Have you ever wondered how some of our favorite Christmas traditions came to be? Christmas is only eight days (eight!) away, so what better time is there to explore some holiday customs? MLC has several fantastic sources for finding more information about holidays and their origins, and I decided to look at Holiday Symbols and Customs by Helene Henderson. She’s compiled information about Christmas and just about any other holiday you could think of. For now, we’ll just focus on Christmas.
What’s the deal with candy canes at Christmas, and why in the world would anyone want to hang them on a tree?
Similar in shape to a shepherd’s staff, the candy canes that are often hung on Christmas trees today were once a symbol of the shepherds who went to Bethlehem to see Jesus after his birth.
Did Hallmark invent Christmas cards?
The first printed Christmas card was produced in England in 1843. It sold for a shilling and looked like a post card. In the 1880s, cards became folders with four, eight, or more pages. It was also during this period that cards also began to get fancier, with elaborate decorations like lace. I’m don’t think they had the singing cards back then. Hmm, maybe Hallmark did invent those …
What do decorated trees have to do with Christmas?
There’s a legend that at the moment of Jesus’s birth, rivers flowed with wine, and trees blossomed in ice and snow. The Christmas tree, which “blossoms” with light and ornaments may have been a symbolic representation of this. Christmas trees didn’t really become a popular Christmas custom until the 19th century, though it came to America from Germany in the early 18th century.
You mean I can get warm stockings AND treats?
A popular Christmas tradition is to hang stockings over the fireplace so that Santa can fill them with goodies. This custom can be traced back to a folk legend in which three daughters decided to help their father get out of poverty by selling themselves into prostitution. Legend has it that a wealthy guy named Nicholas visited them on three successive nights, and each time he tossed a ball of gold through an open window into their house, which landed in the stockings the girls had hung by the fire to dry. By supposedly doing this, Nicholas saved the girls from a life of sin.
The Truth about Santa Claus
The original Santa Claus was Nicholas, a legendary saint who was bishop of Turkey in the 4th Century. He was a gift-giver, but he definitely wasn’t a push-over. He brought switches and rods for children who misbehaved. In many countries, this legendary character arrived on December 6th each year to hand out presents and punishments.
The Christian story of St. Nicholas spread to Europe, where there were already a host of similar mythic figures. In the Germanic religion, the chief god, Woden (or Odin), rode an eight-legged white horse, and the Dutch Sinter Klaas wore bishop’s robes and rode a white horse. In some parts of Europe, it is the Christ Child rather than St. Nicholas who delivers gifts. This distinction was instituted by Martin Luther as part of an effort to remove the last traces of paganism from the Christian church. As a side note, this is also where the name Kriss Kringle originates. In other northern European countries, St. Nicholas evolved and was integrated with ancient gods to become a spirit of winter rather than a Christian saint.
In Russia, Babuska (the Grandmother) is a legendary figure known for bringing gifts at Christmas. According to legend, this old woman deliberately misdirected the Three Wise Men when they stopped to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem. She later repented and tried to make amends by going around the world on Christmas Eve distributing gifts to good children.
Have you ever heard of Father Christmas? He’s an English folk figure who for centuries personified the Christmas season. Father Christmas didn’t hand out gifts. Instead, he represented the mirth, generosity, and abundance associated with Christmas. He usually appeared as a large, robust fellow wearing a red or green robe with fur trim and a crown of holly, ivy, or mistletoe. Remember the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol? He’s a good example. During the 19th century, the American version of Santa Claus began to gain popularity in England, and his identity slowly merged with that of Father Christmas. Before long, Santa had all but erased the figure of Father Christmas, who retained his name, but whose image and activities more closely resembled those of Santa.
The American Santa Claus is actually a combination of three figures: 1)English Father Christmas; 2)German St. Nicholas; and 3) Dutch Sinter Klaus. Two events helped transform these three figures into the modern popular image of Santa Claus: the publication of Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in December 1823, and the appearance of Thomas Nasts illustrations of Santa Claus based on Moore’s poem.
Are there other holiday traditions that you’d like to know more about? If so, we have a wealth of resources here at your disposal for you to explore. Or if you can’t make to our building, call us up, shoot us an email, or send us a Meebo message, and we’ll be happy to explore them for you!
Source: Henderson, Helene. Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. Detroit: Ominigraphics, 2009