27 Feb The True Story Of Our Christmas Traditions
It’s Christmas time again, and throughout much of the world people are decorating their homes with wreaths and colored lights – or the most beloved symbol of all, the Christmas tree.
It seems that Christmas has become something of a phenomenon in our modern culture, being celebrated even by many people who aren’t Christian, or who aren’t religious at all. But have you ever wondered how the Christmas holiday began, or what exactly Santa Claus has to do with Jesus’ birthday? The answers might surprise you.
Let’s take a look at the true story behind the most common Christmas traditions.
First of all, consider Christmas Day itself. Christmas is, or was originally, a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. But was Jesus born on December 25th? We have no idea. We don’t even know what year he was born!
So, why do we celebrate Christmas on this day? Because it is the time when cultures all over the world celebrate the Winter solstice – the end of the darkest part of the year, and the beginning of the Sun’s return to power. Specifically, in the Roman world, they traditionally observed Saturnalia at this time – a festival to honor Saturn, the god of wealth, agriculture and liberty.
The old church fathers thought it wise to celebrate Christmas at the same time, and even incorporated many of the same symbols and traditions. Eventually, Christianity became the dominant religion, and Christmas the dominant holiday – the others were gradually phased out.
The origins of the Christmas tree go way back to the time before Christianity, when Vikings, druids, and other pagan peoples would celebrate the Winter solstice by decorating their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. They were considered a symbol of immortality, and a reminder of the coming Spring, when the world would all be green again.
Christmas trees as we know them today first appeared in 16th century Germany. Legend has it that Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, first thought of decorating the tree with lighted candles. (Which sounds a bit dangerous, doesn’t it?)
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The Christmas wreath can also be traced back to ancient pagan solstice festivals, and the tradition of the “harvest wreath.” They were part of a ritual which was meant to assure a good harvest. Evergreen wreaths have a symbolic meaning similar to boughs mentioned above: they stand for hope, strength, tenacity, and everlasting life.
The jolly old bearded fellow we call Santa Claus is actually a conglomeration of many different figures, from both history and folklore. Santa is based primarily upon Saint Nicholas, a bishop in 4th century Greece, who was famous for giving gifts to the poor and needy, especially children.
Thus, Santa’s alias: Ol’ Saint Nick.
But over the centuries, many other figures contributed to the Santa we know and love, like the Dutch Sinterklaas and his elves, the British Father Christmas, even the old Norse god Odin.
The tradition of leaving stockings hanging on the chimney also has numerous possible origins.
According to legend, Saint Nicholas was fond of giving gifts in secret. Some stories even tell of the kind old saint leaving candy and other treats for children in their shoes or stockings.
Another influence might be the legendary hunting party that Odin would lead at Yule-time, flying through the sky on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Children would leave their shoes outside, or by the chimney, filled with carrots and treats for Odin’s horse, and the god in turn would reward them with candy and other goodies.
This legend might also have morphed into the tradition of leaving cookies for Santa.
Presents & Gifts
Many Christians point to the three wise men (or Magi) from the Christmas story, who came bearing gifts for the infant Messiah (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), as the true precedent for Christmas presents, but the exchange of gifts during the winter months is even older than that…
In the ancient festival of Saturnalia, the Romans would celebrate by exchanging gifts like dolls, decorative candles and pottery, fruits, nuts and other edibles. This tradition continued even after the Roman world was “Christian-ized.” After the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, hand-made gifts were largely replaced by mass-produced toys and other goods, which began to be wrapped in decorative paper.
And then there’s mistletoe, one of the strangest Christmas traditions of all. How did this parasitic plant, many species of which are poisonous, come to be a symbol of romance, and an excuse for a Christmas smooch?
It started with the ancient Druids, who believed mistletoe to be a symbol of vitality and virility. They even used it as a medicine to treat barren animals. They would also hang it their houses for protection from evil forces.
Norse mythology also has a special place for mistletoe, which was the only way that Loki (god of mischief) could kill Baldur, the son of Odin and the goddess Frigga. When Frigga found him dead, her tears became mistletoe berries – and brought her son back to life! Thereafter, the plant was said to be a symbol of love.
Eventually, this legend found it’s way to Britain, where in the 19th century it became fashionable to hang it up at Christmas parties. It was said to bring good luck to those who kissed beneath it – and bad luck to those who didn’t.