in the United States and is becoming
increasingly popular in other parts of the world.
Why a pumpkin?
The Halloween pumpkin
frequently used today hails from the United States. The various
light spirits were celebrated in Europe with hollowed out beets
and turnips. Children would cut faces into these vegetables and
parade them proudly through the village in the evening. Irish
immigrants in the United States replaced the European turnips
with pumpkins, as these were much more common. The name of the
hollowed out beet is derived from Anglo-Saxon folklore: "Jack-o'-lantern".
1. Who is St. Nicholas?
The Vatican cannot tell us.
The are so many versions of the story of St. Nicholas, while the
true history of the man's life has tended to become blurred in
the mists of time, that even the Catholic Church has started to
raise question's about the Saint's true status. During a review
of the list of saints, in 1959, the Vatican agreed to remove 200
names, including that of St. Nicholas'. The Vatican claimed that
two pagan legends had been merged but the officials in Rome were
wary of treating this as an open and shut case. Pope Paulus V
announced in 1970 that: "He may be venerated but there is no
need to do so".
The character of St.
Nicholas draws its inspiration from Nicholas of Myra, also known
as Nicholas of Bari. He was born in Patara, a Lycian city, in
the south-western part of Asia Minor (a region now known as the
Asian region of Turkey) between 250 and 270 AD.
He died on 6 December, in 345 or 352, in the port city of Mrya,
in Asia Minor.
Legends abound about his
life and deeds. It is said that on the day he was born, he stood
up in his bath. As he grew older he would shun merrymaking in
favour of attending church.
St. Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. On his
return, his uncle, the bishop of Myra, died. A tiny voice urged
the assembled bishops to elect the first person to enter the
church as the successor to the deceased bishop. And so it was
that Nicholas was ordained as bishop of Myra.
His Christian faith initially caused him a lot of suffering
because of the reigning emperor, Diocletian, who persecuted
Nicholas was arrested and flung into prison before being made to
live in exile.
Emperor Constantine announced in 313 the toleration of
Christianity. He is also said to have been present during the
Council of Nicaea but doubt has been cast on this claim because
his name is not mentioned in the old list of bishops who
attended the event.
St. Nicholas is said to have died on 6 December 343, a victim of
persecutions during the time of the Roman Empire. This is why
some countries celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on 6
December. He was buried in Myra but some Italian merchants stole
his relics in 1078 and carried them to Bari.
The traditional legends surrounding St. Nicholas were collected
and written down for the first time by Metaphrastes in Greece
during the 10th century.
According to legend, St.
Nicholas succeeded in bringing three children back to life after
a butcher, from whom they had sought refuge, waited until they
were fast asleep, then cut them into tiny pieces before placing
them in a salting tub.
Seven years later, St. Nicholas travelling along the same route,
asked the butcher to serve him the seven-year-old salted dish.
When the terrified butcher had run away, St. Nicholas restored
the children to life.
Why is he famous as the protector of marriageable maidens (throwing
sweets and gold balls)?
St.Nicholas, possibly on his way in his city again, threw money
into the house of a family whose daughters had little prospect
of getting married owing to their straitened circumstances. The
maidens were saved from prostitution thanks to the Saint because
they now had a dowry with which to find a decent husband. The
custom of throwing sweets (ginger nuts, confectionary and golden
chocolate money) originates with this story. That is why three
gold balls are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. Another
reference is to the "good holy man", from "goet-hylik man",
which means "good marital man", the man who ensures a good
A teacher gave St. Nicholas a face
A story truly becomes
popular when the characters are given a face. Of all the
illustrations that are available of St. Nicholas, the ones that
have had the biggest impact on the feast of St. Nicholas in its
present form are those appearing in Jan Schenkman's books.
In1845 this teacher living in Amsterdam wrote the first book
about St. Nicholas, featuring the saint and his companion Black
Comprising illustrations with 12-line verses, the book was never
out of print for over 100 years. An amazing best seller!
Schenkman invented the story of St. Nicholas and his horse going
from one rooftop to another, arriving on a steamship, which was
a modern system of transport at the time. Where did this ship
hail from? From Spain, according to Schenkman. And why Spain
exactly? Because Bari (Italy), where the tomb of "one" St.
Nicholas was located, belonged to Spain at one time. However,
the true history of St. Nicholas has long been overshadowed by
imaginative tales and legends, so it is quite possible Schenkman
made everything up.
2. Black Peter
St. Nicholas is
accompanied by a rough character with a dark face carrying a
He is known as " Père Fouettard " in some parts of France and
Belgium's Wallonia and "Zwarte Piet" in Flanders and the
Netherlands. He is tasked with caning children who have behaved
badly during the year.
This character only came to fame in the 16th century.
Who is he ?
One legend say Black Peter was born in Metz in 1552, during
Charles V's siege of the city.
The inhabitations walked around the streets with an effigy of
the emperor before setting it on fire.
Consequently, some people claim Black Peter represents Charles
The following is another explanation.
Peter presumably first of all enters folklore in the Lowlands in
the early nineteenth century. Up until then St.Nicholas had
operated alone or was accompanied by the devil. A devil and a
Moor were considered to be more or less the same thing by
Europeans at that time. Owing to the now popular tradition that
the Saint originated from the former Moorish Spain, the servant
was transformed into a Moor. In keeping with colonial tradition,
up until well into the second half of the twentieth century
Black Peter was a bit of a dim helper who spoke gibberish As a
result of immigration from the former colonies, Europeans became
more familiar with Africans, whereupon Black Peter developed
into the respectable assistant of an often absent-minded Santa
Clause. Black Peter became less dim, but this does not mean the
Black Peter tradition is not open to challenge. Many people
still take offence at the racist side of the tradition. For many
people, Black Peter is a merry children's friend who is black
because of chimney soot. This still does not explain how Black
Peter was assigned the attributes of crude stereotypes, such as
red lipstick and frizzy hair.
According to another theory, Black Peter was originally an
Italian chimney sweep. Small Italian boys were used for a long
time as chimney sweeps. They had to crawl though chimney flues
as part of their duties, hence the soot from cleaning the
chimney and the bag for collecting the swept-together soot.
3. How did St. Nicholas change into Father Christmas ?
In the wake of the Protestant reform in the 16th century, some
European countries decided to ban the feast of St. Nicholas.
However, the Dutch retained this old Catholic custom, and Dutch
children continued to receive a visit from Sinter Klaas (St.
Nicholas) during the night of 6 December.
At the start of the 17th century, Dutch people emigrating to the
United States founded a colony called "Nieuw Amsterdam" (in
Dutch) and this became New York in 1664. Within a few decades
the Dutch custom of celebrating St. Nicholas had spread all over
the United States, where Sinter Klaas soon became Santa Claus.
The considerate benefactor, depicted as an old man sporting a
white beard and wearing a long hooded coat or sometimes
episcopal clothing, nonetheless continued to be a moralising
character. He rewarded good children, while punishing ungrateful
badly behaved ones.
In 1809, the writer Washington Irving spoke for the first time
about St. Nicholas flying through the air for the traditional
Then in 1821 an American pastor, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a
Christmas story for his children where a kindly figure appeared,
Father Christmas, with his sleigh pulled by eight reindeers.
He made him chubby, jovial and smiling, replaced St. Nicholas'
mitre with a hat, his cross with a stick of barley sugar and
removed Black Peter from the scene. The donkey was replaced by
eight spirited reindeers.
The American press was responsible for bringing the various
present-giving characters all together in the same person.
The event that definitely did the most to merge these characters
was the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem "A
Visit from St. Nicholas". This poem was published for the first
time in the New York Sentinel, on 23 December 1823. Reproduced
by several major American newspapers in the coming years, the
tale was then translated into several languages and spread
throughout the globe.
In 1860, Thomas Nast, an illustrator and caricaturist working
for the New York publication "Harper's Illustrated Weekly", drew
Santa Claus with a red costume, trimmed with white fur and set
off with a wide leather belt. For 30 years Nast produced
hundreds of drawings to illustrate all the facets of the Santa
Claus legend, who French speakers know as père Noël (Father
In 1885, Nast decided the
whereabouts of Father Christmas' official residence should be
the North Pole: he drew two children looking at a map of the
world, tracing his journey from the North Pole to the United
The following year, the American writer George P. Webster took
up this idea explaining that his toy factory and "his house,
during the long summer months, was hidden in the ice and snow of
the North Pole".
Christmas and its
Christmas is not only the
celebration of joy and hope for Christians. For all men and
women of good will in our Western world, the birth of Christ
marks a capital date for History: the beginning of the Christian
era, the chronological base of the events which have followed
one another over twenty centuries.
However, certain specialists assert that the 4th century
scholars failed to take everything into consideration when they
established that the Child-God was born in year 753 of the
foundation of Rome. They claim that it is simply a question of
looking at the facts: today we know with certainty that Herod
died in the spring of 750. When that monarch ordered the famous
"massacre of the innocents", Jesus was indisputably already
several months old. The obvious conclusion therefore is that
Jesus must have been born at the latest at the end of the Roman
year 749. Consequently, it would be logical to believe that our
clocks are slow by a trifling matter of … four years.
Why 25 December?
It was only in the middle
of the 4th century (yes that century again!) that Christmas
became an official festival of the liturgical calendar.
Previously, the Church had considered Christ's date of birth
date to be 6 January, i.e. 18 April. For lack of precision, it
finally opted for 25 December, that is to say the day after the
winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
No other date could better symbolise the coming of a "God of
Light", the conqueror of the darkness of sin, of a god who rose
like the sun to illuminate the whole of the world with hope.
Moreover, our current "Christmas Eve" parties are simply a relic
of the Pagan Saturnalia, kinds of carnivals with large banquets
that the ancient Romans dedicated, from 17 to 23 December, to
their god Saturn.
Noel or Nativity?
The actual name of
Christmas or Noel, to designate the Nativity Festival, seems
clearly to have been used only five centuries after the event.
Converted after his victory of Tolbiac in 490, King Clovis was
baptised at Rheims by Saint Remi, with 3,000 warriors, precisely
on 25 December. On that day the Frankish nation was born to
Christian civilisation. The soldiers celebrated this memorable
event with a vigorous cry of "Noel" which meant "dies natalis"
or "day of birth".
Since then the name of Noel has always been associated with this
The nativity scene
If the reproduction of the
small stable with its wooden or plastic characters and animals
clearly appears to have been initiated by Saint Francis of
Assisi, the great lover of animals, the tradition of Christmas
trees dates from only the 14th century and has a less orthodox
Why a tree at Christmas?
It is a legacy of the
Pagan festivals of light.
When the shepherds gathered around the crib where, according to
legend, Jesus Christ was born, there was not a single fir tree
in sight. Pine and fir trees are not really typical of the
vegetation of the arid region of what are now known as Israel
and Palestine. Therefore, the origin of the tradition of putting
up a green tree at home to celebrate Christmas lies elsewhere.
At the time of Europe's
conversion to Christianity, the birth of Jesus - whose real date
of birth is still unknown - was commemorated at the time when
Northern Europe celebrated the Winter solstice, whereas in the
South people celebrated the birth of Mithras the Sun-God. These
winter festivals celebrated the victory of light over darkness,
the Sol Invictus (the undefeated sun). In Northern Europe, the
Germans celebrated the victory of life over the death of winter
by decorating their homes with evergreen plants such as
mistletoe, holly, juniper and ivy. The tradition of making
Christmas crowns with their branches comes therefore from the
The first missionaries, such as Willibrodrus and Boniface tried
to end this worshipping of trees, but never totally succeeded.
Certain Pagan traditions were adopted by Christians. For example,
they hung Lady Chapels on Christmas trees.
Tree celebrations during the winter solstice period reappeared
at the time of the Renaissance. The first representation of a
Christmas tree was found in Germany, on a painting on parchment
dating from the 16th century showing a tree being transported to
the village square, escorted by a procession of pipers and a
horse-rider, wearing a tiara. It is not known exactly how the
tradition of trees with needles developed, but there is one
possible practical explanation. At a time when oak trees were
becoming rarer, fir trees were very widespread in Germany and it
was therefore easier to cut them down and transport them.
At that time, it was already fashionable to decorate trees with
Christmas balls. Previously, the balls were late apples which
were still hanging on the apple tree and which evoked the
Christmas trees only really began to gain in popularity in
Europe in 1837 when Hélène de Mecklenbourg, the German wife of
the Duke of Orleans, had one planted in the Tuileries in Paris.
Prince Albert of de Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, married to Queen
Victoria of England, was responsible for introducing the
Christmas tree into the British Isles.
The Magi, who were they?
There is no mention in the
Bible of the "three kings" Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, it
refers solely to the "Magi" without any names but a full-blown
culture has nonetheless sprung up around the Epiphany.
The processions and
mystery plays in the churches commemorated the generous gifts of
myrrh, incense and gold. Come 6 January, the nuns and monks
would distribute bread to the underprivileged members of the
Stefaan Top (Catholic University of Leuven), a professor
specialising in folklore, reckons Epiphany songs appeared in our
part of the world in the 15th or 16th century. At the time,
Christmas could no longer be celebrated with songs and a festive
meal in the church. Unable to count on free food and drink, the
needy people then thronged the streets out of pure necessity.
For several centuries, the
Epiphany was the Feast of poor people. The Magi would go from
door to door singing a song, struggling to earn a bite to eat or
better still a small sum of money for their trouble. After all,
the Magi did shower the infant Jesus with gifts. The begging
songs could be performed on the 13th day after Christmas : on 6
These occasional singers would disguise themselves, according to
Herman Dewit, a member of the 't Kliekske folk group, who has
undertaken research focused on the Epiphany. Some of them even
wore a mask.
One of the common features
of the carolling kings would be the star they would be twirling
to make it revolve. Some even moved about on a rocking horse or
a bear. A pot covered with a pig's bladder, known as a rubbed
drum, or an instrument cut into clog would be used to accompany
the songs. Dewit jokes that the "quality of the music no doubt
left a lot to be desired but this was a minor consideration. The
groups would make quite a din and the begging singers were
mainly intent on attracting attention so as to make as much as
money as they could in the shortest time possible".
When this period of gruelling poverty drew to a close, the
Epiphany assumed a charitable dimension. Small groups of adults
would sing songs to make money for a good cause rather than for
themselves. Missions, for example. This custom is still observed
nowadays in certain regions, such as Dendre. However, the
children have now taken up the torch, or rather the star.
The Epiphany is not only synonymous with going from door to door
singing for money. The feast would not be complete without tarts
or pancakes. The person who finds the bean or lucky charm hidden
in the cake becomes the king and is entitled to wear a paper
crown. This tradition also hails back to our ancestors who would
rummage through a bag full of wooden statues representing the
king and his court.
The roles were then assigned for the big game. The court jester,
the king, musician or soldier. The king would have the sovereign
right to decide who would play what part. He was the
unchallenged and unchallengeable master. If he drank, his
companions would have to do likewise. According to Bart, a baker
from Ghent, the frangipane sold during the Epiphany originated
in the tiny French village of Pithiviers. History has it that
after a visit to his friend Madam Marie Touchet, King Charles IV
was imprisoned by a gang of Huguenots in the Orléans forest.
When the bandits realised their mistake, they tried to curry
favour with the king by offering him a local delicacy. The king
enjoyed the puff pastry so much that he bestowed the title of "pastry
maker to the king" on the person who invented the recipe. The
meat stuffing was then replaced by almond paste.
Candlemas, origins and traditions
Candlemas, which first
became a Christian festival in 472, is celebrated every year on
2 February. It derives its name from the "candles" or the
blessed candles carried during the procession in honour of the
presentation of baby Jesus in the temple and the purification of
the Blessed Virgin. The pilgrims who flocked to Rome on this
occasion led the Pope to organise the distribution of waffles
But before becoming a
Marian festival (in honour of the Virgin Mary), Candlemas, also
called the "Festival of Light", was a pagan festival.
The Romans celebrated,
around 5 February, Lupercus, the god of the wilds and fertility.
The Celts celebrated
Imbolc on 1st February. This rite, in honour of the goddess
Brigid, celebrated purification and fertility at the end of
winter. Peasants carried torches through the fields praying the
goddess to purify the land before the sowing period.
In the 5th century, Pope
Gelasius 1st associated this pagan rite of the "festival of
candles" with the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the
purification of the Virgin.
From that time on, for
this festival which became the "Festival of Light", candles were
lit throughout the house and blessed candles were brought into
the home to protect it and the upcoming harvestings. The
survival of a distant myth relating to the solar wheel
apparently also explains the custom of pancakes (or round
doughnuts, in the south of France), which are traditionally made
at that time of the year.
Various kinds of galettes
or pancakes are found in all civilisations of the Old and New
World, whether made from wheat flour, rice flour, cornflour or
It was in the 12th century
that the crusaders brought buckwheat from Asia. The acid soils
of Brittany were particularly propitious for the development of
this cereal plant.
However, it was not until a century later that buckwheat ground
into flour was used for making galettes. At the beginning of the
century, wheat (wheat flour) appeared and milk was added to the
composition of the mix. The galette became a pancake.
Buckwheat galettes are still today eaten most frequently with
savoury fillings while pancakes are served as a dessert.