Christmas and Family Traditions
Introduction to tradition.
Everybody's got them....traditions that is. Some start centuries before you're born and are passed down from generation to generation, some you bring with you when you get married, and some you start when you start your own family, but, no matter where they come from, everyone's got traditions. Wikipedia says "A tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society". Of all the seasons, and all the traditions, Christmas is the season with the most traditions.
You may not even realize they are traditions, they may just be "things" you do every Christmas. You know the famous, "in my house" sentence? In my house we'd never have an artificial tree....in my house we open presents on Christmas Eve....those "in my house" sentences and the like...tradition!
The Christmas Tree
It seems many of our "Christian" traditions are rooted in Paganism. Evergreens were used in Pagan homes throughout the year. Boughs were hung over doors to keep evil away. The Druids used these boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. But, the Christmas tree as we know it seems to have originated in Germany. A legend says Martin Luther first put lights on the tree when he was preparing a sermon and saw the stars shinning through the evergreen trees outside.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had their portrait painted in front of a decorated Christmas tree....no mention of how or why she had the tree, but her popularity spurred the popularity of the Christmas tree. Speaking of trees, did you know the first Rockefeller Plaza tree was 'erected' in 1931?
Now, almost everyone has a Christmas trees. The new debate is real tree or artificial tree? There is much to be said for both sides and the argument will continue until something new comes along, like a better way to make an artificial tree or a way to grow a tree without having to cut it down....who knows!
When my kids were young we always had a real tree and we always went and cut it down ourselves. We don't live that far from any number of tree farms. It was a family outing day, sometimes with friends and their families, and we would come home and have hot chocolate and cookies. It was a great time but oh I hate the cold! One Christmas it was snowing, beautiful but coooold. After that I started pimping for an artificial tree and the kids were getting bigger....so...you know where this is going. Then, we went from one tree to two, on up to eight, so a real tree was out of the question.
Decorating the tree has always been a family event at my house. The whole family, and whatever friends wanted to participate, would set aside an afternoon to decorate the tree. Everyone hung ornaments on the tree to the tune of Christmas Carols playing on the radio or a CD. Lots of laughs and getting in each other's way, but lots of fun. When we were finished we all had hot chocolate or eggnog with Christmas cookies. We drink a lot of hot chocolate and eat a lot of Cookies at Christmas.
Christmas treesClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Angel Tree Topper
I know you're shaking your head and saying, "in my house we have a star on the top of the tree"...but the angel tree topper is a tradition, even a classic! "Angels we have heard on high...sweetly singing o'er the plains." It is believed that is what prompted the angel on top of the Christmas tree, angels proclaiming the birth of Christ to the shepherd's...angels in the sky.
You've always thought the Christmas tree and it's decorating began in Germany but did you know that is where the angel tree topper originated as well? In addition to the angels proclaiming Christ's birth some believe the angel was placed on top of the tree to ward off evil spirits.
Along with the angel many households had the youngest child place the angel on top of the tree after the entire tree was decorated. We did that for a while but it was often dangerous and a bit scary. While one parent is holding the little one up to put the angel on top of the tree, the other parent is running around trying to keep the ornaments from getting knocked off the tree, or the tree itself from getting knocked over. Its a nice tradition but too fraught with anxiety.
Grandpa's Christmas Cookies
Nothing says Christmas like a bunch of nicely decorated cookies. Here's one for the Dutch! It is said that the Dutch brought Christmas cookies with them to America in the 17th Century. Cookie cutters (or biscuit cutters if you prefer) came from Germany in the late 1800's to early 1900's and have been a staple of Christmas cookies ever since.
Nothing says Christmas's coming like cookies in the oven! The smell fills the house and warms your heart, oh and your belly starts jumping up and down saying, "I'm getting a Christmas cookie, I'm getting a Christmas cookie."
By way of tradition, many of the cookie recipes used year after year, are handed down to family members, year after year. Some people buy Cookie Cookbooks to find more varieties, some use the same tried and true recipes every year, some try one new recipe each year. Then there are cookie exchanges where everyone brings their cookies and leaves with some cookies from each participant. The list goes on. Christmas cookies are a definite part of Christmas.
In my house, my husband is the Cookie Man...what makes it so special is, he doesn't cook. The only thing he cooks is Christmas cookies. Years ago when I was making Christmas cookies with the kids he kept watching and saying, "My grandmother used to use more flour on the table", or "My grandmother did this..." He used to make cookies with his grandmother (surprise). Not being one to step on someone's traditions, I turned the cookies over to him, right then and there. He was in his glory and so were the kids. Now my grandchildren call to ask when Grandpa is going to make cookies!
Christmas presents, or Christmas gifts if you prefer, are said by some to have originated in Ancient Rome when Roman Pagan's exchanged gifts...some thought it was a ritual tied to the sacrifice of children. The process later evolved into everyone giving gifts.
St. Nicholas was said to have given gifts to the poor and was especially fond of giving gifts to children. And, of course, we are all familiar with the 'gifts of the Magi'. Stories of Santa Claus and the good old 'merchandising' business, have brought gift giving to a new level and it has continued thus since the 1800s, but seeing more growth I would say in the 1900s.
So here we are shopping for Christmas gifts probably half the year. Looking for just the right gift for the right person. While we are gift giving though, in the spirit of Christmas, it is a good time of year to remind people to give to the poor and help others less fortunate. So the presents we give to our families are complimented by the "presents" of money, food, and whatever else we can give to those in need.
Christmas dinner is 'celebrated' throughout the world. Did you know in Australia Christmas Dinner is served cold because Christmas is in the Australian summer? Or that in the Czech Republic Christmas Dinner is eaten on December 24 and consists of fried carp and potato salad? Do you remember the Cratchits dinner was goose? In spite of the many variations, the good old turkey is the main dish of choice in many countries, with Prime Rib becomimg a popular menu item in the United States as well.
In 1685 American's were eating oysters, stewed broth of mutton bone, a breast of veal, a swan roast, a turkey roast, a pastry of venison....a little different fare than we have today with our string bean casseroles, mashed potatoes and sweet potato pie!
We used to eat our main Christmas meal on Christmas Day but it was such a hassle preparing a big meal when I was trying to watch the kids open presents. Then, as the kids got older they wanted to visit with their friends on Christmas Day. So, to solve the dilemma for all, I moved the main meal to Christmas Eve. The entire family comes and we sit down to our big Christmas Dinner, followed by a multitude of desserts. On Christmas Day we reheat the leftovers and have a glorious buffet for whoever is present to eat with us!
Other Christmas Traditions
I didn't mention Santa Claus because he is so obviously a Christmas tradition! What would we do without stockings and cookies and milk if there was no Santa Claus...."Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." From Sinterklass to St. Nicholas, to Santa Claus.
What about Christmas stockings, mistletoe, yule logs, holly, poinsettias, candy canes, Christmas cards and our newest tradition, Christmas Movies! Really, what Christmas is complete without "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Christmas Story" not to mention "The Bishop's Wife" or "Miracle on 34th Street", but I think that's a story for another time.
I hope you've enjoyed sharing some Christmas traditions and I know you have many of your own. Please leave a comment and share some of your Christmas joy!
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