Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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been noted. According to tradition they were originally merely branches plucked from the grove of the goddess Strenia, and the purpose of these may well have been akin to that of the greenery used for decorations, viz., to secure contact with a vegetation-spirit. In the time of the Empire, however, the strenae were of a more attractive character, " men gave honeyed things, that the year of the recipient might be full of sweetness, lamps that it might be full of light, copper and silver and gold that wealth might flow in amain." 63 Such presents were obviously a kind of charm for the New Year, based on the principle that as the beginning was, so would the rest of the year be.
With the adoption of the Roman New Year's Day its present-giving customs appear to have spread far and wide. In France, where the Latin spirit is still strong, January i is even now the great day for presents, and they are actually called etrennes, a name obviously derived from strenae. In Paris boxes of sweets are then given by bachelors to friends who have entertained them at their houses during the year—a survival perhaps of the " honeyed things" given in Roman times.
In many countries, however, present-giving is attached to the ecclesiastical festival of Christmas. This is doubtless largely due to attraction from the Roman New Year's Day to the feast hallowed by the Church, but readers of the foregoing pages will have seen that Christmas has also drawn to itself many practices of a November festival, and it is probable that German Christmas presents, at least, are connected as much with the apples and nuts of St. Martin and St. Nicholas* as with the Roman strenae. It has already been pointed out that the German St. Nicholas as present-giver appears to be a duplicate of St. Martin, and that St. Nicholas himself has often wandered from his own day to Christ­mas, or has been replaced by the Christ Child. We have also noted the rod associated with the two saints, and seen reason for thinking that its original purpose was not disciplinary but health-giving.
* In the neighbourhood of Reichenberg children hang up their stockings at the windows on St. Andrew's Eve, and in the morning find them filled with apples and nuts6*—a parallel to Martinmas and St. Nicholas customs, at a date intermediate between the two festivals.
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