Origin of Christmas Traditions and Customs

posted Dec 19, 2017, 11:39 AM by Mary Tocimak

 

1)  Origin of Christmas Holiday

 

            According to some legends, the Christian celebration of Christmas was invented to compete against the pagan festivals held in December. The 25th was sacred not only to the Romans, but also to the Persians whose religion of Mithraism was one of Christianity's main rivals at that period in time. The Church was, however, finally successful in removing the merriment, lights and gifts from the Saturanilia festival and transferring them to the celebration of a Christian Christmas.

            Christmas means "Christ's Mass" and is the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth and baptism. Although December 25th is generally accepted as being the time when the Christ Child was born, the exact date has never been chronicled with any degree of accuracy. There is neither scriptural nor secular evidence to establish the exact moment. One thing is relatively certain, however, the event did not take place in December. Since the child was born when shepherds were "abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8), it is unlikely that shepherds in Israel would have been sleeping outside with their flocks during the month of December. In winter, the herders would have led their sheep outside only during the daylight hours...the nights would have been far too cold. It is known that during the very early Christian centuries, the birth of the Christ Child was not celebrated in any manner. However, tradition dictates that the occasion has been commemorated since 98 A.D. In 137 A.D., the Bishop of Rome ordered that the birthday of Jesus Christ be observed as a solemn feast. In 350 A.D., Julius I (another Bishop of Rome) selected December 25th as the observance of Christmas. This date was made official in 375 A.D., when it was formally announced that the birth of Jesus would be honored on this day...the announcement also allowed some of the older festivals (such as feasting, dancing and the exchange of gifts) to be incorporated into the observance of Christmas. The use of greenery to decorate homes continued to be prohibited as pagan idolatry but, over the centuries, this too became an accepted custom of the festivities.

In Colonial America there were no Christmas celebrations. As recently as 100 years or so ago, such observances were declared illegal in many parts of theUnited States, including most of New England, being defined as pagan and a reproach to the Lord. (Today, it is against the law in some areas to display any Christmas symbols that are not pagan in nature...the erecting of nativity scenes, for example, are banned in some regions of America. Ironically, New England being one such area).

In Puritan Massachusetts, anyone caught observing the holiday was obliged to pay a fine. Connecticut also enacted a law forbidding the celebration of Christmas...and the baking of mincemeat pies. A few of the earliest settlers, however, did celebrate Christmas, but it was far from a common holiday during the Colonial era.

            Prior to the American Civil War, the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas as much as they were on the question of slavery. Many Northerners considered it sinful to celebrate Christmas since Thanksgiving was a much more appropriate holiday. In the South, however, Christmas played an important role in the social season. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first three American States to declare Christmas a legal holiday were located in the South: Alabama in 1836; and Louisiana and Arkansas, both in 1838.

In the years following the Civil War, Christmas traditions began to filter across the country. Children's books played a vital role in spreading the customs of Christmas celebrations, particularly the tradition of trimmed trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus. Sunday School Classes encouraged participation in such celebrations. The emergence of women's magazines also played an important part in promoting the festival of Christmas, by suggesting various ways to decorate for the holidays, as well as supplying instructions on how to make such decorations.

 

2)  Christmas Tree

 

Green for hope. Evergreen for everlasting life; it is a tree that never dies in the fall or winter.  Needles point upward to heaven. Sign of fertility in the wintertime.

 

3)  Christmas Colors

 

The colors most often associated with Christmas decorating are green, red, white, blue, silver and gold. These colors have been used for centuries and, as with most traditions, the reason may be traced to religious beliefs. In this instance, green represents everlasting life and hope, red represents the bloodline of Jesus Christ, blue represents the sky from which the angels appeared, white represents the purity of the Virgin Birth, and silver and gold represent the richness of God's Blessings.

 

4)  Christmas Lights

 

Represent that the light of Christ is present in this household.  Also the lights on the tree, meaning everlasting life, is that Christ is the source of this everlasting life.

 

5)  Christmas Tree Decorations

 

The first decorations to appear on Christmas trees were edible foods like apples, perhaps stemming from their use in Medieval mystery plays (see above). Over time, the foods became more festive, like candy canes and popcorn strings. Ornaments made of ceramics, glass, metal, and wood became part of the decorating tradition, perhaps because they lasted longer than the edible ones. These ornaments had shapes like stars and hearts. Following the tradition started by Martin Luther, candles were used on Christmas trees. Stringing decor like popcorn (which may have led to stringing lights) and glass balls are both thought to have originated in Germany.

 

 6)  Candy Cane

 

Sweet Secrets of the Candy Cane

There are many other legends and beliefs surrounding the humble candy cane. Many of them depict the candy cane as a secret symbol for Christianity used during the times when Christian were living under more oppressive circumstances. It was said that the cane was shaped like a "J" for Jesus. The red-and-white stripes represented Christ's blood and purity. The three red stripes symbolized the Holy Trinity. The hardness of the candy represented the Church's foundation on solid rock and the peppermint flavor represented the use of hyssop, an herb referred to in the Old Testament.  A Catholic priest named Gregory Keller invented a machine to automate candy cane production during the 1950's.

 

7)  Mistle Toe

 

            Mistletoe was a popular decoration at Roman winter festivals. The “kissing bush” was first popularized in the late 18th Century and originally contained more than mistletoe. Holly, evergreens, fruit, and mistletoe were often bunched together and then hung over doorways to instigate kissing. No one is exactly sure why mistletoe became a favorite doorway ornament, but by the middle of the 19th Century it was a popular custom. (3) Mistletoe, like holly, stays green and produces berries over the winter, making it a natural for Yuletide decoration. Verdict: A little bit of Christian and Pagan. Pagans certainly decorated with it, as did later Christians, but it was Christians who began the kissing custom.

8)  Advent Wreath

 

The Advent Wreath is made of evergreens to symbolize the everlasting God and immortality of humankind. Evergreens also represent the victory of life through darkness and challenge. The fact that an evergreen can live through winter signifies the strength of life itself. Green is also the color of the Church, representative of hope and new life. Four candles...three of purple or violet, symbolizing penance, sorrow, longing and expectation, and one candle of rose or pink to represent hope and coming joy...are placed within the wreath as symbols of the four weeks of Advent. These are replaced with white candles for the Christmas Season which ends with Epiphany. Wreaths are an ancient symbol of victory and to Christians, symbolize the fulfillment of time in the coming of Christ and the glory of his birth.

 

9)  Santa Claus

 

The Dutch words for Saint Nicholas are Sinter Klaus. Saint Nicholas lived in Myra (known today as Turkey) during the Fourth Century. The only child of a wealthy family, he was orphaned at an early age when both parents succumbed to the plague. Nicholas grew up in a monastery and, at seventeen years of age, became one of the order's youngest priests. There are numerous tales detailing his generosity, given in the form of gifts to those in need...especially children. Legends tell of Nicholas dropping bags of gold down chimneys or throwing purses through windows where they would land in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace.

Though he is one of the most popular saints, there is little historical certainty about the life of Saint Nicholas. He is believed to have been born at Patara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor around 280 A.D. and, in his youth, made a pilgrimage to Palestine sand Egypt, possibly studying at Alexandria, which was at that time the major center of learning. Shortly after returning to his homeland, he was made Bishop of Myra. Imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian, Nicholas was released after the accession of Constantine.

Saint Nicholas died of an unidentified sickness on December 6th. Dependent upon varying sources, the year was 330 A.D., or 345 A.D. or possibly 352 A.D. He was interred in the Cathedral at Myra. In 1087 A.D., this city fell to Islamic invaders and Nicholas' body was either rescued or stolen by Italian merchants and transported to Bari in Italy. A pilgrimage church was erected on the site so that Crusaders might pray there en route to or from the Holy Land. Officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church some time in the Eleventh Century, Saint Nicholas is the third most beloved religious figure after Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Otherwise known as the "Wonder-Worker," he is credited with having performed countless miracles, both before and after his death. He is the Patron Saint of Greece and Russia, as well as many individual cities in Europe, such as Naples and Moscow. He is also the Patron Saint of mariners, merchants, bankers, travelers and, of course, children.

 

10) Christmas Cards

 

Christmas cards were introduced in England in the 1840s. Their forerunners were the letters known as "Christmas Pieces" written by schoolboys being educated away from home who would send seasonal correspondences to their parents. The letters, written on special paper with elaborate engraved or printed borders and headings, were adorned with scrolls, flourishes, Biblical scenes and flowers. The writing of these letters gave the boys an opportunity to display proof of their penmanship and progress they had made in the art of writing throughout the school year.

 

By the Twentieth Century, the Christmas card industry had ballooned with estimated annual sales of three-and-a-half billion to four billion cards. Statistics indicate that each American family exchanges an average of 60 cards each holiday season. Thus, in a little over a hundred years, the sending and receiving of Christmas cards had become a firmly-established tradition.

 

 

11) Christmas Presents

 

Because Saturnalia took place at the Solstice, it was also known as the Festival of Lights. Many of the presents were gifts of candles which the people would burn throughout the winter nights to summon the Sun back to life. These Roman traditions of feasting and gift-giving were, according to some sources, later absorbed into the Christian Christmas celebrations by virtue of the Apostles who brought the Gospel to Rome. Through the teaching of the Disciples, people learned of the Three Wise Men who traveled from the Orient bringing gifts to the newborn King. From that time on, the ancient custom became slightly altered. The exchanging of presents remained, but now it was in imitation of the gifts donated by the Magi to the Christ Child.

Later, it became customary to give gloves (or the money to purchase them). This was known as "glove money" and later extended to gifts of metal pins, which were introduced in the Sixteenth Century. Eventually "pin money" came to mean the small amounts of cash that women were allowed to spend in any manner they pleased during the centuries when they lacked economic rights. Sweet things have always been a traditional gift to ensure sweetness in the coming year, as are lamps which symbolize a wish for light and warmth, along with presents of money to represent the wish for increasing wealth. It is believed that the actual wrapping of gifts may have originated in Denmark.

 

12) Christmas Carols

 

Christian scriptures detail a world of spirits and nine choirs of Angels who were sent by God into the lives of humankind. Legend tells that in Bethlehem, people heard the Angels sing one time in unison to announce the birth of the Christ Child. The words thought to ring out at that moment were: Gloria in exelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Therefore, this is considered to be the first Christmas carol.

Christmastime music began with the litanies, or musical prayers, of the Christian Church. An early historian wrote that in approximately 100 A.D., the Bishop of Rome urged his people to sing "in celebration of the birthday of our Lord." By 400 A.D., priests would stroll around their parishes on Christmas Eve singing these Latin hymns.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with being the "Father of Caroling." Only church officials had been encouraged to sing carols prior to the time of St. Francis. In 1223, however, the saint placed a crèche, miniature Nativity scene, in a hermitage at Greechio, Italy. After this, many churches began displaying such scenes at Christmas and soon, people began to act out the events of the Holy Night. The actors composed Christmas carols to sing during their Nativity plays and, later, would stroll through the streets still singing. In that manner, did street-caroling come to be.

 

By the Middle Ages, wandering minstrels were traveling from hamlet to castle performing their carols. Later still, villages had their own bands of "waits." Waits were originally watchmen who patrolled the streets and byways of the old walled cities, keeping guard against fire and singing to while away the night hours. During the holiday season, the waits would include carols in their repertoires. Not everyone was delighted with this display of musical entertainment, however, and many townspeople complained, declaring they would rather get a good night's sleep than have somebody singing under their windows. Eventually the term was used to describe groups of musicians who sang and played at various civic events during the Christmas season.

The word "carol" derives from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became particularly popular by the French, who replaced the flute music with singing. Originally, people performed carols on many occasions during the year. By the 1600s, carols involved singing only and Christmas had become the chief holiday for these songs. Counted among the most favored of non-religious carols are "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas," both of which first appeared as popular songs in the United States.

 

13) Holly

 

Tradition has it that God spoke to Moses in the wilderness from a holly bush. Another legend holds that "because the holly kept secret the whereabouts of our Savior when His enemies were searching for Him, it was rewarded with the privilege of keeping its green leaves all winter". Holly berries symbolize Christ's blood, and the holly's thorn His crown of thorns. Thus holly, a Christmas symbol, also prefigures Christ's Passion. Traditionally, the holly wreath is hung on the Christian family's home as an invitation to the spirit of the Christ child to enter. The candle in the wreath is to show Him the way.

 

 

14) Poinsettia

 

The poinsettia blooms at Christmas in Mexico, where the flower is called the Flower of the Good Night (Christmas Eve.) According to a Mexican legend, the flower acquired this title because of a miracle. A little Mexican boy, eager to visit the Christ Child in the manger in his village Church, was unhappy because he had no gift to offer. Nevertheless, he gathered branches of green leaves from a bush that grew along the dusty road and took them to the Church. The other children made fun of the boy's rude gift, but when he presented the weeds, all were astonished to see a brilliant, red, star-shaped flower blooming on each branch.

 

 

15) Christmas Stockings

 

Stockings: According to legend Saint Nicholas once helped an old widower provide dowries for his three daughters by anonymously tossing three bags of coins into some stockings.  In popular myth, that story of Saint Nicholas is the reason why people hang stockings “by the chimney with care” today, but the inclusion of the stockings are most likely a late addition to the tale. The first (and in some places still the most common) receptacles for toys at Christmas were shoes. In many countries Saint Nicholas still puts presents in hopefully not smelly shoes. Clement Moore wrote about stockings in his poem guaranteeing their prominence in the United States and in some parts of Europe.

 

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