Several years ago, I saw a Shoebox Christmas card featuring that crabby character Maxine, who said something about it being strange that we celebrated Christmas by sitting in front of dead trees eating candy out of socks. I started wondering about some of our holiday traditions. Why do we do some of the things we do?
As I started doing some research, I found that many of our traditions stem from ancient customs and early religious beliefs. Many of these practices started out being very simple and as time passed, we have taken them to a new level without really knowing their history.
Why do we decorate with evergreens?
Today, we decorate with evergreen garlands and wreaths, holly, mistletoe and of course, the center of our holiday décor, the Christmas tree. Decorating with greenery has ancient origins and was used by Egyptians and Romans in winter solstice celebrations to symbolize new life. Of course, the evergreens they used were not the pine, fir and cedar that we in the north use, but they used the branches from date palms and other native evergreens.
In the northern climates of Europe, holly was believed to have magical powers since it remained green through the harsh winter and was therefore placed over the doors of homes to drive evil away. Greenery was also brought indoors to freshen the air and brighten the mood during the long, dreary winter.
Wreaths, with the never-ending circle, are rich in symbolism. In ancient Greece and Rome, wreaths were a sign of victory. Greeks awarded wreaths to victors in sporting events. Both Christian and pagan traditions include wreaths. Today, our modern custom of hanging wreaths on the front door is descended from ancient Rome. On the New Year, ancient Romans would celebrate and wish each other good health by exchanging branches of evergreens. It became their custom to bend these branches into a ring and display them on their doors. Germans and Scandinavians started the practice of placing evergreen trees inside their homes or outside their doors to show their hope in the coming spring.
Why do we decorate with lights?
From ancient times to modern day, candles have always been used in celebrations. As Christianity spread, candles were placed in the front window to guide the Christ Child as he wandered from house to house on Christmas Eve. Martin Luther is credited with beginning the custom of putting candles onto trees symbolizing the Christmas star and its companions in the night sky.
During the Victorian era, it became popular to use candles and decorate the Christmas tree with ornaments. This was endorsed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840 when they displayed their own ornately-decorated tree at their palace despite the practice being condemned by religious leaders. In the late 19th century, gas lights were also used on trees and electric lights were invented.
The first electrically lighted tree was done by Thomas Edison in the 1880s. Today we see lights in all colors and styles decorating more than the Christmas tree.
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
This tradition descends from customs of several different cultures. Kissing under the mistletoe was a tradition of Greek festivals and marriage ceremonies. There is also the legend of Freya, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. The legend says that a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe. Men would pluck a berry each time they kissed a girl under the mistletoe. When the last berry was gone, there would be no more kissing.
Why do we hang stockings?
As this story goes, after his wife died, a man squandered his fortune and left his three daughters penniless and without a dowry; therefore, it was very unlikely that they would marry. In those days, men didn’t usually marry women without a dowry.
The three sisters had left their stockings hung by the fireplace to dry. A generous local bishop, St. Nicholas, knowing of the girls’ despair, rode by their home on his horse, saw the stockings hanging there and tossed gold coins down the chimney. Miraculously, the coins landed in the stockings, becoming the very first stocking stuffers.