Christmas, one song tells us, is the most wonderful time of the year. There are sparkling lights and elves in red tights, glistening snow and hearts all aglow, candies galore and gifts from the store, and finally, good will and good cheer and twelve dancing reindeer. It’s a time of beauty, joy, reverence, camaraderie, and all those fruit cakes.
There are so many traditions! We bring evergreen trees into the house to string them with lights and wrap them with garland. We put pretty presents under the tree. We hang mistletoe, ring bells, put up stockings, give out candy canes, decorate in red and green, adorn the mantle with holly, hang wreaths on the door, toss down some eggnog, and wait until Christmas morning to see what Santa Claus brought us.
But did you ever stop to wonder where all these traditions come from? How our ancestors celebrated Christmas? Not just our grand- and great-grandparents, but those ancestors who came many hundreds of years ago and more. Did they go caroling? Did they make gingerbread houses? Did they hang stockings from the mantel? And why did there always seem to be an orange in my stocking?
For most of us the origins of our Christmas traditions are long lost. We don’t remember their origins, if we ever knew. We perform the same rituals as our parents because they are nostalgic; they make us feel warm and fuzzy, like we are carrying on something important that links us to our families and the happy times growing up.
One family I read about long ago always cut their Christmas ham in half before placing it in the oven. A grown daughter of the family, baking her first Christmas dinner, asked her mother why they cut the ham in half. The mother answered that it was because her mother always did. So the young woman asked her elderly grandmother, who replied that it was because when she was a young wife her oven was too small to hold the entire ham uncut. I assume this was the end of that particular holiday tradition.
As Christmas dinner goes, turkey is a more traditional choice than ham in England and America. Though turkeys were once only found in North America, it’s said that wealthy families of Victorian England started the tradition of the Christmas turkey, an imported bird too rare at that time for the common people to afford. Middle class families then settled for goose. Of course, for Americans the wild turkey was plentiful, sealing its fate as Christmas dinner.
And what would Christmas be without the evergreen tree, brought indoors and wrapped with garland, strung with lights, hung with beautiful, glittering ornaments and draped in icicles? Icicles may be fading into history as people have less messy options today, but the decorated tree remains much as it has been since being first introduced in fifteenth century Germany, where trees were hung with apples, nuts, and baked goods. Even that date is simply when Christians adopted the tradition from much earlier pagan religions.
Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolize everlasting life. A text from 1604 says that the inhabitants of Strasburg in Germany “set up fir trees in the parlors…and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, etc.” Tinsel was added to their trees around 1610, and were made of real silver.
Legend says that Martin Luther was the first to decorate trees for Christmas. He supposedly was walking through snow-covered woods on a moon-lit night and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens, their icy branches shimmering in the moonlight. He got the idea to bring a small fir tree into his home, decorating it with candles lighted in honor of Christ’s birth. It’s a beautiful legend, but there is no evidence that it is true.
As far back as ancient Egypt, Rome, China, and Palestine, the winter solstice was celebrated by bringing evergreens into the home and decorating them. It was believed that without such celebrations to each culture’s gods and spirits, the spring may not come. Romans decorated their boughs with lights and wore crowns of holly or exchanged holly wreaths, symbols of victory over death and darkness.
In Europe, the Druids brought evergreens inside so that the woodland spirits and fairies would have someplace warm to sleep during the long winters. The Druids also hung sprigs of holly and mistletoe indoors to ward off spirits that lurked during the dark winter months. Holly, with its fresh green leaves and bright berries, symbolized growth and fertility, the hope and reminder of renewal in the springtime to come.
Mistletoe was cut by Druid priests from oak trees, their sprigs then hung over doorways to protect against thunder, lightning, and other evils. The Greeks, Norse, and Babylonians also ascribed magical powers to mistletoe, associating it with love and fertility. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that it made its way to our Christmas celebration of Christmas, in Victorian England, as an invitation to kiss. No one knows exactly why.
But the use of evergreens is not the only bit of symbolism to transcend from paganism to Christianity. Bells, too, were first used by pagan priests to drive out evil spirits, as were candles, which were said to drive away the forces of cold and darkness.
The traditional colors of red and green, one the opposite of the other on our modern color wheel, represented male and female, fertility and incubation. Candy, it is said, was first given out as a way to keep children quiet during religious services.
And the tradition of giving fruit cakes dates to ancient Rome, where the people exchanged cakes made with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed with barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added. (I think I still have one of the first fruitcakes ever made.)
The Scandinavians made wreaths with candles to light the winter night as a sign of hope for the future light of spring. They believed the wreath would delight the god of light and move him to turn the world towards the sun once more.
Pagans in the British Isles, too, featured wreaths in their festivals, placing four candles on the wreath to represent the elements of earth, wind, water, and fire. Rituals performed with the wreaths were believed to ensure the continuance of the circle of life.
But how did those practices make it to Christianity? The Roman Empire didn’t at first take to the young religion. They burned some Christians, threw others to the lions, and persecuted any they could find. But then came Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome.
He was canny, and knew that his people would not easily give up their raucous winter festivals, especially Saturnalia and the birth of Mithra. So Constantine took traditions from these festivals and merged them with the Nativity story, and thus was the celebration of Christmas born roughly 300 years after Christ’s actual birth.
He didn’t annex all the pagan traditions, though. The poet Lucian of Samosata, who lived around 150 years after the time of Christ, has the god Saturn say about Saturnalia, in his poem of that name:
“During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.”
Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, those practices did not make it into Christianity. In fact, some of our most cherished Christmas traditions were banned at various times and places through our two thousand years of Christian history. Christmas trees were banned in all Christian denominations until relatively recently, as was the singing of Christmas carols.
The word “carol” comes from the Greek word “choros” meaning “a band of singers and dancers.” From ancient times songs were sung during winter festivals, but the medieval Christian church did not approve, and in 1290 the Council at Avignon actually banned the singing of carols.
Not to be deterred, carolers took their songs to the street and went door to door to spread their good cheer. A ban was again placed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan lord protector of England. Anyone caught singing carols was at risk of being accused of witchcraft.
In fact, in early America Christmas was not celebrated. The Puritans considered such celebrations no better than pagan rituals. William Bradford, Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, even outlawed the celebration of Christmas, ordering Puritans taking the day off back to work.
Still, our desire to lighten the darkest days of winter with logs, candles, holly, mistletoe, and evergreens time and again prove stronger than any customs against them.
As for the orange in the Christmas stocking, hung by the chimney with care, there is a long history for that as well. It starts with Nicholas, who was born in the year 270 in a part of the Roman Empire that is now part of Turkey, and who was later made a saint, St. Nicholas. He was a generous man and liked to give anonymous gifts. Once, the legend goes, he heard of a man so poor that he could not afford a dowry for his three daughters, which meant the girls would have no prospects for marriage. Nicholas secretly threw three balls of gold into the family’s window one night near Christmas, landing in the girls’ stockings, hung by the fire to dry. And so as a child I received an orange in my stocking, along with nuts, candy, and small toys.
Whatever your holiday tradition, there is a reason for it, and the reason no doubt dates to long ago, even to the days before Christ walked the earth, for we have always been a reverent people, steeped in ritual and tied to the ways of the past, whether or not we understand the reason for those rituals.
I didn’t address purely Christian symbols in this essay. That is a rich topic which I will leave to another time, perhaps Easter.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to one and all!