Christmas, like most holidays, is filled with it's own legends,
and traditions. As families, we take part in them, rarely questioning 'why'. Below are some
explanations I found for some of the most recognized symbols and rituals of Christmas.
The Advent Calendar
originated in Germany and Scandinavia, but it has become very popular in America as well.
Sometimes it is a picture of a house with windows that can be opened to reveal the
tiny pictures behind them. Other times it is a picture of a typical Christmas scene
with perforated areas that can be removed or opened to reveal the picture behind them.
There is one window or flap for each day of Advent or sometimes one for each day of
December leading up to Christmas. Each day the children are allowed to reveal one
picture. The pictures that are revealed are of toys or Christmas scenes. The
last and largest picture is for December 25th. It is the nativity scene, which gives
meaning to all the joy and fun that the other pictures represent.
The Advent Wreath us if
Lutheran origin, but it has become popular with many other religious groups in both
England and America. It is made of evergreen with four candles attached. The
wreath is used both on church alters and in the home. Beginning four Sundays before
Christmas, on the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit each week as a symbol of the
light that will come into the world with the birth of Jesus. In some countries the
candles are lit without the use of a wreath.
ringing of the bells at Christmas time is a holdover from pagan mid-winter celebrations.
They believed that when the earth was so cold and the sun was dying, evil spirits
were very powerful. One of the ways to ward them off was by making a great deal of
noise. Since its was also rather fun, the noisemaking ceremonies brought much good
will. Bells were a very important part of this. Today, the church bells ring
throughout the world on Christmas Eve, not to drive off evil spirits, but to welcome in
the spirit of Christmas with joyful noise. In Scandinavia, bells signal the end of
work and the beginning of the festivities. In England, the tolling of the devil's
knell welcomes the birth of Christ. In Italy and Spain, it signals the beginning of
is a Scandinavian custom at Christmas time. It is the spirit of sharing the
festivities with all animals and plant life so that the coming year will be a prosperous
one. A sheaf of wheat or some other grain, or even just seed and bread, is placed on
a pole and set outside where the birds are know to congregate. This is done on
either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The sight and sounds of the Bird's Christmas
Tree adds to the the warmth of the indoor celebrations.
In The Yule
One of the delightfully
noisy traditions of Christmas, this custom probably originated in Pagan times to ward off
evil spirits. Today it is found in areas of Germany and Scandinavian countries.
A group of musicians take their instruments to the belfry of the local church and
play four Christmas carols, one in each direction of the compass. This is finished
off by the peal of the the church bells, which announces that Christmas has arrived.
was an important part of the pagan midwinter festivals, since this was the time when the
sun ceased to wane and began to grow stronger and brighter. In imitation candles and
bonfires helped to drive away the forces of the cold and darkness. ax tapers were
given as gifts at the Roman festival of Saturnalia. To the Christian community, the
lighting of the candles took on the additional symbolic significance of Jesus as the Light
of the World. Christmas candles are made in all shapes, sizes and colors and are
very often scented with balsam or evergreen. The tradition of candle shinning from
the window, is still practiced today. In Sweden, St. Lucy appears wearing a crown of
candles. In Victorian England, tradesman made annual gifts of candles to their loyal
patrons. In many parts of the world, the Advent candles reflect the dawning season
and remind us of the coming Light. The addition of lighted candles to the paradise
tree marked the birth of our most beloved Christmas tree. The Christmas candles,
with their brightness, sacredness and sense of well-being, is an indispensable part of the
In Scandinavia and Germany, Santa comes on December 24th,
knocking on the front door like normal people. In England and America, the visit is
secret and thus the entrance must be special - the chimney.
From Old English Cristes maesse (Christ's Mass), older still
is Yule from the Germanic root geol. The traditional Christmas is not a single day,
but a prolonged period normally from December 24th to January 6th. This included the
New Year thus increasing the festival value of Christmas.
The practice of sending a
Christmas greeting card to friends was initiated by Sir Henry Cole in England. The
year was 1843 and the first card was designed by J.C. Horsley. 1000 copies were sold
in London. An English artist, William Eagley, produced a popular card in 1849.
Louis Prang, a German-born printer, working from his shop in Roxbury,
Massachusetts, printed his first American cards in 1875. Even more important than
his printing the card, was the fact that he did more than anyone else to popularize the
cards. He did this by instituting nationwide contests for the best Christmas designs
and awarded cash prizes. From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the
customs of the world. Creation of the "penny post" by the British postal
system made it inexpensive to send them to a large number of friends.
Catholic Church valued music greatly and it is no wonder that the early Christmas songs
date from the 4th century. The Mediaeval Christmas music followed the Gregorian
tradition. In Renaissance Italy there emerged a lighter and more joyous kind of
Christmas songs, more like the true carols. These songs continued to be religious
and in Latin. In Protestant countries the traditions intensified.
Luther wrote and composed his song "From Heaven
Above I come To You". Music by Handel and Mendelssohn was adapted and used as
Christmas carols. The most famous carol of all, Silent Night, (Stille Nacht, Heilege
Nacht) was written by the Australian parish priest Joseph Mohr and composed by Franz
Gruber, church organist, in 1818. In the 19th century and later many popular songs
were written by composers.
traditional date for the appearance of Santa Claus, obviously from the birth date of Jesus
(the word Christmas is from the old English, meaning Christ's mass). This date is
near the shortest day of the year, which in old times was an important
agricultural and solar feasting time in Europe. The actual birth date of Jesus is
not known and the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day as the most
convenient. The best fit seemed to be around the Old Roman Saturnalia Festival (Dec.
17 -21), a traditional pagan festivity with unruly celebrations. Moreover, in 273,
Emperor Aurelianus invented a new pagan religion, the cult of Sol Invictus (invincible
sun, the same as the Iranian god Mithra), the birthday of this god being December
25th. The Christian priests obviously saw this choice as doubly meritorious: using
the old customary and popular feasting date but changing the rough pagan ways to a more
civilized commemoration. Th first mention of the birthday of Jesus is in
the year 354. Gradually, all Christian churches, with the exception of the
Armenians, accepted this day. The Armenians celebrated on Jan. 6, which is the date
others celebrate as as the baptismal day of Jesus and the day of the three Magi. In
American / English tradition, the Christmas Day itself is the day for Santa. In
German / Scandinavian tradition, the Christmas Eve is reserved for presents.
There are many roots of this
custom. There is St. Nicholas the anonymous benefactor. There is the tradition of
Magi giving precious gifts to Jesus, there is the Roman custom of giving gifts of good
luck to children during Saturnalia. The day of gift giving varies greatly in different
Christian cultures and times:
6th December - in memory of St. Nicholas
24th December - Christmas Eve
25th December - Birthday of Jesus
1st of January - the New year
6th of January - The Epiphany, day of the Three Wise men, the Magi
The giver of the presents are many: Jesus himself, Old Father Christmas, Santa Claus, a
Goat, Befana (the female Santa in Italy), the three Magi, Christmas gnomes, various
Saints, the Kolyada (in Russia), the Joulupukki (in Finland). The oldest Finnish tradition
did not necessarily involve a giver of the presents at all: an unseen person threw the
gifts in from the door and quickly disappeared.
custom of a Christmas tree, undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany, in the
first half of the 700's. The earliest story relates how British monk and missionary St.
Boniface was preaching a sermon on the Nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids outside the
town of Geismar. To convince the idolaters that the oak tree was not sacred and
inviolable, the "Apostle of Germany" felled one on the spot. Toppling, it
crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling. A chance event can lend
itself to numerous interpretations, and legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win
converts, interpreted the fir's survival as a miracle, concluding, "Let this be
called the tree of the Christ Child." Subsequent Christmases in Germany were
celebrated by planting fir saplings.
The history of the modern Christmas tree goes back to 16th century Germany. In Alsace
(Elsass), dated 1561, states that "no burgher shall have for Christmas more than one
bush of more than eight shoes' length." The decorations hung on a tree in that time,
the earliest we have evidence of, were "roses cut of many-colored paper, apples,
wafers, gilt, sugar." Around Strasbourg there was a widespread practice of bringing
trees (evergreens, not necessarily a fir-tree) into houses for decoration during
The modern custom is also connected with the
Paradise tree hung with apples, present in the medieval religious plays. The decorations
could symbolize the Christian Hosts. Instead of trees, various wooden pyramidal structures
were also used. In 17th century the Christmas tree spread through Germany and Scandinavia.
Eventually the tree was extensively decorated, first with candles and candies, then with
apples and confections, later with anything glittering mass-produced paraphernalia.
The success of Christmas tree in Protestant countries was enhanced by the legend which
attributed the tradition to Martin Luther himself. It is a widely held belief that Martin
Luther first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening,
composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To
recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its
branches with lighted candles. In England the tradition was made popular by the German
Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The German immigrants brought the Christmas tree
to America in 17th century. Public outdoors Christmas trees with electric candles were
introduced in Finland in 1906, and in USA (New York) in 1912. The claim of the
Pennsylvania Germans to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in America is undisputed
today. And it's in the diary of Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, under the date
December 20, 1821, that the Christmas tree and its myriad decorations received their first
mention in the New World.
It is no surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted
so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The Pilgrims'
second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan
mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell
preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees
and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event."
In The Kettle
In memory of an ancient
famine, the family gathers in Swedish kitchens on Christmas Eve before the midday meal. A
great pot is filled with a broth made of drippings of pork, sausage and corned beef. Each
family member dips a piece of dark bread on a fork into the broth until the bread is
saturated and then eats it. This is necessary for good luck and a coming year of plenty.
In some areas of the world, such as Scotland,
first-footing takes place at the New Year, but in much of England it happens on Christmas
Day. The first-footer is the first person to enter the house and is said to let in
Christmas. In some areas, he is professionally hired to be sure that all is done properly,
because there are many superstitions involved in the custom. He carries an evergreen twig,
comes in at the front door, passes through the house and exits through the rear. He may be
given salt or bread or some other small gift as a symbol of hospitality. He should have
dark hair, but not red hair and to let a woman in first is thought to be disastrous.
Holly is a familiar green shrub, usually thought if as
having red berries and dark glossy green leaves with thorny tips, although there are many
other varieties. The bright colors of the holly made it a natural symbol of rebirth and
life in the winter whiteness of northern Europe. In late December, the Teutonic peoples
traditionally placed holly and other evergreens around the interior of dwellings to ward
off winter bad weather and unwanted spirits. Holly flourishes in almost every kind of soil
and extreme temperatures, but does not do well in the shade. The berries are poisonous to
human beings. Traditionally in England, the prickly holly is called "he" and the
non-prickly "she". Which type of holly first brought into the house at Christmas
determines who will rule the household for the coming year.
Until the introduction of the
Christmas tree in the middle of the nineteenth century, the kissing bough was the primary
piece of decorative greenery in the English Christmas. It was in the shape of a double
hoop with streamers going up to a central point, like a Maypole with two circle garlands.
It was made up of evergreen boughs, holly and ivy and hung with apples and pears and
ribbons and ornaments, with lighted candles and a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the
center. As its name implies, the woman who accidentally wandered under the kissing bough
had to pay the ancient penalty and allow herself to be kissed.
This was one of the traditional hot drinks that would have
gone into the wassail bowl of England; it was the toast floating on the top that made it
look like lamb's wool. The drink was made up of hot ale, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves,
eggs and roasted apples.
One of the greatest sources of danger in the old Christmas
celebration was the burning of candles on the Christmas tree. They were lovely but they
were a fire hazard and pails of water were kept standing around the living room to douse
the fires that happened. The idea of electric Christmas tree lights first occurred to
Ralph E. Morris, an employee of New England Telephone, in 1895. The actual strings of
lights had already been manufactured for use in telephone switchboards. Morris looked at
the tiny bulbs and had the idea of using them on his tree.
From old Persian language, a
priest of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The Bible gives us the direction, East and the legend
states that the wise men were from Persia (Iran) - Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar - thus
being priests of Zarathustra religion, the mages. Obviously the pilgrimage had some
religious significance for these men, otherwise they would not have taken the trouble and
risk of travelling so far.
Sacred to ancient druids and a symbol of eternal life the
same way as Christmas tree. The Romans valued it as a symbol of peace and this lead
eventually its acceptance among Christmas props. Kissing under mistletoe was a Roman
supposed dwelling place of the American Father Christmas. No clear significance of any
kind. Probably connected with the general "Northern exposure"of the American
Christmas lore. The fact that Christmas is pronouncedly Winter's festivity may contribute:
North Pole is Winter doubled.
The first Christmas trees had real
fruit and flowers as their only ornaments. Cookies, nuts and other kinds of food were
later added. Lighted candles were placed on the trees. All of this was understandably
heavy, and took a sturdy tree to stand up. German glass blowers began producing
featherweight glass balls to replace the fruit and other heavy ornaments.
The first plum puddings were
made around 1670. They were a stiffened form of the earlier plum porridge. Plum puddings
to not contain any plums. To the early mild porridge were added lumps of meat, dried
fruits such as raisins and currants, rum and brandy, butter, sugar, eggs and many spices.
They were made in large copper kettles and prepared several weeks before Christmas. The
making of the pudding was attended by the entire household & each family member took
turns at stirring the thick steaming stew and each made a wish. A coin, a thimble, a
button and a ring were mixed into the pudding. Later when it was eaten, each object would
have significance for the finder. The coin would mean wealth in the new year, the button
meant bachelorhood, the thimble spinsterhood and the ring was marriage.
Mexican legend, a small boy knelt at the altar of his village church on Christmas Eve. He
had nothing to offer the Christ Child on his birthday because he had no money, but his
prayers were sincere and a miracle gave him the present that could be bought by no one;
the first Flower of the Holy Night sprang up at his feet in brilliant red and green homage
to the holy birth. Thus was born the flower we know as the Poinsettia. Dr. Joel Roberts
Poinsett was the American ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. His keen interest in
botany made him very interested in the Flower of the Holy Night and he brought it back to
his home in South Carolina. It became very popular as a Christmas plant and was named
Cute creatures and Santa must use some form of transport. If
He comes from North, why not reindeers, who can be saddled with various fabulous names as
well. An American add-on to the story.
astrological/astronomical phenomenon which triggered the travel of the Magi to give
presents to child Jesus. Variously described as a supernova or a conjunction of planets it
supposedly happened around the year 7 BC - the most probable true birth year of Christ.
Star is often put to the top of the Christmas tree.
The word wassail evolved from the old Anglo-Saxon term waes
hael, which means be well or hale. The custom originated as a pagan agricultural festival.
To help increase the yield of apple orchards, the trees must be saluted in the dead of
winter. So at varying times during the twelve days of Christmas, a procession would visit
selected trees from the various orchards and either sprinkle the wassail mixture or break
a bottle of it against the trunk. The mixture used on the trees was not exact. It could be
mulled ale or cider or wine with apples or eggs in it. Just so, the wassail bowl has never
turned into a recipe, but is usually left out the inspiration of the mixer.
When Yule became Christmas, the yule log was divested of its
religious connotations but none of its superstitions. The log must be obtained by the
family itself, not bought from someone else. It had to be lighted with a piece of last
year's Yule log. It must burn continuously for the twelve days of Christmas. If your
shadow cast by the light of the Yule log fire seemed to be headless, you would die within
one year. The log's ashes could cure ailments and avert lightning.