Christmas is celebrated by people all around the world, in many different ways, and for some countries, the celebrations go beyond the one day. At various times throughout history the celebration of Christmas was banned due to its religious aspects, and in some countries, it is still forbidden. In England during 1644-1660 Oliver Cromwell put a stop to the observance of the day, and in America, the holiday was prohibited between 1659-1681. Christmas didn’t become an official holiday in America until 1870.
As the years have progressed the celebration of Christmas has become more secular and commercial, with the focus turning from the birth of Jesus to exchanging hordes of presents, decorating homes, eating candy canes and kissing under the mistletoe. And of course, we can’t forget the excitement of waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus. It may come as a surprise that many of today’s tried and true Christmas traditions have religious beginnings.
Santa Claus, Stockings, and Giving of Gifts
Santa Claus and his home in the North Pole are two Christmas staples. But who was Santa Claus? Where did he come from? The Santa Claus that is known and loved by many throughout the world is based on a bishop, Saint Nicholas, who lived during the 4th century.
Saint Nicholas lived in a city named Myra, which is part of modern-day Turkey, and he was known for his giving and generous heart. There are many stories told about him, one of the most famous ones is about a poor man with three daughters which explains where did stockings come from. The father had no money for the dowries for his daughters, resulting in little hope for them to ever get married. It is believed that Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney, and the bag fell into one of the daughter’s stockings that had been hung beside the fire to dry. Thus the tradition of hanging stockings beside the fireplace was born! From then on, whenever someone received a surprise gift, it was always assumed that Saint Nicholas had given it.
By the 1500s Saint Nicholas’ popularity began to wane, and for a time people tried to come up with other gift-givers, but nothing ever quite stuck. Eventually, different names began to be invented for the Saint. In the United Kingdom he became Father Christmas, in France Père Nöel, in other countries Christkind, and in early America, he was given the name of Kris Kringle which was an adaption from Christkind. For the Dutch settlers who came to America, they called him Sinterklaas, which gradually developed into today’s well-known name of Santa Claus.
In the 19th century, several writers helped to develop the story of Santa Claus. Washington Irving, the famed author of the Headless Horseman, first depicted Santa Claus as flying in the sky, but not in a sleigh, he wrote him flying in a wagon. Dr. Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem became famous and is now better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “The Night Before Christmas.” This was the first appearance of Santa riding on a present-filled sleigh, and pulled by eight named reindeer.
Thomas Nast, a popular political cartoonist of the 1800s, first drew his version of Santa Claus in 1863. During 1879 to 1886 Nast drew Santa four times, depicting him living at the North Pole. It is believed that this is the first appearance of Santa having a North Pole residence. It wasn’t though until the 1880’s that he drew a picture of Santa Claus as a smiling, white-bearded, chubby old man, dressed in red long johns. Over the years the image of Nast’s jolly Santa became more and more popular in the United Kingdom and America, and it has become the staple for both countries.
Mistletoe is a common decoration during the holiday season, as is kissing beneath it. The use of mistletoe began thousands of years ago with the Druids, but they did not kiss beneath it. Instead, they believed that it contained powers that could keep away evil and bring luck, so they used it to decorate their homes.
In Norse Mythology mistletoe represented love and friendship, and the act of kissing beneath it began in England, where a berry would be picked each time a kiss was given. Once there were no more berries, the kissing would come to an end.
Mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxon words ‘mistel’ and ‘tan’, which can be translated to ‘poo on a stick’ because ‘mistel’ means dung and ‘tan’ means twig. Who wants a kiss?
The Christmas Tree
For thousands of years, evergreen trees have been used as decoration during the winter months, to help keep in mind that spring would soon be arriving. For Christians, the evergreen represented God’s everlasting life. When the trees were first used as a Christmas decoration is not entirely known. There are many different stories and speculations.
A woodcut engraving appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, titled “Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.” It showcased the beloved and popular Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert standing with their family around a decorated Christmas tree, with gifts piled beneath it. From then on having a tree at Christmas time became a recurring tradition throughout the country.
In 1850 the original woodcut was slightly revamped before it was published in the American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book; the Queen’s crown was removed as well as the Prince’s sash to make them look less like royals, and thus the Christmas tree tradition had arrived in America. A few years later, in 1856, the first Christmas tree appeared in the White House.
The origins of the minty, hook-shaped and striped candy are not entirely known. There are only legends and theories. One of these legends takes place in Germany in the 1670s, where white sugar stick candy was supposedly given to choirboys to help keep them quiet during the Christmas ceremony.
The hooked shape was later added to represent the shepherd’s’ staff. The well-known stripes on the candy canes didn’t begin until the 1900s when the staple red was first introduced, as well as the famed peppermint flavor.