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History records the fact that a holiday season corresponding to our Christmas has been observed under various names in nearly all nations from the earliest times. Perhaps the most striking resemblance to Christmas is found in the Julafred, or Yule-peace of the Scandinavians, which is a custom whose origin is lost in the mists of antiquity, yet still exists io Sweden under Christian auspices. Beginning on Christmas eve, the Julafred, as its name implies, is a literal season of peace and happiness. The courts are closed; old quarrels are adjusted; old feuds are forgotten; and on the Yule-evening the shoes, great and small, of the entire household, are set close together in a row, that during the coming year the family may live together in peace and harmony.
Among the ancient Germans the pagan festival of the "Twelve Nights" extended from the 25th of December to the 6th of January. This festival commemorated the supposed conflict of the gods personifying the natural forces. Thus, in old German mythology, Winter is represented as the ice-giant, the enemy of all life, and the relentless foe of gods and men. By the aid of the north wind he constructs a powerful castle of ice, which threatens to inaugurate the reign of Night and Winter, of Darkness and Death. Then follows the conflict of giants and gods, of Winter with Spring, of North Wind with South Wind, until Thor, the god of the thunder storm, demolishes with his thunder-stone the castle of the ice-giant, when Freija, the beautiful goddess of spring, resumes her former sway, and life and light and prosperity return. The festival of the Twelve Nights was celebrated by the Germans in the midst of this conflict and long before spring appeared, but their mythology recognized the fact that the sun-god, having passed the winter solstice, was now rushing on to certain victory over darkness and death. In Bavaria and Styria the Twelve Nights are regarded with superstition and awe, on account of the supposed wandering abroad during that season of ghosts and hobgoblins.
St. Nicholas is called Santa Claus in Holland; Samiklaus in Switzerland; Sonner Klas in Heligoland; Zemmiklas in Vorarlberg; Niklo or Niglo in Nether Austria. But St. Nicholas is not everywhere the purveyor of child happiness. In the Tyrol the terrible Klaubauf accompanies him, to kidnap naughty children and stow them away in his basket. In Lower Austria it is the frightful Krampus, with his clanking chains and horrible devil's mask, who, notwithstanding his gilded nuts and apples, gingerbread and toys, which he carries in his basket, is the terror of the nursery. In the Bohemian Netherlands three young men disguise themselves, one as an angel, another as the devil, and the third as a he-goat. The latter catches and holds wicked children, who do not say their prayers, upon his horns, in order that the devil may beat them with his rod.
The Christmas tree originated with the Germans. Its pagan prototype with them dates from the farthest antiquity. The early Germans conceived of the world as a great tree whose roots were hidden deep under the earth, but whose top, flourishing in the midst of Walhalla, the old German paradise, nourished the she-goat upon whose milk fallen heroes restored themselves. Yggdnafil was the name of this tree, and its memory was still green long after Christianity had been introduced into Germany, when much of its symbolic character was transferred to the Christmas-tree. The ancient German tree was a tribute to the goddess of spring. The Christian interpretation of the Christmas tree is that it refers to the Christ, who is the "resurrection and the life." The evergreen is a symbol of eternal spring; the burning lights typify Him who is the "light of the world"; the gifts are reminders of the great gift of God who gave His son for the world's redemption.
Our British ancestors celebrated Christmas in royal fashion, very much as the Romans observed the Saturnalia. Their motto seems to have been, "Let joy be unconfined." All hands assembled around
the "wassail bowl," a bowl of warm ale with apples floating thereon, and the toasts they drank and the songs they sang gave evidence of a freedom and good fellowship that might have characterized the old Romans themselves. Indeed, it was from the Romans who early settled Britain, and from the ancient Druids, that our British forefathers received their traditions of Christmas. The Druids regarded the mistletoe with almost superstitious reverence, and something of this veneration has descended to modern times. The burning of the Yule log is another inheritance from antiquity, probably of Scandinavian origin. In ancient times, the bringing of the Yule log to the hearth in the baronial hall was the great event of Christmas eve.
An important functionary of the olden time in England was called the "Lord of Misrule." His office was that of master of the revels, and from Christmas eve to Twelfth Day he was master of all in the castle. On taking up the duties of his office he generally made some quaint speech, bidding his followers to make fools of themselves to their hearts' content. In towns and villages the Lords of Misrule usually acted as leaders of the "mummers," who, in all sorts of grotesque disguises, roamed from house to house singing and dancing. The mummers also gave a kind of drama founded on the legend of St. George and the Dragon. These performances afforded no end of amusement and resulted in some profit to the mummers themselves, who took up a collection. Another old custom, now obsolete at Christmas time, was the singing of carols under the windows of houses. This was evidently a relic of the Roman custom of carol singing.
Much of the freedom and revelry of the old-time Christmas celebration has been modified by the asceticism of Christianity and the work-a day civilization of modern times. It is now regarded as a season for thoughtfulness as well as for joy. Dark days, winter's cold, and the passing of another annual cycle, breed mournful retrospections.
"Full knee-deep lies the winter snow.
And the winter winds are wearily signing;
Toll ye the church-bell sad and slow,
And tread softly, and speak low.
For the Old Year lies a-dylng."
But soon the New Year bells peal out, and the cry goes forth: "The King is dead; long live the King."
On the old chapel wall of St. Gilgen is carved this motto: "Look not mournfully into the past; it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present; it is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future, without fear and with a manly heart.'