Here's a little history and anthropology concerning the month of December.
December, it is generally believed, was consecrated to Saturn; others, however, think it was sacred to Vesta. In ancient times the Saxons called it Midwinter-monat and Yule-monat. This last-mentioned name points to the far-back period and high festivals held this month by the Northern nations in honour of the sun. The evergreens with which houses are decked, and Christmas trees with their gifts, are relics of the symbols by which our heathen ancestors exhibited their belief in the power of the sun to deck the earth anew with green, and to laden the trees with rich fruit. The misletoe, exhibited at Christmas and the New Year in almost every house, is looked upon as a semi-sacred thing, that possesses charms and confers privileges on people possessed of it, or who may come under the support from which it is suspended. In olden times the ancient Britons believed their gods were in the oaks. When the misletoe berries were ripe, the Druids invited the people to a great feast, and the oldest Druid, dressed in white, climbed up the trees where the misletoe grew, and with a golden sickle cut it down, while the other Druids sang and prayed. We have various accounts of the misletoe, and of the strange superstitious proceedings in gathering it. The misletoe is supposed to be the golden bough which Æneas made use of, to introduce himself to the Elysian regions. It is often worn about the neck of children, to prevent convulsions and pain when getting their teeth.
New Year's gifts and Christmas boxes were given by friends to friends in ancient times. Both the Greeks and Romans gave presents and entertainments during their annual superstitious meetings. Masses and prayers were offered for the safety of persons and ships, but more particularly for vessels that went on long voyages. A box, devoted to each ship, was kept by the priest, into which money might be dropped, in order to give efficacy to the supplications of the Church; and these boxes being opened at Christmas in each year, acquired the name of Christmas boxes. In course of time all presents given at this season of the year were familiarly called boxes. Poor people begged box money to enable them to supply the priest's box, that they might have the benefit of his prayers.
The old salutation of "a merry Christmas," like that of wishing "a happy New Year," adverted to the hospitality of the rich, whose spacious halls, crowded with tenants and neighbours, were scenes of boundless hospitality. Boar's-head is sometimes served on Christmas Day, to give expression of the abhorrence of Judaism. Plum-puddings are emblematical of the offerings of the wise men; and mince-pies, with their pieces of paste over them in the form of a hay rack, commemorate the manger in which the Saviour was first laid. Dancing and gambols have been among the Christmas amusements for a long series of years.
The wassail bowl was the vessel out of which our Saxon ancestors took such copious draughts, that legislative measures were adopted with the view of enforcing temperance. Wassail not only refers to a certain liquid preparation, but it is a term applied to drinking songs, which in the cider-producing counties were sung on the eve of the Epiphany, when libations were poured out to the apple-trees for a fruitful season—a custom evidently followed in example of the heathen sacrifices to Pomona, the goddess of fruit-trees and orchards.
Dunstan, to check the vicious habit of excessive indulgence in intoxicating liquors, introduced the custom of marking or pegging drinking-cups at certain places, to restrain the draught to a limited quantity. But the contrivance, instead of being attended with good effects, led to greater excess; for those who formerly strove to avoid intoxication, were now, they thought, obliged to drink to the "pegs," it being understood that it was imperative to drain the vessel to the pin.
From the use of peg or pin-cups or tankards, may be traced phrases yet repeated. When a person is in a cheerful mood, he is said to be in a merry pin. Speaking of bringing a man "down a peg," refers to a regulation which deprived a troublesome fellow of his turn of drinking. When a person is dull, he is described as being "a peg too low." "Getting on peg by peg," means that a man is gradually emptying his cup.
Anciently, confectionery was presented to the Fathers of Rome, made up in the forms of crosses, infants, etc., to which has been ascribed the origin of bakers presenting their customers with cakes, or, as they are sometimes called, "Yule dough." It is supposed that the New Year's ode composed by the Poet Laureate was originally regarded as a Yule song or Wassail song. For such verses Christmas carols were substituted, as being more appropriate for the season of the year, observed with joy in honour of Christ's birth in Bethlehem.
Posted by anthrojudd
at 12:20 AM EST