Most Christmas traditions, characters and images are known to us. Starting sometime shortly after Halloween, we are surrounded by Santa’s, Scrooges, lights and music. Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, Christmas music and carolling, an exchange of Christmas cards, church celebrations, a special meal, and the display of various decorations, including Christmas trees, lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly.
Traditionally, Christmas is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated on December 25 as a religious and cultural holiday. Biblical accounts state Jesus was born to Mary, assisted by her husband Joseph, in the city of Bethlehem. According to popular tradition, the birth took place in a stable, surrounded by farm animals (although neither of the two biblical accounts state a stable specifically, one does state that the child was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for the animals.)
If this is how it all started, how did hanging a stocking by the fireplace become a tradition at Christmas? Why decorate an evergreen tree to commemorate the birth of Jesus? I wanted to take a look at some traditions that may seem a little disassociated with Christmas.
Why do we give gifts at Christmas?
Exchanging gifts is one of the core aspects of modern Christmas celebration. Historically, gift giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, an ancient festival which took place in late December and may have influenced Christmas customs. Christmas gift-giving during the Middle Ages was usually between people with legal relationships, such as tenant and landlord. Later, Christmas gift giving was banned by the Catholic Church due to its suspected pagan origins. It was later rationalized by the Church on the basis that it associated St. Nicholas with Christmas, and that gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given to the infant Jesus by the Magi (wise men) in the bible.
Why do we hang stockings?
St Nicolas (a progenitor of Santa Claus) was a Christian priest in 4th century AD Greece. A wealthy person who travelled the country, he had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. St Nicolas thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the DutchSinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”. (Of note: At the Reformation in 16th–17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to “Kris Kringle”.)
There was a nobleman whose wife had died, leaving him and his daughters in despair. After losing all his money in bad inventions, his family had to move into a peasant’s cottage. As the daughter’s became of marrying age, the father became more depressed as he would be unable to furnish each daughter with a dowry for them to marry. St Nicolas wanted to help the family, but he knew the father was too proud to accept any charity.
One day after washing their clothing, the daughters hung their stockings over the fireplace to dry. That night, when all were asleep, St Nicolas crept down the chimney and dropped a bag of gold into each of the daughters’ stockings. When the girls and their father work up the next morning, they found the bags of gold coins and were overjoyed. The girls were able to marry and live happily ever after.
This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, awaiting gifts from St Nicolas. Cultural variations abound. In France, children place their shoes by the fireplace. In Holland, children fill their shoes with hay and a carrot for the horse of Sintirklass. Italian children leave their shoes out the night before Epiphany for La Befana, the good witch. And in Puerto Rico, children put greens and flowers in small boxes and place them under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings.
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
We find the source of “kissing under the mistletoe” in Celtic rituals and Norse mythology. In Gaul, the land of the Celts, for instance, the Druids considered it a sacred plant. It was believed to have medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers. They believed that a potion prepared from mistletoe would make sterile animals fertile, and that the plant was an antidote for any poison.
In Scandinavian mythology, mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream he was going to die. Frigga, alarmed by this, went to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. But Loki the Trickster saw that Frigga had overlooked one plant, as it grew neither on nor under the earth but in the trees: the mistletoe. Loki fashioned an arrow with mistletoe in the tip, which was used to strike Baldur dead. After three days, Baldur was restored from the dead by Frigga. The tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant. In her joy, she kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which the mistletoe grew. The story ends with a decree that whosoever stands under the mistletoe, no harm should befall them; only a kiss, a token of love. Mistletoe was thereafter considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up.
Later, the eighteenth-century English credited not with miraculous healing powers, but with a certain magical appeal called a “kissing ball”. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained un-kissed, she could expect to not marry within the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.
Why do we decorate a tree?
Evergreens have been associated with seasonal celebrations since ancient times by various nationalities and religious groups around the globe, including the Egyptians, the Romans, the Druids, the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, the Spaniards and the Slovaks. These celebrations usually occurred around the time of the winter solstice, and the evergreens (be they palm rushes or fir trees) were considered a symbol of the triumph of life over death or of everlasting life.
In the 14th century, when very few people knew how to read, churches mounted “miracle plays” to explain the stories of the bible to the populace. These plays were held at special times of the year in accordance with the Christian Calendar of Saints. Every December 24, which was Adam and Eve’s Day, the play depicted how Eve was tempted by the serpent, how she picked the apple from the tree and how the couple was expelled from Paradise. But finding a live fruit-bearing apple tree in December proved difficult. In Germany, they solved the problem by cutting down an evergreen tree and tying apples to its boughs. They also tied round white wafers to symbolically represent the redemption brought by Jesus. Before long, many German families were setting up Paradiesbäume or Paradise Trees in their own homes, and this custom persisted long after the miracle plays disappeared. Over time, more edible items decorated the tree, such as gingerbread cookies (in the shapes of hearts, bells, stars and angels), gilded nuts, and marzipan candies. Gradually, metal and wood ornaments replaced some of these edible decorations.
The first recorded Christmas tree in Canada was set up in Sorel, Quebec in 1781 by Baron Friederick von Riedesel. He selected a handsome balsam fir from the forests that surrounded his home and decorated it with white candles.
Bonus question: What is and why do we celebrate Boxing Day?
Boxing Day is a bank or public holiday that occurs on December 26, or the first or second weekday after Christmas Day, depending on national or regional laws. It is observed in many Commonwealth Nations, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. In Ireland, it is recognized as St. Stephen’s Day or the Day of the Wren. In South Africa, Boxing Day was renamed Day of Goodwill in 1994.
The etymology of Boxing Day is unclear. There are many possible origins. One can be found in the carol “Good King Wenceslas.” According to the song, Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land on St Stephen’s Day (December 26) when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved, the King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant’s door.
The Church of England may have started Boxing Day. During Advent, Anglican parishes displayed a box into which churchgoers put their monetary donations. On the day after Christmas, the boxes were broken open and the contents distributed among the poor, giving rise to the term Boxing Day. Or…
In the UK, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older English tradition: in exchange for ensuring that wealthy landowners’ Christmases ran smoothly, their servants were allowed to take the 26th off to visit their families. The employers gave each servant a box containing gifts and bonuses (and sometimes leftover food) and this came to be known as Boxing Day.
Whatever your traditions, a Happy Christmas to all who choose to mark the day!
“One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.” ~Andy Rooney