Origins of Christmas Traditions
It is almost Christmas time and each year I get a list of questions from people who want to know more about the origins of the holiday. Many people believe that Christmas has become over-commercialized and has moved away from it’s Christian origins. While this may be true, you might find it interesting that many of these staples of Christmas aren’t Christian at all, but have been assimilated by the religion. Here are five of these traditions and their beginnings.
We see a lot of wreaths on homes at Christmastime. Wreaths have been around for thousands of years. They were originally worn as crowns for kings and emperors and often called “laurels”. Often, people would hang wreaths of the harvest (grain, leaves, fruits and nuts) as part of a ritual to ensure good harvests. This custom pre-dates written history although the Romans and Greeks based their tradition of wearing wreaths off of the Etruscan tribes that lived in Italy. Today, wreaths have a much different meaning and are mainly associated with Christmas.
This odd plant is commonplace throughout Europe. Many cultures used this plant, which attaches itself to live trees and gains nutrients through the trunk, as a sacred artifact. The green leaves live throughout the winter and produce large, waxy, white berries. Because the plant is a parasite and needs other trees to grow, it doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? The idea of kissing under the mistletoe comes from its white berries. When crushed, they produce a semen-like juice that the ancients thought was a mystical aphrodisiac. This led to the ability to steal a kiss while standing under the mistletoe.
The idea of giving gifts has been around since ancient Roman times. Back then, the Romans had a holiday known as the Saturnalia. This holiday began during the winter solstice and lasted for one week ending on or about what is now Christmas day. During the celebration, it was customary for people to give wax dolls to children. This is where the tradition takes on a dark side. The wax dolls were supposed to represent human sacrifices to the god Saturn. The children would often burn the dolls in effigy and pray for a short winter. Of course, this was better than their earlier tradition of actually sacrificing human beings! Eventually, the dolls made way for another Christmas favorite – gingerbread men!
The idea of the Christmas stocking is actually derived from historical figure of Saint Nicholas. It is believed that during the fourth century, this early Christian bishop would fill stockings of children with homemade food and clothes. He would also fill them with oranges – something my family does to this day. The citrus fruits were extremely expensive in Asia Minor (the area now known as Turkey). The tradition continues until this day.
The history of Santa Claus is Christian in origin. Saint Nicholas was a Catholic Bishop in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. He was the patron saint of seafarers, archers, thieves, pawnbrokers and children. Saint Nicholas’ real name was Nikolaos of Myra. He was born in 270AD and despite what news stations may tell you, was Middle Eastern. He was known for giving secret gifts to the poor and downtrodden (see stockings above). While he was the historical reference for Santa Claus, the incarnation that we recognize today is the result of three people. For the jolly red and white figure that we see in stores today, we can thank Washington Irving, Thomas Nast, and Clement Clarke Moore. Washington Irving brought the story of Santa Claus to the United States, retelling the Dutch story of Sinterklaas, the elf who brings children gifts during the Christmas season. Thomas Nast, the illustrator responsible for our Democratic Donkey and GOP Elephant, gave Santa the red and white suit, and Clement Clarke Moore filled in the story with his famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nick“. All of this occurred in the 1800s. Before this, Santa took on many different looks and wore different colors.
While Christmas is, by name, a Christian holiday, it is still important to remember that it is not the sole custody of any one religion. Many beliefs come together at this time of year, regardless of faith. All of them have one thing in common: To wish others a joyous season and good will, regardless of what each person believes. Happy holidays to all!