Early celebrations of what we now know as Christmas had a mix of spiritual and worldly origins. The word “Christmas” means Christ’s Mass from the term “Christes Maesse” first recorded in 1038. Christmas then, and now ,is primarily about the birth of God’s Son, Jesus, and about how He came to give hope, love, and joy to the world. The exact date of Jesus’ birth isn’t known, but one legend says that since Mary was told she’d have Jesus on March 25th (the Annunciation), that the date came from nine months after that date, December 25th. Other cultures, many pagan ones, also had festivals during this Winter Solstice period and the Jewish people celebrated Hanukkah in this season, too. With so many holidays in the same time period, many ways of celebrating the Christmas season merged together over time and now the holiday holds many mixed traditions and meanings.
All cultures, and individual families, have their established traditions or customs for the Christmas season handed down through the generations. I thought it would be interesting to share a few of these in my blog this month and where the customs came from. Most all traditions have a multitude of origins and stories associated with them beyond the ones I’ve chosen to share but I hope you will enjoy these below.
LIVE NATIVITY SCENES – In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi created the first live nativity scene to bring Jesus’ birth scene to life. He got permission from the Pope to set up a manger scene. Today live nativities are set up in churches and communities during the holidays. Often the nativity is re-enacted with costumed figures, live animals, music, and a narration of the Bible story,
CHRISTMAS TREES – It is thought the first Christmas trees originated in Germany in the 1600s, and Martin Luther is credited for decorating the trees with lights or candles. Other decorations soon followed and the custom of putting up a Christmas tree was brought to England later and then traveled to other countries like America in the 1800s. In earlier times, of course, all trees were “real” and the “cutting of the tree” was a ceremony of its own.
SANTA CLAUS – The story of Santa begins with St Nicholas, a Christian bishop, in the fourth century in Asia Minor. Many miracles and kindnesses were attributed to him. St. Nicholas sacrificially gave money and gifts to the poor. Legend tells that to save three sisters from being sold into prostitution, because they had no marriage dowries, Nicholas threw gold coins into the open window of their home in the night. This act of generosity, embellished over time in the telling, led to children hanging up stockings by the fireplace in hopes of receiving gifts from St. Nick. Early Santas, based on bishops like St.Nicholas, wore long robes of red or white.
CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS – Christmas stockings are linked back to the St. Nicholas story. The first stockings hung by the chimney or on a bedpost belonged to the children but over time Christmas stockings became much more elaborate and the gifts tucked into them more luxurious than simply an orange, a few nuts, and a peppermint stick. In America, Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the lines about Santa filling the children’s stockings and then rising up the chimney popularized the hanging of stockings all the more. That poem also solidified Santa’s image as a jolly man in a red suit, flying through the air on a sleigh. Artist Thomas Nest furthered these images in the U.S. with his cheerful paintings of Santa and Mrs. Claus on Cocas-Cola ads.
CHRISTMAS WREATHS – A German Lutheran pastor gets the credit for the Christmas wreaths we hang on our doors. Europeans had long been decorating with evergreens, but Joahann Wicern created a circular-shaped evergreen to represent eternal life. He hung it on the door during Advent with a candle in the wreath to represent Jesus, the light of the world. The idea caught on and many later added more advent candles to their holiday wreaths, with the idea soon spreading to other countries. Each part of the wreath holds a Christian symbolism, but many simply hang up wreaths for decoration. Holiday wreaths can be hung on doors, placed on tables, or worn on the head like a crown.
CHRISTMAS CARDS – Christmas cards began with the same purpose they have today—as a way to stay in touch with friends and family. Back in 1843, as the holidays began, Sir Henry Cole in England wanted to send holiday greetings to friends but wanted to avoid writing individual notes and letters. So he had a thousand illustrated cards made, and then sent them out. His idea caught on and was quickly replicated by others. New advances in printing soon made the production of Christmas cards even easier. By the 1850s Christmas cards were in full swing in England and they became popular in the U.S. in the late 1800s – early 1900s when mailing became less expensive and when offset printing made cards much easier to produce.
MISTLETOE – The kissing tradition of mistletoe originated from an old Norse legend. When a Norse god’s son was killed by a spear of mistletoe, his mother decreed the plant would never be used again as a weapon and would become instead a symbol of love. She also vowed to bestow a kiss on anyone who walked underneath it, so naturally people would stand under the mistletoe to try to get a kiss – just as they do today. The writings of Charles Dickens in Victorian England brought the practice into even more popularity, making the mistletoe a widely used holiday decoration.
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS AND CANDLES – In the late 1600s-1700s, Irish Catholics began the tradition of lighting candles in their windows at Christmas. it was a secret way, in a time of religious persecution, to ask a priest to visit the home. The practice of window lights soon spread, with the meaning of the lights inferring hospitality during the holiday season. Outdoor Christmas lights in the U.S are simply a happy accident, linked to the time when Thomas Edison, who had invented the light bulb, was looking for a way to advertise his new lights … so he strung them outside his laboratory to show them off to passersby. Now we see them everywhere—in windows, on the roofs of houses, on buildings and lining the streets. About 150 million lights sets are sold in America each year for decorating indoors and outdoors.
CHRISTMAS CAROLS – Music and song have always played a part in any celebration, and the first Christmas carols are said to be the angels’ songs at Jesus birth. The earliest carols after this were hymns, with spiritual messages, like “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” These were later followed by more secular, fun-loving holiday songs and carols like “Jingle Bells,” “Deck the Hall,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Some carols, like the “12 Days of Christmas” have hidden meanings. One theory says this carol was used in a time when Christians were punished for worshiping openly and that each gift on the list symbolized a different aspect of the Christian faith … like the “4 Calling birds” representing the four gospels and the “10 Lords a Leaping” the Ten Commandments.
HOLIDAY MOVIES – Plays in the theatre were the first dramas enacted for the Christmas holiday season – nativity plays and spiritual performances, dramas, and song and dance productions. The first Christmas movie, a short English film, aired in 1898 called Santa Claus. The earliest Scrooge movie followed in 1901 and then others like The Bells of St Mary’s, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Movies full of song and dance soon became popular, as well, like Holiday Inn, Christmas in Connecticut, and White Christmas. Movies in color and the invention of television brought even more Christmas movies our way. Each year new favorites emerge—How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Santa Clause, Home Alone, Elf, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Scrooged, The Polar Express, and many more. The best holiday movies make your heart grow sweeter at a giving time of year and linger in your memory for the rest of the year.
CHRISTMAS SWEETS – No holiday season would be complete without special sweets and desserts and many have been long associated with Christmas, like the Fruitcake. This traditional cake dates back to ancient Rome, continuing into Europe, Many of our other traditional favorites came from the British, too, like Egggnog, a hot drink of milk, eggs, nutmeg and cinnamon. It evolved in England as “posset,” a drink for the wealthy but gradually became a tradition for all in the 1700s. Gingerbread Men came from England, also, and were introduced by Queen Elizabeth I. She used a mold to shape the gingerbread men which were then decorated. Soon elaborate gingerbread houses followed, like many we see today.
CANDY CANES – Sweet candy canes date back to 1670 Germany. An old legend says the choir masters at one of the German cathedrals handed out white sugar sticks, bent into the shapes of shepherds’ crooks, to keep his young singers quiet during the Living Creche ceremony. By the 1700s, pulled sugars and candy canes were all the rage in Europe. They made their way to America in the mid 1800s when a German immigrant decorated a Christmas tree with paper ornaments and homemade candy canes. When mass production took off in the 20th century, so did the production of candy canes—now the No. 1 selling non-chocolate candy sold in December.
TREE ORNAMENTS – Christmas trees, since their earliest times, were decorated with lights and ornaments, usually candles, plus a few homemade ornaments, a string of cranberries or popcorn, and some sweets. Over time, ornaments became more lavish for those who could afford them. The first glass Christmas ornaments were created in the late 1500s in a German glassworks factory. The ornate glass ornaments came in the shapes of globes, animals, angels, birds, and acorns, often with special meanings. Popularity and demand for the ornaments grew over time, until other countries began to create their own tree ornaments. Eventually many types of ornaments became fashionable, made of glass, wood, plastic, and other materials. Now the making of Christmas ornaments, blown glass balls, collectibles of all kinds, strings of lights and beads, tinsel, angels and elaborate tree toppers is a huge international business.
THE CHRISTMAS PICKLE – Many humorous ornaments have also been created to hang on the Christmas tree as well as lovely collectibles. One I enjoyed reading about was the Christmas Pickle Ornament, a green, usually glass, ornament shaped like a pickle. According to the story, in the 1800s when a Woolworth’s retailer received a shipment of these pickle ornaments from Europe, he decided he needed a sales pitch to market and get rid of the odd ornaments. So he came up with a story idea that the “pickle” ornament should be added to the tree on Christmas eve night and that the first child, or adult if there were no children, to spot it on Christmas morning got to open the first present. The idea took off and the Pickle Ornament is still a loved tradition in many homes.
ELF ON THE SHELF – Every year new ideas begin, weaving their way into becoming beloved holiday traditions. The Elf on the Shelf is one of those. Carol Aebersold used to entertain her twin daughters growing up with a story she’d made up of an elf hiding in the house, watching daily and then heading back to the North Pole at night to report to Santa about whether the girls were being “naughty” or “nice.” Carol’s daughters, when grown, encouraged her to write their tradition into a book for others to enjoy. She did, with their help, but after countless publisher rejections, Carol and her daughters decided to self-publish 5000 boxed sets of the book with an elf doll tucked into each. They traveled, marketing the books out of their car, and the elf on the shelf idea soon took off. Now Carol and her girls have a multi-million-dollar business, with more than one elf book released and with their story having been made into a a favorite Christmas season movie.
Almost every holiday tradition we observe at Christmas has a story behind it, if only one of our own family’s making. They are interesting to study and read about, and I hope you enjoyed learning about a few of these in this December blog post. You might also enjoy my Christmas newsletter, on this website, too.
Across the miles from our family to yours … have a blessed Christmas season and a wonderful New Year.
See you in 2023
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act