The Christmas season abounds with holiday customs and traditions, but most of us probably never stop to wonder about their origins. We decorate our homes inside and out with lights, candles, and greenery. We stuff stockings and send Christmas cards to family and friends. But why do we do these things year after year? Of course, we're celebrating the birth of Jesus, but did you know that many of our modern-day Christmas traditions have their roots in ancient cultures and practices, some of which actually predate Christ? Let's take a closer look at a few holiday customs.
Christmas festivities often include the hanging of the greens. Christmas trees, mistletoe, holly, and poinsettias grace homes, businesses, and churches.
Many traditions involving greenery originated in Druid, Celt, Norse, and Roman civilizations, which celebrated the winter solstice around December 21. Because the color green represented eternal life, plants that remained green throughout the year played an important role in these celebrations.
The Romans celebrated the solstice with a mid-winter holiday called the Saturnalia, honoring the Roman god Saturn. They lit candles in their homes, spent time with friends and family, decorated their homes with wreaths and garlands, exchanged gifts, and feasted.
As pagan cultures converted to Christianity, they continued many of their traditional winter solstice activities. Because the use of greenery had pagan origins, early church leaders often objected to its use. However, the traditions were so deeply ingrained that the customs continued - but from a Christian frame of reference.
The Christmas tree
Although the Romans used spruce and fir trees decorated with lighted candles and trinkets during Saturnalia rituals, the Christmas tree as we know it is a German tradition believed by some to have originated in the 8th century with Winfrid, an English missionary later known as St. Boniface.
Others attribute the origin of the Christmas tree to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther, inspired by the beauty of the stars on Christmas Eve night, is said to have cut an evergreen and put lighted candles on it to represent the starry sky above the stable the night Christ was born. By the early 1600s, trees decorated with candies, fruits, and paper roses were a part of the holiday decorations in German homes.
In 1841, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German-born husband, celebrated the birth of their first son with a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. The English court adopted the custom, and soon it spread throughout England. In Victorian times, people decorated trees with candies and cakes hung with ribbon.
German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States. Settlers most often used the cedar tree as their Christmas tree because of its abundance. They decorated the trees with berries, popcorn, and Christmas gifts for the family.
Mistletoe and holly
Ancient cultures believed bringing in green branches would ensure the return of vegetation at winter's end. They used mistletoe and holly in pagan religious rituals and to decorate their homes. Romans exchanged holly wreaths as part of their Saturnalia festivities.
For several centuries after the birth of Christ, the Romans continued to celebrate Saturnalia. Christians began celebrating the birth of Christ in December while the Romans were holding their pagan celebrations. By decorating their homes with holly as the Romans did, Christians avoided detection and persecution.
The early Christian church associated holly with various legends about its role in Christ's crucifixion. According to one legend, Christ's crown of thorns was formed from holly. The legend claimed that the holly berries were originally white, but were stained red by Christ's blood. So for ancient Christians, the sharply pointed holly leaves became symbols of the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of His blood.
Mistletoe also played a role in various cultures. The Druids believed the plant was sacred and had healing powers. Mistletoe was an important element in the Norse legend of Balder, the sun god. The Romans considered it a symbol of hope and peace, so in the Roman era enemies reconciled under the mistletoe.
During the Victorian period in England, holiday decorations included an ornate "kissing ring," which had sprigs of mistletoe fastened to it. The ring was suspended from the ceiling and girls were kissed beneath it.
For centuries wreaths have represented the unending cycle of life and have been symbols of victory and honor. Ancient Druids, Celts, and Romans used evergreen branches in their winter solstice celebrations.
As early as 1444, evergreen boughs were used as Christmas decorations in London. In 16th-century Germany, evergreen branches were intertwined in a circular shape to symbolize God's love, which has no beginning and no end.
Poinsettias are called the "flower of the Holy Night" because their red bracts are said to represent the flaming Star of Bethlehem. Native to Mexico, the plant was cultivated by the Aztecs.
Seventeenth-century Franciscan priests in Mexico used the plant as part of their Nativity celebration because it bloomed during the Advent season. Worshipers placed the flowers around a manger built at the church altar.
The plant is named after Dr. Joel Poinsett, an American ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829, who was so taken with the plant that he sent cuttings home to South Carolina. The plants flourished in Poinsett's greenhouse.
Credited with developing poinsettias for sale is Albert Ecke, a Swiss farmer who lived near Los Angeles in the 1890s. The Ecke family became the leading producer of poinsettias in the United States.
According to tradition, the original Saint Nicholas left gifts of gold coins for three poor girls who needed the money for their wedding dowries. One bag of gold coins is said to have landed in a stocking hung by the chimney to dry. Thus was born the tradition of receiving small gifts in stockings hung from the mantel.
For almost two centuries, American writers have reflected on this cherished reminder of childhood. Among them was Washington Irving, who referred to "hanging up a stocking on the chimney on St. Nicholas eve" in the Knickerbocker History of New York. In 1883, a tongue-in-cheek editorial in The New York Times promoted use of the Smith Christmas Stocking, an elastic stocking "suited to the circumstances of every family."
The custom of sending Christmas cards probably began with the English "schoolpieces" or "Christmas pieces," simple pen-and-ink designs on sheets of writing paper. The first formal card was designed by an Englishman, J.C. Horsley, in 1843. It was lithographed on stiff, dark cardboard and depicted in color a party of grownups and children with glasses raised in a toast over the words "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you."
Americans relied on expensive imported Christmas cards until 1874, when Boston lithographer Louis Prang offered a selection of cards featuring reproductions of contemporary paintings with printed sentiments on the reverse side. Within 10 years, Prang's print shop was producing more than five million cards each year.
About the same time, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, was an illustrator for Harper's Weekly. In 1862, fascinated with Clement Clarke Moore's poem The Visit of St. Nicholas ('Twas the Night Before Christmas), Nast visually depicted Moore's Christmas fantasy — including the first portrayal of Santa Claus as the fat, jolly, white-whiskered old man we recognize today. Nast is responsible for the first illustrations of Santa's North Pole workshop, of Santa in his sleigh, and of Santa opening his mail and making a record of children's naughty or nice behavior. Nast's illustrations dramatically influenced the nature of Christmas cards in his day and in ours.
From those early beginnings, the exchange of Christmas cards has grown to astonishing proportions. Americans typically exchange more than 2 billion cards each year.
The real reason for the season
This year, as you select the perfect tree and pull the holiday decorations out of storage, take time to reflect with your family on God's gift of His Son. Regardless of the origin of our holiday traditions, we can joyously celebrate the truth that Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, has redeemed us and has delivered us from lives filled with darkness and superstition. We have a real reason to celebrate!