Ten Christmas Traditions and Their Origins
Posted on Dec 24th, 2013
This is the first of ten Christmas traditions that began in the ancient world that tells where they actually came from...
No. 1 Tradition: Christmas Trees
We might curse the fact that we’re still picking pine needles out of our toes come spring, but the idea of decorating your house with greenery at winter goes back thousands of years. King Tut, the boy king of ancient Egypt, would have had date palm leaves scattered around his royal abodes on the winter solstice.
Evergreens (dioecious unbranched evergreen trees) were celebrated in Egypt as a reminder that, though the winter was harsh and yielded little, spring would come just as inevitably. Since palm trees grow a new palm branch each month, every single branch stood for a completed month.
Soon Egypt’s tree-hugging tradition spread north to Italy, during the height of the Roman Empire. Palms were substituted for firs and other native species, on which tapers would be lit and burned in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture and justice, during the notoriously raucous Roman Saturnalia festival. The custom migrated north to Germany and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, resulting in today’s obsession.
No. 2 Tradition: Christmas Carols
As with the trees, special songs would be created for the winter solstice. In fact songs would be sung for each of the seasons, but the Christmas tradition stuck with the newly-created Christian faith, eager to commemorate Jesus Christ.
The first proper Christmas carol can be dated back to ancient Rome in 129 AD, when a Roman bishop decreed that a song called Angel’s Hymn should be sung during the Christmas service at Rome. Fast forward a few hundred years, and a Greek Orthodox Priest named Cosmas of Jerusalem (or Maiuma) wrote another famous hymn.
Soon, the whole of Europe was singing at Christmas. Incidentally the tradition of singing to people whether they want to or not was invented some time around the 17th century. Here’s a list of sing-a-long Chrismas Carols for your singing pleasure!
No. 3 Traditon: Santa Claus
Father Christmas ~ Saint Nick ~ Kris Kringle ~ SinterKlaas – he is known by so many different names, bringing gifts to good children all over the world on the night before Christmas. Our modern depiction of Santa – the fat, jolly, white-bearded man in his red suit and black belt and boots – has his roots in a third century monk, Saint Nicholas. Born in Myra in what is now modern day Turkey, he was famous for his piety and generosity. Legend has it that he gave away all his wealth and traveled far and wide helping the sick and poor.
Over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere came together and created the whole world's Santa Claus - the ageless, timeless, deathless white-bearded and red suited man who gives out gifts on Christmas and always returns to Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland, where Santa actually lives. He apparently lives on a fell (mountain with no trees) called Korvatunturi (Ear Mountain) in Savukoski. Lapland has plenty of reindeer and lots of food to feed them that the North Pole does not have.
No. 4 Tradition: Yule Log
Like most things associated with Yule, a pagan festival largely attributed to the Germanic peoples of the medieval period, the yule log can trace its roots back through some of the world’s most successful ancient civilization. Today the burning of the yule log has become a insignificant affair, and can be carried out pretty much any time leading up to Christmas Day. Yet the log began its life as a yuletide tradition thousands of years back, in the earliest cities of Sumer and Egypt.
Egyptians believed that the winter solstice period marked the death and rebirth of their national god Horus, the god of the sky and the sun. Thus light was shed to celebrate him, and since Egypt was about 5,000 years from electricity a log would be burned for 12 days. Christians, most likely following suit from the Romans, would later adopt the log as a symbol for the light of Christ bringing the world from darkness.
No. 5 Tradition: Christmas Cards
Christmas cards may only have come into European favor during the 15th century (thanks to the Germans, again). But their origins go back thousands of years before, to the greetings given in Ancient Egypt via ornately decorated papyrus. Related or not, the ancient Chinese are thought to be some of the greetings card’s earliest fans, exchanging simple messages to celebrate the New Year.
The first Christmas cards were sold by Sir Henry Cole of London in 1843. The Victorian era, known for elaborate detail, saw the rise of beautifully illustrated and ornate cards with images of flowers, fruit, magical creatures and other spring-inspired images. Children and animal images were also popular. The origin of Christmas cards in the United States followed the European tradition closely. Americans purchased cards for Christmas from Europe and began exchanging them around 1845.
No. 6 Tradition: Mistletoe
Kissing under the mistletoe may date all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Traditionally, kissing beneath the magical mistletoe would ensure a couple stayed happy. It was even used as a sort of natural proposal, and hung at marital ceremonies. Saxons, ancient Germans tribes, passed the custom on associating the plant with Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility.
According to a source found on the internet (that makes it true, doesn’t it?)..."It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. Mistel is the Anglo-Saxon word for dung, and toe or tan is the word for twig, therefore, mistletoe means dung-on-a-twig." It’s the holiday season, so go forth and kiss enthusiastically under the dung twig!
No. 7 Tradition: Presents
For retailers at least, Christmas is the biggest gift of all – whether we want to or not, we’ll all be searching of something we can pass off as thoughtful, while keeping an eye on our wallets. Yet as much as the world hasn’t always been obsessed with Furbies, novelty ties and shaving kits, we’ve been giving and receiving gifts since the beginnings of society. Fast forward a few thousand years, and gift-giving was a key part of Saturnalia (ancient Roman festival of Saturn in December, which was a period of general merrymaking and the predecessor of Christmas), when masters would ceremoniously be ruled over by their slaves. Gifts were also seen as an important way to keep up good spirits during the long, cold winter. Of course Christians point to the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh given to baby Jesus by the three wise men, though it’s worlds away from the materialistic crowds of today.
No. 8 Tradition: Feasting
It wouldn’t be Christmas without unholy doses of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and, of course, the only batch of Brussels sprouts you’ll eat all year. But, like most Christmas customs, feasting to see in the day has its roots in the earliest civilizations on the planet. The Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk would traditionally involve great feasting, as the height of the winter ended, days became longer and farming could continue once more. Food was one way to usher in the sun.
The Romans frequently ate Christmas ham, a custom still followed in many countries today (i.e. HoneyBaked), to celebrate the life of Adonis, god of rebirth and vegetation, who was killed by the tusks of a wild boar.
A boar’s head is still roasted (here's how, if you are interested) ceremonially each year at Oxford University.
No. 9 Tradition: Stockings
There are no steadfast stories as to the origin of the Christmas stocking, but one tale has stood the test of time, true or not. And it comes courtesy of Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity. A poor man in Myra lost his wife, and was left to bring up his three young daughters alone. He became poor, and worried that he would not have enough money to pay any of his daughters’ dowries, as was the custom back then.
Enter Saint Nick, who, knowing the father would be too proud to accept money for his daughters, secretly threw coins into his house, beside the hearth over a few nights. The family was drying their clothes by the fire at the time, so each day each daughter would wake up to receive a coin in their shoe or stockings. Some stories even say Nicholas chucked coins down the chimney; another reason why we have Santa throwing presents down the chimney nowadays.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from
Friends of the River San Bernard
No. 10 Tradition: The Nativity
As a child, did you participate in your church’s Christmas program as a shepherd, wearing your bathrobe and headscarf? You were given one line to remember that you forgot as soon as you stood in front of a congregation of parents armed with cameras and pitiful expressions. You can thank Saint Francis of Assisi for that line, “Sorry no room”. This Catholic deacon set up a living scene in memory of Christ’s birth, using the accounts in the Gospels of Luke and John, in Greccio, near Rome, in 1223.
Christmas had always been Francis’ favorite holiday because of its message of hope to people that a Savior had been born. He realized that he could present this message in a visual form so that the poorly educated peasants could better understand what happened on that night so long ago. Francis and some of his followers took an ox, donkey, and trough filled with hay and reenacted the scene of the birth of Christ. He led the townspeople to this reenactment on Christmas Eve and had a worship service in front of this second nativity scene.