The latest trend for American holidays is to blend ethnic cultures. Our traditions are gradually being combined with those of others countries to honor and respect their ways as well as preserve our own. Every year, new recipes and traditions from other countries are being added and assimilated into Christmas as we know it today.
Christmas has actually always been a melting pot of traditions and beliefs, almost from the first.
CHRISTMAS TREES: Ancient Romans and Egyptians celebrated a winter festival to honor their pagan god Horus. His symbol was a palm tree with 12 shoots, to represent the months of the year. They were the first to decorate trees with small pieces of metal.
There were many legends and myths about evergreens, because they resisted the freezing cold of winter, which killed everything else. Evergreens often represented power over death, immortality and everlasting life. Even before Christianity, people brought evergreen branches into their homes to ward off evil spirits.
After the birth of Christ, during medieval times in Europe, Paradise Plays were held. Because most of the people could not read or write, bible lessons were taught by the reenactment of the scripture stories with object lessons. Since in winter, an apple tree with fruit couldn’t be found, an evergreen tree with apples hung on it was used as a substitution. Christians would display their belief with a decorated tree on December 24. It was called the Feast Day of Adam and Eve.
The first recorded decorated Christmas tree was in 1510 in Latvia. The first Christmas tree lot was in Germany in 1531. The earliest decorations were apples, paper roses, nuts, sweets, and Christmas shaped paper ornaments. Then later toys were added, such as dolls, drums, and pieces of lace, which were given as gifts during the holidays. The first time candles were used to light the trees was recorded in the 18th century. The tradition of the Christmas tree is thought to have been introduced to America about 1776-77 by Hessian troops, who were here originally to fight for Britain in the Revolutionary War. The first Christmas tree lot was in New York City in 1851.
MISTLETOE: Mistletoe was first used by ancient Romans to decorate their haunted woods or to celebrate good fortune, peace and love. Ancient Druids in England believed mistletoe to be very powerful if picked on first lunar moon of month. In Scandinavian countries, they had a custom, that if enemies encountered each other in the forest under the mistletoe, they were to lie down their weapons for a 24 hour truce. Today, you are expected to kiss! I don’t understand how we got from lying down weapons to kissing, but traditions always seem to favor acts of LOVE.
HOLLY: Holly oak is associated with Christmas because it resembles the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head at the crucifixion.
POINSETTIAS: Mexican Poinsettias were introduced to the U.S. in 1820, by Minister Joel Poinsell, because they reminded him of the Star of Bethlehem.
RED & GREEN: Red and Green has become representative of the season because red symbolizes the blood of Christ and green symbolizes eternal life as the evergreen.
ANGELS: Angels were first depicted as the Greek goddess of victory, NIKE. (Now you know were that word came from). The halos above were like discs, but were changed to rings, which represented purity, holiness and spiritual power.
BELLS: The ringing of bells goes back to the middle ages. Bells were used to gather groups together. Some churches were known by the sound of their bell. The more bells and the higher pitch of their chime, the more important the event. Easter was a three bell event. Christmas was a four bell event.
YULE LOGS: Yule logs were first burnt at winter solstice. The bonfires were used to scare off winter demons and brighten the New Year. The traditions grew, for instance, in England, a piece of last years Yule Log must be kept dry in the house all year and used to light the new Yule Log. The belief is that this protects the house against fire and lightening.
CAROLING: Christmas songs about the Virgin Mary date back to 1410; however, the rise of Puritanism in England, almost completely eliminated the singing of carols. By the 1800, caroling was gone. The songs and tradition were kept alive only in the rural areas, where it was passed on to the next generations and later revived.
CARDS: The Romans had a custom of exchanging gifts and greetings on the first day of January. Christians continued this tradition, sending out cards called “New Year’s Cards”. At first they were not part of Christmas at all. England began to combine them with the words Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. In the beginning they were handmade. The first printed cards were in Europe and thought to be just a fad.
CANDLES: In the middle ages, it was customary to light one large candle on Christmas Eve to represent the Star of Bethlehem. In Ireland the candles were so big that candleholders were needed. They were carved out of large turnips. This is actually the beginning of the Halloween tradition of the Jack-o-lantern.
CANDY CANES: Since the shepherds were the first to hear the news of the birth of Christ, the candy cane, with its hooked neck was created to honor them. The fact that they hung so well on the trees, added to the functionality as well.
FATHER CHRISTMAS: Folklore about St. Nicholas, the gift giver, seems to have begun in England and the British Isles. He later became known as Father Christmas. He represents the happy spirit of Christmas and good will toward men. He normally wears red, but can also be dressed in green. In Russian/European folklore, St. Nicholas or Father Christmas, who went to Lapland, Finland, where the reindeer live. Over the years he has become fatter and jollier, and he now carries a big bag for toys, and lives at the North Pole. He’s called Santa Claus.
In some languages, the expression Father Christmas, translates into the words Baby Jesus, the first giver of gifts to the world.
Whatever changes we bring in to our Christmas celebrating, may they add to the love and spirit of the holiday and never take away from the beauty of the first Christmas, that humble, yet great birth of the baby Jesus, in Bethlehem.