Christmas is the time of year that we gather together with our families and participate in a variety of different family and cultural traditions. Without them, it just would not be Christmas for most of us. We put up holiday lights, sing carols, bake cookies, eat candy canes, give each other gifts, and decorate the Christmas tree with ornaments. We take these traditions and activities for granted, but where exactly do some of these holiday traditions come from in the first place?
Of course, Christmas is celebrated in order to honor the birth of Jesus, but did you know that Christmas was not always celebrated on December 25th? It was not until around 300 A.D. when Pope Julius I decided to celebrate the birth of Christ on the same day every year in order to replace the pagan Winter Solstice with a Christian holiday. It stuck and we have been celebrating Christmas on the same day ever since.
Over the centuries, Christmas has evolved and changed in many different ways to become the gift-giving celebration that is today. The tradition of decorating a tree with Christmas ornaments did not start until around 600 A.D. Legend has it that a monk from England traveled to Germany to spread the word of Christianity. He used the shape of the fir tree, a triangular shaped tree common in Germany, to explain the meaning of the Holy Trinity with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The German people ran with it and began calling the fir tree, "The tree of God," and over time became known as the symbol of Christianity in Germany. Initially, the fir tree would be hung inside the home from the ceiling upside-down as a sign of Holy Trinity. Eventually, the tree became righted and the indoor Christmas tree tradition was born.
These Christmas trees remained undecorated until the 1500s when the founder of the Lutheran Church, Martin Luther, decorated a Christmas tree in his hometown of Riga, Latvia with lighted candles to show his children what makes the stars twinkle so brightly through the night. From then on, people began adorning their Christmas trees with candles, candies, fruits, and ornaments. By the 1600s, heavily decorated Christmas trees had become all the rage in Germany and throughout Europe. In German markets, everything you needed to decorate the Christmas tree with was available. Popular Christmas ornaments of the time included various food items, such as fruits, gingerbreads, wafers, and coated candies. This was meant to symbolize the fruits that grew on the Tree of Paradise in the Garden of Eden. Flowers were also commonly used as Christmas ornaments, but only red ones symbolizing knowledge and white ones symbolizing innocence were used. Venders began making wax ornaments and other non-perishable items for decorating trees and the Christmas ornament industry began!
While gifts have always been commonly exchanged around Christmastime as a symbol of the gifts the Three Wise Men gave to Jesus, the idea of a fat man in a red suit bringing only good children gifts was developed around 300 A.D. by a bishop named Nicholas in Turkey. As legend has it, Nicholas received a large inheritance and because he was a religious man, he chose to give his money away to needy children as a way to honor god through charity. It is said that he would go around throwing gold coins into the chimneys of needy families which were said to magically land inside the stockings of the children as they hung by the fire to dry. Nicholas was later canonized by the church and is known as the patron saint of children. This legend spread throughout the world and a variety of different names, characteristics, and traditions have developed from this original story. In Germany he is called Saint Nicholas and he rides through the sky on a horse, in Scandinavia he is called Jultomten and his sleigh is driven by goats, and in France he is called Pere Noel and he leaves treats inside the shoes of children on Christmas morning. The Dutch, who called him Sinter Klaas, were responsible for bringing the tradition to the United States and his name eventually evolved into Santa Claus. The original image of Santa was that of a thin man, but in 1823 Santa instantly became known as a heavier fellow with the poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, was the first to create the recognizable Santa of today with his white beard, red suit, and large, jolly appearance.
Today, all of these symbols and traditions have been combined to resemble the Christmas we all know and love today. From indoor trees to Christmas lights to ornaments to candy canes to gifts under the tree to Santa Claus and his bowl full of jelly, Christmas just would not be the same without all of these holiday traditions that have blended together so nicely to become the most wonderful time of the year. So, the next time you are decorating the tree and enjoying some Christmas cheer, raise your glass in honor of all the people and traditions that have been handed down over the years to create such a wonderful holiday!