History, Just for Fun

The History of Christmas Traditions and Symbols

Hey everyone, I know it’s been awhile since I posted. I’ve been busy with work and getting my book finished. Yes, my book is all edited and currently awaiting registration at the copyright office! But while you wait for the book to be available, today I’m putting you in the holiday mood. So, ever wonder where all those Christmas traditions come from? Well, here are the answers.

Christmas Trees

The tradition of decorating trees goes back to ancient pagan times, when people would hang offerings to the gods on pine trees in hopes that the sun would return. Evergreen plants, because they do not lose their needles in winter, came to symbolize eternal life. People would bring evergreen branches indoors to celebrate the return of the sun and life to the land as well as to ward off bad luck and spirits. Sixteenth century Germans are credited with establishing the modern Christmas tree because they brought evergreen trees into their homes and decorated them with candles. German immigrants and German-born Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, helped to make Christmas trees popular in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1800s. With their rising popularity, Christmas trees began to be decorated with more elaborate ornaments and electric lights and were soon used in commercial displays.

Yule Log

The tradition of the Yule log began in pre-Christian Scandinavia where they celebrated Yule to commemorate the return of the sun and longer days at the winter solstice. The Norse would bring home large logs, sometimes entire trees, which they would burn for as long as twelve days.  When Christmas was set on December 25th by the Catholic Church in the 4th century, the burning of the Yule log most likely became entwined with the story of the guiding light of the Christmas Star. Christians would burn the Yule log from Christmas Day until January 5th, aka Twelfth Night. The tradition of watching the Yule log burning on TV with holiday music playing in the background started in 1966, thanks to WPIX-TV. Of course, you can also try an edible Yule log cake if burning wood isn’t your thing.

Letters to Santa

I feel like the history of Santa Claus and his origins are too long to explain in this post, so instead I’ll just explain how writing letters to the man in red came about. In the early 19th century, when St. Nicholas was seen as a disciplinarian, parents would write letters “from” Santa to their children to discuss their behavior over the past year. They would leave these letters by the fireplace and children would in turn leave replies. When the cost of postage began to drop during the Civil War, children saw the US Postal Service as a legitimate way to reach Santa Claus. Illustrations in magazines, particularly those by Thomas Nast, helped to popularize the idea of sending letters to Santa and sending them to the North Pole. In the beginning, children would ask for practical items from Santa before switching to more fun gifts as the letters evolved over the years. In the early years, most letters to St. Nick ended up in the Dead Letter Office and were destroyed, but then local charity groups began to answer the letters and send gifts to the children. The US Postal Service eventually established Operation Santa Claus to send gifts in response to children’s letters. While children still send letters to Santa, parents now use the letters to fulfill their children’s wishes on Christmas morning.

Caroling

A pot of wassail

Caroling is thought to have origins in “wassailing”. The word “wassail” comes from an Old Norse (or Anglo-Saxon) term that means “be well” or “be in good health.” When people would go “wassailing” they would bless the fields and orchards to have a plentiful crop come harvest time or go door to door wishing their neighbors well. “Wassail” was also the term given to a spiced, hot drink usually made from cider or ale. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with incorporating cheerful songs into Christmas services and the singing of these songs spread throughout the masses during the holiday season. They were passed down through the generations before finally being written down in the late medieval period. Eventually these Christmas songs would come to be sung by carolers going door to door spreading holiday cheer.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Since ancient times, many groups have ascribed magical and medicinal properties to mistletoe. The Celtic Druids believed mistletoe was able to heal illnesses and could be used to predict the future and they would collect it during the winter and summer solstices. The Greeks associated the plant with fertility and would use it during marriage ceremonies and the festival of Saturnalia, introducing the idea of kissing under the mistletoe. Romans believed mistletoe represented peace and would decorate with it during midwinter. In Norse mythology, the goddess Frigga was said to have brought her dead son back to life under the mistletoe and from then on she declared that anyone passing under the mistletoe should receive a kiss. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe evolved and continued through the centuries.

Gingerbread

Ginger has been used since ancient times for both flavoring and medicinal purposes. The first appearance of the decorated gingerbread cookies we know today was in the Middle Ages when they were sold at fairs in Europe. These decorated gingerbread cookies would be sold in all seasons, not just at Christmas. Some claim Queen Elizabeth I popularized the decoration of these spiced cookies. Gingerbread houses trace their origin to 16th century Germany and their popularity rose with the Brothers Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel. Gingerbread came to the US via English colonists and has remained a holiday staple since.

What traditions do you follow? Have you created any of your own? If I don’t write another post before the end of the month, have a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a happy New Year.

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