Everyone has their own Christmas Traditions. But there are some that we all share. The weirdest thing is that we never really question the origins of these traditions. We all know why we celebrate Christmas, but why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus with Christmas stockings, puddings, turkeys and Santa Claus? For answers to these and more, read on…
As with most festive traditions, you can trace the roots of Christmas Carolling through the ages. Going Christmas Carolling was a great way for early Christians to spread the word and joy of Christmas day. They would go door to door, singing and dancing to spread the word and encourage everyone to join in. Almost like Jehovah’s witnesses with more singing.
Travelling door-to-door, carolling is now a lesser known tradition. But the traditional carols can always be heard at this time of year, whether in town centres played by a brass band or in school nativity plays and concerts.
Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, there are loads of different names for the jolly man who delivers presents to good boys and girls on Christmas eve. The original St Nicholas lived in Turkey in the 4th century. He was a notably generous man who was devoted to children. After his death, his remains were stolen from his Turkish resting place and brought to Italy, in a fairly grim move that made his popularity grow throughout Europe. As his reputation for generosity grew, claims rose that he could perform miracles (even though he was dead) He then became the patron saint of Russia where he was known by his fur-lined suit and white beard. Saint Nicholas isn’t just the patron saint of Russia, his titles include; Patron Saint of Sailors (Greece), Patron Saint of lawyers (France) and Patron saint of Children and Travellers (Belgium).
His more popular name – Santa Claus comes from the Dutch spelling of St Nickolas – Sint Nikolaas. Eventually Sint Nikolaas became Sinterklaas and from there, you can see how Santa emerged. It’s also the Dutch who are responsible for the most familiar tradition assigned to Santa Claus. They believed that when they left their shoes by the fireplace or doors on Christmas eve, Santa would reward the good children with a gift, and punish the bad children with coal.
Father Christmas’ reindeer first appeared in the poem – “The Night before Christmas” in 1882. Traditionally, there were 8 reindeer – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner & Blitzen. Rudolph didn’t appear until 1939 in a book by Robert May. The story told of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and how he was taunted by the other reindeer. We know the story now through the popular Christmas song – “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.
Filled with traditionally expensive spices, rich fruits and sugars, Christmas pudding is a symbol of Christmas extravagance. It became associated with Christmas dinner after the Roman Catholic Church decreed that the 13 ingredients in the pudding represented Christ and the 12 apostles. They also proclaimed that it should be made on the last Sunday before lent – sometimes known as ‘Stir-up Sunday’. While the pudding is being made, each family member is to stir it in turn from east to west to represent the journey of the magi to visit the newborn king.
It’s also a tradition to hide coins in the pudding. The person who received the coin would be blessed with good fortune in the year to come. But before tucking in, the Christmas pudding has to be brought to the table, doused in brandy and welcomed by rapturous applause.
Gifts have been exchanged between friends, families and neighbours for generations. Even before the first Christmas, gifts would be exchanged to mark the year’s end. After the first Christmas, however, gifts were exchanged to symbolise the gifts given by the Magi to the baby Jesus.
We put the gifts under the tree, simply because they’d be too heavy to put in the tree! Early Christmas trees were decorated with small gifts, fruits or candies, but when the gifts became more elaborate, they were stacked underneath the tree instead. There’s more information about stockings later…
We always hang out stockings on Christmas eve, hoping that Father Christmas will come and fill it with gifts. But when you stop and think about it, why on earth do we use stockings?!
This tradition ties in with the legend of St Nicholas. The story of the Christmas stocking starts with a nobleman who, stricken with grief after losing his wife, foolishly squanders his money leaving his daughters without any inheritance and therefore condemning them to a life of poverty. After hearing of these poor girls, the generous St Nicholas rode by the nobleman’s house on Christmas eve and threw pouches of gold down the chimney. The pouches were caught in the stockings that the girls had hung on the fireplace to dry, and so the legend of the Christmas stocking was born.
The early pagans and druids had decorated evergreen trees both in and outside the home during the winter months for hundreds of years BC. The evergreen tree is a symbol of life continuing while the harsh winter continues. Pagans would decorate the trees in the hope that it would aid their survival through the harsh winter months. Christmas trees are now an essential part of Christmas celebrations and are decorated with tinsel, lights, baubles and topped with either a star or an angel.
As anyone who has ever read or watched ‘The Christmas Carol’ will know; Ebenezer calls for a “Plump Christmas Goose” at the end of the story. Goose was the traditional Christmas meat for many years due to their flavour and rich fat that was very useful during the winter months. However, when the war struck Britain & goose became too expensive, chickens used to come to the table instead. Turkeys started to make an appearance due to the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Turkeys are much bigger than chickens and slightly more unusual which made them the perfect bird for the Christmas feast.
We’ve been kissing under the mistletoe for years. In fact, mistletoe has been used by Druids at this time of year for over 200 years BC. After the druids, ancient Celtics used it for its healing powers and to ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe has always been seen as a symbol of peace and it is believed that the Romans began the tradition we see today as Roman enemies who met under the mistletoe would throw aside their weapons and embrace.
Tinsel is an often-overlooked part of Christmas. You simply can’t have a tree without it, and yet we seldom wonder why we use it in the first place, who was the first person to think of it? Well it all stems – as these things often do – from a story. One year, a poor woman could not afford decorations for her children’s Christmas tree. On Christmas eve, spiders moved into the tree and covered it in webs. The Christ Child felt so bad about seeing the tree covered in spider webs that he turned the strands of silk to pure silver and their tree was the most beautiful tree ever.
Early tinsel was made from spun silver but since this would often break the trees and was very expensive, modern tinsel was developed a number of years later.
So this year, when you’re making your Christmas pudding, hanging your stockings or getting the tinsel out, you’ll know exactly why we do these things. Spare a thought for the ancient history attached to each tradition, and have a great Christmas.
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