Christmas is a time of joy, giving, and a reflection of the year that has passed. The holiday is filled of gift giving, storytelling, and family togetherness. At least, that’s how most of us recall this during our lifetime. For those of us who celebrate the “traditions” of Christmas, it brings back memories of hanging stockings, setting up and decorating Christmas trees, leaving out milk and cookies for Santa, kissing under the mistletoe, sending/receiving cards, drinking eggnog, perhaps caroling, and red and green colors draped over everything throughout the season. But where did all these odds and ends handed down traditions come from? There are so many tales of the season that it’s truly difficult to see how we got to where we are now.
Our Christmas falls on December 25 of every year. This is the day that Jesus was said to be born. However, the tradition of celebrating in the middle of winter predates Christianity itself. Throughout Europe, people would celebrate the winter solstice, signifying that the worst parts of the winter season were past them and that they could enjoy longer hours of daylight and less darkness. During these celebrations, they would kill their cattle so they would not have to feed them during the grueling months of winter. Most of the time, this was the only opportunity for these Europeans to feast on fresh meat. Wine and beer would also complete them fermentation cycles at this time of year and be ready to drink.
The Norse used December 21 as a date to celebrate the Yule, their form of the winter solstice. Their celebration represented similar traits as in the return of the sun. The men of the families would haul large logs home that evening. They would light them on fire and the family would partake in a feast until the fire burnt out. Sometimes this would take up to two weeks. These Norsemen had a belief that each ember from the fire would tell of how many new cows and pigs would be born in the next year.
Romans would celebrate their God of Agriculture, Saturn, during their festival of Saturnalia. This celebration would begin a week before the winter solstice and last an entire calendar month. During this raucous occasion, the Roman social ladder was flipped upside down. Masters would bow to their slaves, common peasants would rule the city, and schools would be closed as the children would run the streets to celebrate. During this time, they would also celebrate Juvenilia which was a large feast to respect their youth. Many upper-class citizens would celebrate the birth of the Sun God Mithra on December 25. Mithra was the infant god and her birthday was seen as the most sacred celebration of the entire year.
During early Christianity, Christmas and the birth of Christ wasn’t even recognized or celebrated. They still celebrated their version of winter solstice, but the most important day for these early Christians was Easter. During that time, Jesus’s birthday was actually listed as three separate days as no one truly knew the date. March 29, January 6, and some point during the month of June were all speculated. Historians believe that June is the most likely time frame. After Julius Caesar’s successors, quite a few eras removed anyway, Pope Gregory assigned saint Augustine to ensure the British would convert to Christianity. This would open the door to allow the transition of a more formal Christian celebration. In 340 AD, Pope Julius I altered Jesus’s birth to December 25, giving the Christians a new winter solstice to celebrate. Originally, Christmas was actually named the Feast of the Nativity and was transformed, by Greek and Russian Orthodox into a 13-day celebration called Epiphany of the Three Kings. By the Middle Ages, Christianity’s version of the Winter Solstice pretty much replaced the former Pagan festivals and even the religion.
During the early years of Christmas, following their church attendance, Christians would celebrate in a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere drinking and carrying on at Christmas carnivals. During these carnivals, a poor peasant would be dubbed the “Lord of Misrule” and lead his new “subjects” to the upper-class homes to demand high class food and drinks. If those wealthy homeowners refused, they would typically be belittled and threatened. This was the time of year that those high-class citizens could help out the poor by entertaining and feeding the less fortunate – whether they wanted to or not.
Upon the settler’s arrival in America, the separatists did not celebrate Christmas in the new colony. In fact, from 1659-1681 Christmas was illegal in Boston. Anyone caught practicing the celebration was fined 5 shillings. On the flip side, the famous John Smith, passed a law in Virginia that Christmas was legal and shall be celebrated by all. Following the American Revolution, many English-based traditions and customs were glanced over and deemed in bad taste. This included the celebration of Christmas.
It took until the mid-1800’s that Americans revitalized the holiday of Christmas. However, the celebration was altered from the debauchery of the former carnival-like party into a family friendly celebration of peace. This occurred during a period of upheaval and economic class separation. The unemployment numbers were skyrocketing, and the lower-class number was growing by the day. During Christmas of 1828, New York had to send their police force out to put arrest to a large-scale public riot. This event was the first of many that led the wealthy upper-class citizens to change the way Christmas was viewed. The national holiday of Christmas was finally recognized on June 26, 1870.
Through time and different cultures, the traditions we now know and love have been altered and warped from their original meanings and folklore.
For example, something as simple as the colors of Christmas – green and red. There’s no definitive reasoning behind them but it has been theorized that the color green stemmed from the evergreen tradition, which in itself dates back to before Christianity, whereas the red is said to be something as simple as the holly berry color or as deep as a religious affiliation of the blood of Christ.
Many of our traditions have varying tales, most come with a disturbing moral meaning. The hanging of stockings, for example, has numerous tales of early beginnings. The most commonly accepted reason comes from the tale of children leaving out shoes on December 5, the night before St. Nicholas’s Feast Day. These children would leave out hay with the shoes so St. Nicholas’s donkey could munch on some kind of treat. If they were lucky, the children would find coins left in their shoes as a thank you from St. Nicholas. A differing tale is that of a poor father’s inability to provide dowries for his three daughters. Another spin of this tale is that the three daughters were actually prostitutes, turning tricks to earn money for their family. St. Nicholas found out about this and sent chunks of gold down the family’s chimney. That evening, wet stockings were hung by the fire to dry and it just so happened that the gold fell into the stockings. Varying once more, St. Nicholas tossed the gold chunks through an open window at the fathers’ feet, next to his empty stockings.
St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, better known as Santa Claus, has his own legendary origin stories. St. Nicholas was in fact a real man, a monk who was born in 280 A.D. in Turkey. Before dubbed a saint, Nicholas came from a wealthy family who inherited his family’s money and property upon their death. He donated all his belongings and money to the poor families in the area and traveled the country. During his travels, he helped the poor and sick. He was known as a protector of children. Upon Dutch families arriving in America, they brought with them the stories of Saint Nicholas and gathered in mourning during the anniversary of his death. In Dutch, Saint Nicholas was called “Sint Nikolaas.” A short-term derivative was “Sinter Klaas.” Unknown to the non-Dutch speaking American people, they would take this as a direct translation – Santa Claus was born. The current icon of Santa Claus is an old man with a long white beard and rosy red cheeks, dawning a red jump suit driving a sled led by reindeer pulling a sack full of toys. The main culprit of this depiction is from the 1822 poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Today, this poem is more popularly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The cartoonist, Thomas Nast, drew out this poem in 1881 and really allowed the public to picture this jolly old man.
Before these pop culture ideals of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas was more combined with folklores of Kris Kringle and other German traditions to be described as an older man with a cane, long bear, and green robe. This was taken from Pagan beliefs which incorporated Santa’s helper, not elves, but the opposing figure to Santa Claus called Krampus.
Krampus was the exact opposite of Santa Claus and followed St. Nicholas around, punishing bad children instead of rewarding the good ones. Krampus was said to whip children with bundles of sticks and fill their stockings with coal instead of coins and treats.
Yet again diving into Norse mythology, our participation of leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus the night before Christmas actually comes from kids leaving treats for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. Sleipner was no ordinary horse, he had eight-legs and two stomachs, one for the treat, one for the drink (typically alcoholic back then). This became popular again during the Great Depression in America as parents tried to show their children to be gracious and happy with whatever they received for Christmas and to say thank you to Santa Clause and his reindeer.
Decorations have their own variety of myths. Evergreen trees, more well known as Christmas trees at this time of year, stem back before the advent of Santa Claus, Christmas, and even Christianity itself. Branches of evergreens would be placed around homes during the winter months as a reminder that the plants would return and make the earth green again. Spreading across Europe and Germany, Christianity took this to the next step and had houses decorated with evergreen trees filled with apples symbolizing the Garden of Eden. These were called “Paradise Trees” and were decorated during Adam and Eve Day on December 24. As immigrants came to America, they brought these practices with them. However, the typical decorated Christmas tree wasn’t popularized in homes until 1840 when Queen Victoria and Price Albert decorated their home with them. Now a days, there are nearly 30 million evergreen trees sold in America every year for Christmas.
Mistletoe is another form of décor that has been around since ancient times. Originally a Norse myth of a god named Balder who was killed after being struck with an arrow crafted from mistletoe. They believed that the mistletoe was so valuable that they cut it from trees with a golden sickle and caught it before it hit the ground in a soft blanket. If it hit the ground, it would lose its special powers used in rituals and medicine. Because of these stories, modern churches banned mistletoe due to its’ Pagan origins. According to Druid Celtics, it was associated with fertility and strength. It was seen this way to the mistletoe’s ability to blossom during the cold winter. Over time, the fertility aspect became linked to kissing under the mistletoe. This truly grew into popularity in England around the 1800’s between upper class servants. This spread to those wealthy citizens upon seeing their servants using the mistletoe to kiss under. These wealthy men used the mistletoe to kiss any woman they pleased that was standing underneath it. They created the rumor that if any woman refused this kiss, that they were to be cursed with bad luck.
The drinking of eggnog stemmed from a middle-ages drink called posset. This was made from eggs, milk, figs, and sherry. The ingredients were expensive – so only the upper-class could afford this at the time. As the separatists immigrated to America, they managed to create a knock off version created with much cheaper and more easily accessible ingredients by leaving out figs and replacing the sherry for rum. The actual name of nog is an abbreviated term for noggin which was a slang term for a wooden cup.
Activities like caroling and sending Christmas cards are more Americanized traditions and don’t date back all that far. Caroling stemmed from neighbors visiting one another during the winter months. The carols themselves are older, but these neighbors never sang to one another. It wasn’t until Christmas became more commercialized in the early 1900’s that neighbors began caroling around neighborhoods. Sending Christmas cards also only became an activity loved ones and family members did for each other in the mid-1800’s. A simple cardboard cut out showing people toasting with drinks and a printed saying of “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to You” was first sold in 1843. Only 1,000 of them were published and cost a penny to mail. Because of the sell rate and simplicity, a new tradition was created from this that has led to about 2 billion cards sent every year in America.
Older traditions, though, have died in time.
It was once said that decorations should be removed by the 12th night of winter solstice (January 6, oddly enough, one of Jesus’s original birthdays) or else you will have bad luck the following year. However, these decorations (typically greenery) should not simply be thrown out but rather burnt or buried. If this greenery is thrown away, a death is said to occur in the household before the next winter solstice.
While making pudding, it should be stirred east to west. The reasoning here was based on two different stories. The first is that of the path that the Sun God, Mithra, takes. The second is that of the direction that the three wise men traveled to visit Jesus upon his birth. If you do not stir it in this direction, it was said that whoever eats the pudding will have bad luck for an entire year until the following season.
Legends used to tell of Christmas Eve ghost stories. On the night before Christmas, if one ventures into a graveyard and digs a hole deep enough, they will find gold. However, during the way to that graveyard, cattle (which typically sleep at night) are said to kneel down and chant in tongues. If a believer leaves the Christmas Eve blessing early, they are said to see a slew of spirits wondering the streets aimlessly.
Christmas still manages to bring people together, even if the reasoning has changed over generations. Even though some of the original traditions and the meaning of them has changed, what’s important is that they still mean something to us as a people, even if it’s just a nostalgia effect. It’s good to learn the origination of our traditions but what’s more important is that we keep them alive, keep them changing, and being a part of our holiday, no matter which one we celebrate.