“Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fla la la la la, la la la” … wait, why are we decking the halls again?
In the spirit of all things Christmas, have you ever stopped to think about its many and odd traditions. Sure, we put up a great big, beautiful tree and decorate it, but why? We hang stockings from mantles to be filled with gifts, but why? Rudolph has a red nose, but why … actually, that one’s to guide the sleigh at night. But you get the point!
‘Tis the time to roll up our sweater sleeves and start uncovering the origin of some of our most beloved Christmas traditions.
While some of these traditions have no exact record of why or when, we can attribute most of them to similar circumstances. In the case of the stocking, one explanation stems from the old tradition of leaving out shoes lined with hay on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day. Those “lucky” children (read: good boys and girls) would wake to find the hay in their shoes replaced with treats or coins.
Lumps of Coal
Like most Christmas lore traditions, it’s hard to pinpoint just one origin story, especially since most countries have their own version of how things started. For example, in England, coal was a common household item because most families had coal burning furnaces and would place pans of hot coals under the bed while they slept. While many rich families got candy and toys in their stockings, the poor families would get coal, an essential item to keep them warm.
The Evergreen Christmas Tree & Decorating
Folklore tells of a time, even before the birth of Christianity’s Christmas, when pagans would use the green branches of evergreens to celebrate winter festivals. The greenery décor served as a reminder that plants would return in spring.
The legend of the first “Christmas trees” stem from Christians decorating evergreen trees with apples to symbolically celebrate Garden of Eden “Paradise Trees” around Adam and Eve’s name day on December 24th.
However, the tradition of decorating trees (some of the first ones adorned with candles) grew from a predominantly German pastime in the late 16th century. These trees have the closest resemblance to the Christmas trees we decorate today.
Popularity of the Christmas Tree
While Germans are attributed with originating the Christmas tree, it wasn’t until Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree to honor her German husband’s heritage. Her influence was so widespread that the tradition quickly caught on to the public, and by 1900, nearly 20% of American families were putting up and decorating Christmas trees.
This tradition is a little easier to attribute origins to because it was actually based on a real person. Santa Claus’ legend traces back to a Monk named St. Nicholas sometime around 350 A.D. Admired and respected for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas and the holiday of honoring him became synonymous with gift giving. As for the name Santa Claus, that came from the Dutch translation, Sinter Klass, a nickname for good ol’ St. Nick.
Yeah, yeah spending time with family is great but the best part about Christmas is getting and giving gifts, right? The act can be traced all the way back to pagan culture, celebrating the winter solstice, but the gift giving that we know today stems from celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th. About 300 years after his death, the act of gift giving became a Christian tradition in an attempt to reinterpret the story of the three Magi giving gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Several centuries later and gold is still a much appreciated gift during Christmas. The other two … yeah, not so much.
Christmas Traditions Around the World
- Great Britain – mistletoe: In the 1800s, the English began hanging mistletoe because according to Norse mythology it was a sign of love and friendship.
- Norway – witches & gnomes: This tradition takes the cake for odd customs. Norwegians will hide all the brooms in their houses on Christmas Eve to prevent witches from stealing them. But wait … there’s more. They also leave a bowl of porridge in the barn for the gnome who protects the farm … umm, what??
- Ireland – beer & cookies: In true Irish fashion, it’s customary to leave out mince pies and a pint of Guinness for Santa. That can’t be safe to drink and sleigh.
- Austria – Krampus: For all the good boys and girls, there’s Santa Claus. But what about the naughty boys and girls? They don’t just get nothing for Christmas, they get whisked away in a sack by Krampus, a beast-like demon with clattering chains who punishes bad kids on Christmas … no, this isn’t Halloween.
- Venezuela – skate to church: Going to church on Christmas isn’t out of the ordinary for many countries, but in Venezuela, the mode of transportation to church is – roller skates. In fact, it’s so popular that many roads across the country will be closed to cars to pave way (pun?) for the safe skating.
With a holiday as big as Christmas, the origins and traditions are almost too many to count, and definitely too many for this list. But, if you feel like sharing some Christmas trivia with your family this year, you’ve got plenty of trivia bombs already wrapped and bowed to gift out.