Christmas Traditions Now and Then
Traditional Christmas Stockings
Hanging stockings on a mantelpiece and put gifts inside of them, it is an old Nordic tradition. It may be around 2000 – 3500 years old.
God Odin was expecting that children would leave food for his flying horse in their boots, which were standing close to a chimney. The god would collect food for his horse, and in exchange, give gifts for children. The custom was associated with the celebration of the New Year.
Later with the arrival of Christianity, the God Odin morphed into Santa Claus, and Odin’s horse morphed into flying reindeers. Although, in some countries, boots are still used; generally, even the boots morphed into stockings.
Mistletoe Christmas Tradition
Mistletoe was worshipped by the Druids. They were priests in Celtic Europe. We look here at around 2200 years back in time.
The Druids praised the mistletoe’s ability to stay green in winter in spite of having no roots. The plant is a hemiparasite. It attaches itself to a stem of a tree and obtains water with nutrients from the hosting tree.
The Druids harvested the plant during the winter solstice. They used it as medicine. It was responsible for fertility and vitality.
This is probably why the ancient custom developed and widespread in Christian Europe. When two young people met under a hanging mistletoe, they were obliged to kiss each other. It was believed that kissing underneath it brings good fortune, and that the hanging mistletoe saves family from lightning and fire during the next year.
Poinsettia is native to the South Mexico, and the Aztecs called the plant cuetlaxochitl. They were using the plant’s white fluid as medicine, and its flowers for making a purple dye.
We call the flower after Joel Roberts Poinsett, founder of the Smithsonian Institut in the US and the first US ambassador to Mexico, who 1825 brought the plant to the USA and to the rest of the world.
A few thousand years ago, pagans used wreaths and candles. They placed candles on wreaths and lit them. It was a ritual to remember that spring ultimately will come, and that the dark days of winter would be ending soon.
Today we are using four candles on a wreath. On the first Sunday of Advent, we lit the first Advent candle, on the following Sunday we lit two candles. The same pattern follows for the third Sunday with three candles and finally on the fourth Sunday we lit all four candles.
The first Christmas Card was printed in the year 1843 in London with the following text, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” It was a triptych illustrated by John Calcott Horsley. The two side panels were showing charity scenes, and in the middle was a happy family with children drinking red wine.
Many disliked the idea of children and red wine; nevertheless, the card was a success. A few years later even Queen Victoria has begun to use Christmas cards to send her greetings and well wishes. She was using mainly portraits of her family.
Later, the Victorian Christmas cards showed images of fairies, children, animals or flowers. Today we use more often religious or winter topics on our season’s greetings.
The first American Christmas card appeared in the year 1875 by Louis Prang. It showed the text, “Merry Christmas” and flowers as an illustration. Louis Prang was a Prussian immigrant who started a small printing firm in Boston.
Christmas Greeting Phrases
- “Merry Christmas” was used for the first time in a written form in the year 1565 in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript.
- “Happy Christmas” is used since the 19th century. Because “merry” means sometimes “drunk” or is connected with insobriety, many prefer the term “Happy Christmas.”
- “Merry Xmas” – in Greek Christ means Xristos. We simply replace Christ in Christmas with the first letter from the Greek name Xristos. X in Greek is the letter Chi. Xmas is an ancient abbreviation for Christmas, and it is generally not welcome in formal writing.
- “Happy Holidays” is the most popular holiday greeting in the US. There, it is widely used since about 1950s and represents greetings included Christmas, Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Year, Epiphany, Winter solstice, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and The Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe. This greeting is sometimes controversial in the States because of its too general, somewhat agnostic, or even atheistic interpretation.
- “With the Season’s Greetings,” “Compliments of the Season,” “The Season’s Greetings,” shortened to “Season’s Greetings” is used since around 1920s. The term was seen on several presidential good wishes as the cards from president Dwight D. Eisenhower. The meaning and the critic of this expression are similar to “Happy Holidays” – see above.
They represent the circle of life, no beginning and no end, the start of every year, and as remembering that spring will soon reappear.
Wreaths were used in ancient times by Etruscan civilization and continued to be used by ancient Greeks and Romans.
Christmas Tree Tradition
The first Christmas trees were used in Latvia around 1441. In the next years, the tradition grew around Estonia, North Poland and Germany.
In the UK, the first Christmas Tree was brought through Gorge III’s wife in 1761. His wife was Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg; they met on their wedding day, two weeks later they were crowned and enjoyed a genuinely happy marriage thereafter. They had fifteen (fifteen!) children.
The first Christmas trees in the US were brought as community trees, as early as 1747, by German settlers in Pennsylvania. The decorated trees for the holiday season were not accepted by most Americans. They were seen as pagan symbols for a long time. Slowly after 1830 the custom became more widespread in the US.
Evergreen foliage did have a specific significance for Romans and other archaic people in Europe; namely, it was a symbol of hope, the arrival of spring, the victory of life, and immortality.
The ancient people believed that, in the dark winter times, evil spirits would enter their dwellings and homes. Having green foliage at home was protection from harmful spirits and misfortune.
Today, we just decorate and enrich our homes with evergreen foliage without having, most of the time, any additional believes.
In Lauscha, a small picturesque town located in a mountain range of the Thuringian Highland in Germany, were the first baubles produced.
Heated glass was blown into a shaped mold. Only forms of fruits, nuts, and vegetables were used initially. After the glass had cooled down, liquid silver nitrate was poured into the baubles. Dry baubles were hand painted, equipped with a hook, and were ready to sell.
From the 1880s, Frank Winfield Woolworth made a fortune buying baubles in Lauscha and selling them on the US market. Yes, he is the “father” of famous chain stores named Woolworth. Some stores of the chain are since 2001 called Foot Locker.
This tradition is rooted in the time around the winter solstice in old pagan practices and in the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia.
The Christian tradition of giving presents is associated with Santa Claus. His real name was Nikolaos of Myra. He was a Greek bishop who was living in the 4th century in Asia Minor; today it is Turkey.
Because of his generous, giving, and caring character he is now a symbol for all Christians as a gift-bearing figure.
The first mentioned in the record market is December Market from Vienna, Austria. This market looks at a long tradition since 1294!
A Christmas Market is held at a center of a town. Many open-air-stalls are grouped together. The place is decorated with seasonal items, a Christmas tree and huge amount of fanciful lights. There you can find everything to eat and drink, like mulled wine (a hot spicy red wine), hot Belgian waffles or crepes topped with sweet cherries and whipped cream, fish and chips, bratwurst, many forms of gingerbread, hot marrons (sweet chestnut).
You can get there many, many, various handcrafted goodies like ornaments, candles, soaps, wreaths, silk scarves, paintings, gloves and woolen scarves, games, and toys among others.
Most popular market in Germany is Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg. In the UK, we have markets in many cities like in Bath, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow, and Leeds. The biggest ever market outside of Germany was held in 2011 in Birmingham.
Christmas is celebrated since the 4th century AD. Christians have adopted the Roman festival named Saturnalia and renamed it as Christmas. They hoped through this continuation to win Romans for Christianity, and their hopes were entirely fulfilled.
The date of birth of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate on December 25th, is actually unknown.
Carol means joyful dance and song. Carols were sung by pagans several thousand years ago. They were performed around the time of winter solstice.
The first known Christmas hymn was an “Angel’s Hymn,” and it was chanted in the 2nd century in Rom. The first carols were not tremendously popular because they were sung in Latin.
Carols in native languages begun to spread in the 15th century; however, in Puritan England (after 1647) Christmas was forbidden, and carols were chanted only in secret. This is why they survived and in Victorian England won again in popularity.
“The Sheffield Carols” it is popular, traditional mass singing in pubs around the end of November and through December.
Many popular carols were written in the US. Widely liked are, for example, “Jingle Bells” or “White Christmas.”
Church bells are associated with Christmas. They would sound around midnight and call believers for the midnight church service.
Often small hand bells would be used to accompany carol singers.
Around 1850, an Englishman Tom Smith, had the idea of Christmas crackers. He took his concept from the French bonbons – sweets wrapped in decorative papers. His crackers were just enormous in comparison to the French ones, and they were opened with a loud crack.
This funny idea of Tom Smith was a remarkably successful business for him and his sons.
Nativity Plays and Cribs
They are popular from the Medieval Ages until now. The first Nativity Play was performed in the year 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi and his monks in a cave in Italy.
A Christmas Pickle
No one actually knows where the tradition of a Christmas pickle comes from. Just in Michigan in the village of Berrien Springs, The Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, they celebrate pickle festival every year in December.
It is probably a brilliant business concept because Berrien Springs is simply known as a pickle producing region.
© 2012 Maria Janta-Cooper
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