The Origins of Popular Christmas Traditions
Dating back to Rome in 330 AD, the Christian holiday of Christmas is one of the oldest and most powerful celebrations in human history. Originally celebrated as a simple mass, Christmas has come to replace a number of other holidays in many countries, and a large number of traditions have become a cherished part of the family Christmas celebration.
Why December 25?
From the words Cristes maesse, or "Christ's Mass," Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. What's interesting about this is that Jesus was not born on December 25 as many assume. Actually, no one is sure when Jesus was born as the exact date is not mentioned in the Bible. December 25th is just a date picked by the Catholic church to eclipse the festivities of a rival pagan festival, Saturnalia.
Mistletoe and Holly
Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, Druids decorated their homes with mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison. Scandinavians also considered the mistletoe to be a special plant, associating it with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief. Because of the pagan origins of mistletoe, the early church banned its use in Christmas celebrations, suggesting holly as an appropriate substitute. Holly's sharply pointed leaves were to symbolize the thorns in Christ's crown and the red berries drops of his blood.
Native to Mexico, poinsettias were named after America's first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, who brought the plants to America in 1828. The Mexicans in the eighteenth century thought the plants were symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem. Thus the Poinsettia became associated with the Christmas season. The actual flower of the poinsettia is the small, yellow cluster found surrounded by bright, colored leaves often mistaken for petals.
O Christmas Tree
One of the most recognizable images of the Christmas season, the Christmas Tree originated in Germany, possibly as early as 700 AD. The Christmas tree as we know it is most commonly credited to Martin Luther, who in 1530 was moved by the sight of stars shining though the forest of firs near his home that he apparently cut a small one and brought it indoors. He then placed lit candles in its boughs as a salute to the star of Bethlehem. By the 1800s, the Christmas tree custom was widespread throughout many parts of Europe, and was brought to America by the Pennsylvania German immigrants in the 1820's. In 1880, Woolworths sold the first manufactured Christmas tree ornaments, and the first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared in 1882.
Santa Claus - St. Nicholas
The original Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, was born in Turkey during the 4th century. He devoted his life to Christianity and his reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends of the miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. Devotion to the legendary St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and he became the patron saint of Sicily, Russia, Greece, charitable fraternities and guilds, sailors and children. After the Reformation, the legend of St. Nicholas all but disappeared in all Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch knew St. Nicholas as Sinterklaas, which eventually became corrupted in Anglican to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick" (later published as "The Night Before Christmas"), and is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.