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The Commercialisation of the Festive Season and the origins of Christmas Ornaments, Christmas Cake & Santa Claus

We all know that retailers cannot wait to start putting up their festive decorations and are so eager to start advertising their festive specials, that they will sometimes start with decorations from as early as November. Festive decorations are unique, in that Christmas is now mostly celebrated as both a religious and secular holiday in the modern world, which means that the festive season can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their beliefs. Many families enjoy putting up a Christmas tree in their homes or offices and exchanging gifts this time of year. Not to mention the delicious treats which only come out in December!

It’s hard not to love the colourful, bright lights and shiny baubles hanging from the roof at your local Checkers, Spar, Pick N Pay and most other major shopping centres right now… but have you ever wondered what the purpose of Christmas decorations are? Decorations and ornaments are not new to humanity and can be traced to all cultures in history. We have found decorative cave paintings from around 64,000 years ago!

So let’s explore the common Festive Elements that we see being advertised to us…

Where do Festive Ornaments for trees originate from?

Rumour has it that glass baubles were initially manufactured in Lauscha, Germany, by Hans Greiner who lived from 1550 to 1609. Allegedly, he began producing garlands made from glass beads and metallic figurine which people could easily hang from trees. The popularity of these decorations grew into the production of glass figures made by highly skilled artisans with clay moulds. These artisans would operate out of workshops attached to their homes. As methods of mass production and use of different materials emerged, so too developed the current, very-affordable, festive baubles we use today!

Who made Christmas Cake first?

Christmas cake is originally an English tradition that began as a plum porridge. People ate plum porridge on Christmas Eve as way to line their stomachs after having fasted for a full day. As time went on, people added dried fruit, spices and honey to the original plum porridge mixture and it evolved into a Christmas pudding. Then, In the 16th century, the recipe changed. Oatmeal was removed and replaced by butter, wheat flour and eggs instead. These ingredients enabled the mixture to hold better and resulted in boiled plum cake. Upper-class families had ovens and began baking these as fruit cakes with marzipan for Easter. They made a similar cake for Christmas using seasonal dried fruits and spices. The spices represented the exotic eastern spices brought by the Wise Men. This cake became known as “Christmas cake”. Traditional English Christmas cake is made with moist currants, sultanas and raisins soaked in brandy, rum, whisky or sherry.

The Tradition of Gift-Giving:

The origin of gift giving has its roots in ancient Rome – where romans (mostly the men) were known to exchange gifts with each other during a winter solstice holiday, Saturnalia. Gift giving was done so in the belief that the generosity you bestowed on others would bring you good fortune in the year to come. As the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, many new followers of the faith found themselves holding onto the December custom – even before the 25th was made the ‘official’ date, and after Saturnalia stopped being celebrated. In the last century, shopping retailers capitalised on the tradition of gift-giving in December and began to aggressively advertise their products during the festive season

The Creation of Santa Claus

First, there’s the real Saint Nicholas who was a 4th Century Christian bishop. He was well-known for his kindness and generosity and often gave presents to poor children. After his death, the date of 6 December was dedicated to celebrating the life of Saint Nick. Then, there’s Father Christmas who dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Father Christmas is the personification of Christmas and was depicted by a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and representing the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, especially elements of bringing peace, joy, good food, and wine. As England no longer kept the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to 25 December to coincide with Christmas Day.

Over time, the legend of Saint Nicholas merged with the English personification of Christmas as “Father Christmas,” absorbing influences from various Swiss, Dutch, Belgian and German folklore, and thus creating the mythical character known to us today as “Santa Claus”.

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Alister Ho
Alister Ho

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