Ever wonder where we got some of our Christmas traditions? This is where my curiosity can be my downfall, because I’m the type that can’t hang a stocking on a mantle without wondering who did it first and why in the world it became a worldwide tradition. So since the weather is keeping me from going anywhere right now, and my TV antenna won’t pick up the football game unless I stand 18 inches away from the screen with my hands in the air (weird), I thought I’d do a little research. Let’s start with the origins of some of the most common traditions…
The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews used evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and so survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to ward off demons. Harvest wreathes – the predecessors to our modern decorations – were used in rituals for good harvests, and predate even written history.
The specific custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly the 15th century, in which Christians became known for bringing trees into their homes and decorating them. The tree was traditionally decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts or dates.
Toward the end of the 1800’s, another variation of the traditional Christmas tree appeared: the artificial Christmas tree. In Germany, metal wire trees were covered with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers. The feathers were often died green to imitate pine needles. Around this same time, Christmas trees began to be illuminated by candles. Some claim that Martin Luther was the first to add lighted candles to a tree. He would later question why his house always seemed to catch fire around Christmas time (that’s a joke).
Patron saint of children and sailors, Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century bishop from Asia Minor. He was famous for giving gifts to children. His feast day, December 6, became a children’s holiday in Holland, where he is known as Sint Nikolaas. English colonists in New York (previously the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam) called him “Santa Claus” because they couldn’t pronounce the Dutch name. The English began celebrating the feast day on Christmas. In addition to the tradition of Saint Nicholas, the three Wise Men gave gifts to the baby Jesus, starting the Christmas gift tradition.
stockings on the mantle
The practice of stocking-stuffing can be traced back to Saint Nicholas’ charitable donations in the 4th century. Nicholas believed that childhood should be savored and enjoyed – but in a time where boys and girls younger than 10 had to work to support their families, this wasn’t always possible.
He therefore gave what he could in homemade food, clothes, and furniture. The bishop even gave out oranges, which would have been very rare and expensive in Lycia, where he lived. The problem became where to leave these gifts so that the children would find them. According to legends, he then saw girls’ stockings hanging above the fireplace and thought “Why the heck not?” From then on, children would hang stockings up hoping that Saint Nicholas would visit them that night.
“in excelsis Deo” lyrics (and caroling)
These words are found in some of the most popular traditional Christmas songs like “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Gloria.” But just in case you’ve been singing these beautiful lyrics without knowing what the heck you’re saying, it means “glory to God in the highest” in Latin.
The root of the word “carol” lies not in song, but in dance. In Old French, “carole” means “kind of dance.” In Latin, “choraula” means “a dance to the flute,” and in Greek, “choraules” means “flute player who accompanies the choral dance.” Although there are some carols centering around religion, the songs were originally secular — up-tempo melodies with alternating choruses and verses associated with traditional dances. Like many other Christmas traditions, caroling is thought to have its roots in the pre-Christian celebration of the Festival of Yule, when Northern Europeans would come together to sing and dance to honor the Winter Solstice. As carols evolved into a Christian tradition, they became hymns, having little relation to any type of dance.
It might surprise you to hear that mistletoe was not always just a pick-up line. Ancient Celtic priests believed mistletoe grew on trees after falling from heaven. Mistletoe thus represented the joining of heaven and earth, and God’s reconciliation with mankind. A kiss under mistletoe symbolized acceptance and reconciliation.
Some scholars believe a candy maker developed candy canes to represent Jesus. The shape was for Jesus, or the shepherd’s staff. The white color symbolized purity, while the red stripes indicated blood. Peppermint is similar to hyssop, the Middle Eastern mint mentioned in the Bible.
The poinsettia, which is native to Central America, was made widely known because of a man called Joel Roberts Poinsett (that’s why we call them Poinsettia!). He was the first Ambassador from the USA to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett had some greenhouses on his plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taco area in 1828, he became very interested in the plants. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens. (I may or may not have included these facts just so I could refer to a place in Mexico called “Taco.”)
There is an old Mexican legend about how Poinsettia’s and Christmas come together, it goes like this:
There was once a poor Mexican girl called who had no present to give the the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As she walked to the local chapel, sadly, her brother tried to cheer her up. “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy,” he said.
The little girl didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As he walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what her brother said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright-red, star-shaped flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.
the yule log
The custom of burning the yule log goes back to, and before, medieval times. It was originally a Nordic tradition. “Yule” is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, such as Germany.
The yule log was originally an entire tree, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with a big ceremony. The fat end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been carefully stored away and slowly fed into the fire through the twelve days of Christmas.