There is not another holiday that has such a wealth of traditions as Christmas. Virtually everything connected to Christmas has a long standing base in history. Here is an overview of our most popular Christmas traditions and why they are a part of our celebration to this day.
The date of Christmas-Historical experts tells us that the idea to celebrate Christmas originated in the 4th century. The Catholic Church wanted to overshadow the festivities of a rival pagan religion that threatened Christianity’s existence. The Romans had always celebrated the birthday of their sun god, Mithras during that time of year. Church leaders decided that in order to compete with the pagan celebration they would themselves order a festival in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas was actually very slow to catch on in America. The early colonists still considered it a pagan ritual. The celebration of Christmas was even banned by law in Massachusetts in colonial day.
Mistletoe and Holly-The druids had used mistletoe two hundred years before the birth of Christ to celebrate the coming of winter. They would use this plant to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for almost everything. Scandinavians also had thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, who was named Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe was probably derived from this belief. The early Catholic Church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church leaders suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery.
The Christmas Poinsettia-Poinsettias are actually native to Mexico. They were named after Joel Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico. He brought the plants from Mexico to America in 1828. The Mexicans considered the plants to be symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. With this belief the Poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season. The actual flower of the poinsettia is small and yellow. But surrounding the flower are large, bright red leaves that are often mistaken for petals.
The Christmas Tree-Originated in Germany in the 16th century. It was common for the Germanic people to decorate fir trees, both in and out of their homes with roses, apples, and colored paper. It is believed that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was the first to light a Christmas tree with candles in an attempt to recreate the heavens over Bethlehem. While returning home one dark winter’s night near Christmas, he was struck with the beauty of the starlight shining through the branches of a small fir tree outside his home. He duplicated the starlight by using candles attached to the branches of his indoor Christmas tree which was both a dangerous and labor intensive process. The Christmas tree was not widely used in Britain until the 19th century during Queen Victoria’s reign. It was brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans sometime in the 1820s.
The Candy Cane-This type of candy has been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until around 1900 that they were decorated with red stripes and bent into the shape of a cane. They were sometimes handed out during church services to keep the children quiet. There are many legends that surround the candy cane but few have been proven to hold much fact.
Santa Claus-The man believed to have been the start of this tradition was born in Turkey during the 4th century and was known as St. Nicholas. He was very pious from an early age and devoted his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity and work for the poor. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Romans for his good work with the lesser classes. But when Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed St. Nicholas to go free. Ironically it was when Constantine became a Christian and convened the Council of Nicea in 325 that Nicholas became a delegate to the council. He was especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He became the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. Yet it was the Dutch who kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat from St. Nicholas. Over the years the name became anglicized to Santa Claus. It was the poet Clement C. Moore who in 1822 with his now famous poem “The Night before Christmas” is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.