It’s always interesting to learn new things about traditions we accept without understanding them, right? For example, Christians celebrate Christmas to observe the birth of Jesus Christ, which is an event and not a tradition. But many other activities related to celebrating the Christmas season evolved from certain traditions, many of which are from other countries, particularly from people in Europe.
Here are a few fun examples.
Why You See Mistletoe and Holly at Christmastime
Among common items used in Christmas decorations are the holly and the mistletoe. Both are used primarily in wreaths
The Druids started the tradition of using the mistletoe as decorative items up to two hundred years before Christ. To
celebrate the winter season, the Druids would gather the plants and use them to decorate their homes. The Druids believed the
mistletoe would bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. They also believed that the mistletoe had a healing quality and could be
used for everything from healing wounds to increase fertility.
In Scandinavia, the mistletoe was seen as a plant of peace and harmony and was associated with Frigga, the goddess of
love. This association is probably what led to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
In the Victorian period, the English also would hang mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways during holidays. The habit developed that if someone was standing under the mistletoe, someone else in the room would kiss that person. Such outright behavior was not generally seen in Victorian society.
The use of the mistletoe in Christmas celebrations was once banned by the church however because of its associations with pagan traditions and the use of holly was suggested as a substitute.
Why Poinsettias Are Used at Christmastime
Poinsettias are another traditional decorative flower used at Christmas. It is native to Mexico and is named after Joel
Poinsett, who was the first U.S ambassador to Mexico and who brought the plants to America in 1828. Mexicans believe the plants
were a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem and that’s one reason they are associated with Christmas.
There’s also the story that a young boy was going to see the Nativity Play at a church but realized he didn’t have a gift for Baby Jesus. The boy gathered some green branches, which others scoffed at. But as he placed them near the manger, a bright red poinsettia flower started to bloom on each branch, which gave rise to their traditional use at Christmas.
Why Candy Canes are a Christmas Tradition
Candy canes became a Christmas tradition not because their red and white stripes matched the colors of the season, but for
the most unusual reason of discipline. That’s because they were first used as treats that were given to German children to keep them
well-behaved for the duration of church sermons.
Over time, the legend of candy canes at Christmas came to be associated with some of the strongest symbols and beliefs of Christianity: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, known as the Trinity, the Blood of the Son of God, Jesus as the embodiment of holiness, purity, and without sin, and the Son of God as the shepherd of man. The candy cane represents these symbols respectively with its three stripes, its red and white color, and its shape.
Why We Hang Stockings at Christmas Time
The history on this one is a little less clear, but according to the Smithsonian:
“The most popular legend about why stockings are hung at Christmas goes something like this: A recently widowed man and father of three girls was having a tough time making ends meet. Even though his daughters were beautiful, he worried that their impoverished status would make it impossible for them to marry. St. Nicholas was wandering through the town where the man lived and heard villagers discussing that family’s plight. He wanted to help but knew the man would refuse any kind of charity directly. Instead, one night, he slid down the chimney of the family’s house and filled the girls’ recently laundered stockings, which happened to be drying by the fire, with gold coins. And then he disappeared.”
Learn more about the history of the Christmas stocking in this article by Emily Spivack at the Smithsonian Magazine’s website.
Why People Send Christmas Cards
Sending greeting cards during Christmas and the holidays is as prevalent today as the custom of giving gifts.
The tradition of sending Christmas cards started in 1840 in Britain with the start of the public postal delivery service of the ‘Penny Post.’ Then from about 1860, large numbers of Christmas greeting cards started to be produced.
The popularity of the cards increased in Britain when they could be sent by the postal service for one half-penny, which was half the price to post a standard letter at the time if they were in an unsealed envelope.
Religious pictures of Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the angels, shepherds, and Wise Men were traditionally placed on Christmas cards.
Some cards today include scenes from the Nativity, but pictures of Santa Claus, winter scenery, Christmas trees, gift packages, and others are also depicted on contemporary Christmas greeting cards.
Why We Use Decorated Trees at Christmas
According to History.com:
“Long before the advent of Christianity, plants, and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.”
Fascinating, right? Want to know more about the history of Christmas trees? This article at History.com has an amazingly thorough discussion of the Christmas tree’s history.
What other Christmas traditions can you think of? Share them in the comments section below.