Most of us enjoy Christmas traditions, but do we know their origins?
The Nativity Scene was created by Saint Francis of Assisi, a former knight, in 1223.
Santa Claus is really Saint Nicholas, a monastic bishop of Myra who stopped a violent storm to save doomed sailors, donated money to a father forced to sell his daughters into prostitution, and restored to life a trio of boys who had been dismembered by an unscrupulous butcher. He moved from Asia Minor to the North Pole in 1879. Santa also may be the leader of the ‘Wild Hunt,’ the traditional flying hounds replaced by flying reindeer. It is unfortunate that many children grow up to believe that there is no difference between Santa and God, which causes not only disappointment but spiritual damage. The remedy is that if children are to be told about Santa, they need to understand that he is a saint and one of God’s servants–just as they themselves are.
We fill Stockings with smaller presents of nick-nacks and fruit, but why are they hanging at the fireplace to begin with? In a time not so far gone, stockings were knit by hand, and so were not considered a throwaway item of clothing, but were ‘darned’ or repaired–and washed nightly for use the next day. Stockings hung at the hearth were there to dry.
O Tannenbaum! O Christmas Tree! A hangover from the Teutonic (Norse) idea of the World Yew upon which their All-Father Wedne hanged himself (and thrust his spear through his own heart) for the salvation of his people from a wicked witch. Today the Christmas Tree represents the Tree upon which Jesus was self-slain for the sins of the world (Odin being only the Norse ‘prophetic folktale’ of the coming of the Anointed One, or Christ or Messiah).
Christmas Presents have two separate origins. The Magi or Wise Men brought the Child Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Nicholas of Myra, later Saint Nicholas (Santa), made sure that daughters of a family had enough money to marry instead of prostituting themselves.
Milk & Cookies for Santa. This tradition goes back to the pagan Gaels who felt they needed to somehow appease the faery spirits or incur their wrath, and since Santa to many people is more of a faery or elf than a saint, the practice has made good sense. (Especially when hungry Mom and Dad have stayed up half the night to assemble bicycles and wrap presents).
Christmas Pudding. Everybody wants a little something special to eat at Christmastide, and the poor, who shall always be with us, at least until the Last Day, are no exception. A scrape of flour, a scrap of orange peel and a bit of apple, a half-handful of currents and a swig of rum or whiskey, a smidgen of yeast, a dab of butter, and a spoonful of sugar, and there you have it! (Sometimes known as Fruitcake.)
Xmas. No, not a way to take Christ out of Christmas (which itself means Christ-Mass, the liturgical celebration for Christmas Day). The opposite of that destructive thought, in fact. X is the first Greek letter in the name ‘Christ,’ so this is only another way–and faster way–to spell ‘Christmas.’
Ghost Stories for Christmas originate around Saint Thomas Day or December 21st, which is also Winter Solstice, the shortest (and often spookiest) day of the year.
Christmas Carols were the hymns sung at Christmastide, a carol being a hymn or sacred song. The poor wrapped only in their joyous song would wander about singing for ha’pennies or farthings, or even bits of cake or fruit or nuts–anything to make their hearts merry.
Reindeer come along because of the North Pole idea and Finland’s interest in the holy day of Christmas. Rudolph is a wonderful 20th century addition. The ‘flying hounds’ of the Wild Hunt may also have something to do with this tradition.
The Yule Log, or ‘Wheel’ Log, named after the ‘wheel of the year,’ is a large log of wood pushed into the hearth longwise and burned on Winter Solstice (Dec 21st) through the night. Winter festivities were once part of a heathen feast for the dead which included ceremonies full of spirits, devils, and the haunting presence of the Norse god Odin and his night riders called the Wild Hunt. Today it is enjoyable to see who can stay awake long enough to keep the house from catching on fire.
Mistletoe was once used by druids in their Winter celebrations. They revered the plant since it had no roots yet remained green during the cold months. The ancient peoples of Northern Europe believed mistletoe to have magic healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility, and to ward of evil spirits. The plant was also seen as a symbol of peace, and among Romans, enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their weapons and embrace. Scandinavians associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love, and it may be from this that we derive the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. Those who kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year.
Holly & Ivy was used in Northern Europe against ghosts and demons who could be heard howling in the Winter winds. Boughs of holly, believed to have magic powers since they remained green through the harsh months, were often placed over the doors of homes to drive the evil away. They were also brought indoors to freshen the air and brighten the mood during the long, dreary season. Legend also has it that holly sprang from the footsteps of Christ as he walked the earth. The pointed leaves are said to represent the crown of thorns Christ wore while on the Cross, and the red berries symbolize the Blood he shed.