Christmas: History and Traditions

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Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God.  It wasn’t, however, until third century A.D.—when Roman church officials decided on December 25th—that Christ’s birth was first celebrated.  While Christmas stems from a religious meaning, since the 19th century, the holiday has developed into something more—tree decorating, sending holiday cards and gifts, putting up lights, and visiting Santa at the local mall.  It has become the biggest commercial holiday of the year, and is typically celebrated by a large majority of Americans, Christian or not.1      

Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Christmas, it’s generally recognized as a season for giving, sharing, and rejoicing, and has become a cherished holiday. 

So, lets chat and chew about popular Christmas traditions!

CHRISTMAS TREE

Prior to Christianity, plants and trees that remained green year-round held special meaning in the winter.  People hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows because it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.1

The Germans are credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition, as we know it today.  Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since around 1850, and are now sold in all 50 states. 

In 1933, the first lighting ceremony was held in Rockefeller Center.2   The tradition dates back to 1931, when a small tree was displayed in the middle of the Center’s construction site.  Nowadays, an estimated 750,000 people visit Rockefeller Center each year to view the 30,000 lights, which cover the famous 75-100 foot tree. 

One of my fondest memories growing up—and still to this day—is going into New York City to see the iconic, multi-colored lit tree.

SANTA CLAUS

The tale of Santa Claus, whose name is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”, is traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas.1   It was said that he gave all his inherited wealth and instead traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.  By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas—known as the protector of children and sailors—was the most popular saint in Europe. 

St. Nicholas started making his way into American pop culture after a New York newspaper reported that Dutch families gathered to honor his death. By 1820, stores began advertising Christmas shopping, and by 1840, drawings of Santa Claus were included in all the newspapers and magazines.  In 1890, James Edgar of Brockton, MA gave America the first-ever department store Santa Claus3!  One-year later, Santa appeared in many major department stores, and by the turn of the century became a staple during the holiday shopping season. 

EXCHANGING GIFTS

In the Christian religion, giving gifts at Christmas is traced back to the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which the Three Wise Men, or the Magi, delivered to baby Jesus.  Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas,” also wrote that bands of young, rowdy men, would travel from home to home, demanding handouts from the gentry.4   In the 1800s, Christmas was domesticated, shifting the focus of gift-giving from the lower classes to children. 

Today, American families have their own system for how and when they open gifts, making each of their Christmases that much more special.

CANDY CANES

In the 1660’s, in Cologne, Germany, the once straight white sticks of sugar were bent at the end to remind children of the Shepard’s crook.  It also helped keep kids quiet in church!

MISTLETOE

Frigg, goddess of love, did everything she could to make the world a safe place for her son, Baldur. Everything on Earth promised to bring her son no harm, except for the one play Frigg overlooked – Mistletoe. As evil spirit named Loki crafted and killed Baldur with an arrow made from the mistletoe’s wood. Frigg’s tears turned into the plant’s white berries and revived her son. From that moment, to pay thanks, Frigg promised to kiss anyone who passed under mistletoe.5

So, whether you stick to your own traditions or incorporate more modern-day ones, simply put, holidays are a time to spend with friends and family. If you are looking to revamp your holiday plans, see this list of 50 Christmas Traditions. Check out our Pinterest page for fun Christmas decorating ideas, recipes, and more!

References:

  1. http://www.history.com/topics/christmas
  2. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-12-05/what-would-the-christmas-tree-at-rockefeller-center-be-worth
  3. http://www.newyorkjourney.com/rockefeller_center.htm
  4. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/2013/1221/Christmas-How-did-gift-giving-and-caroling-get-started
  5. http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/why-do-we-kiss-under-the-mistletoe
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