When December arrives, the excitement of the festive season sets in, as do the decorations, the trees and the Christmas music. In Quebec, garlands of lights make houses—and even entire neighbourhoods—really shine. Christmas as we know it today draws on French, British and American traditions. Celebrated in many different ways in Canada, Christmas traditions have been adapted over time and have evolved to create the magical and enchanting atmosphere we recreate each year.
The origin of Christmas, a bit of history
Christmas is generally defined as the Christian feast that marks the birth of Jesus Christ. The English word “Christmas” is derived from the Old English word “Cristes maesse”, which means “Christ’s mass”. The French word “Noël” comes from the Latin: “Dies Natalis”, which means “day of birth”. Since it is impossible to know the exact day of Jesus’s birth, it is quite likely that December 25—the day chosen to commemorate this birth—is more associated with the many celebrations organized by the Romans and Celts around the winter solstice.
The fir tree
A main feature of the winter solstice, the decorated tree symbolized life and renewal. More than 2,000 years ago, the Celts gathered around a spruce tree on December 24 and decorated it with fruit, flowers and wheat. In the 11th century, the tree was decorated with red apples, symbolizing the tree of paradise. It was in the 12th century that the tradition of the fir tree was born in Europe (in Alsace, France). It was then decorated with apples, sweets and miniature cakes (petits fours). In the 14th century, the symbol of the star at the top of the tree became widespread and illuminated trees appeared during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the fruit were replaced with glass balls made by German craftsmen.
Also associated with the pagan rituals of the winter solstice, the log was burned at that time to celebrate the life and rebirth of the sun. The tradition was for families to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve. In the Middle Ages, a large, previously blessed log from the trunk of a fruit tree was said to guarantee a good harvest for the following year. The preserved ashes were believed to protect the house. The Christmas log dessert as we know it today came much later, thanks to the skills of French pastry chefs.
The first Christmas card was produced in England in the 1840s. According to legend, a businessman named Henry Cole asked a painter to illustrate a happy family of three generations, surrounded by charity scenes, with the words “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you” marked on it. Despite a modest beginning, the first greeting card was printed in a thousand copies. In the 20th century, a Quebec family would mail about 80 greeting cards per Christmas. Towards the end of the 20th century, the number of cards fell to 10 per family. Today, with e-cards, Christmas greetings have been given a new lease on life and people continue to send each other their best wishes.
The gesture of offering gifts dates back a long time. At the time of the Saturnalia festival (and the Sigillaria, the last day of that festival), during the winter solstice and the end-of-year celebrations among the Romans, the custom was to exchange small gifts, such as: terracotta or wax figurines, rings, seals, etc. Starting in the 12th century, the tradition of St. Nicholas became established, with a friendly bishop bringing sweets to well-behaved children: dried fruit, apples, cakes, sweets, chocolates, etc. In the 20th century, sweets were transformed into toys with the arrival of the consumer society we know today.
In Quebec, we are fortunate to have a multitude of traditions that enable us to choose which one we wish to adopt or not. For example, the advent calendar brings smiles to young and old alike, midnight mass and Christmas Eve are not celebrated as they used to be, but still continue to be celebrated in many families, not to mention the classic Ciné-Cadeau where Christmas movies are streamed non-stop. And lastly, the holiday season also comes with its share of generosity and charity towards the less fortunate. Quebecers are conscientious about contributing to Christmas baskets or to the Christmas food drive, to name a few. At Entraide Diabétique du Québec, we encourage you to donate small objects and clothing in good condition that you no longer use. What is no longer useful to you will be useful to someone else, especially as the New Year approaches. Thank you for giving generously and Happy Holidays to one and all!