Christmas is a holiday with many traditions, such as decorating a Christmas tree, giving presents to the ones we love, and dressing up as Santa Claus for the kids. But when and how did these traditions emerge?
Around 1300 BC, Egyptian families would decorate their homes with palm branches on the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice. This holiday gave them hope, as the evergreen leaves reminded them that their crops would begin to grow again as the daylight hours increased.
Like the Egyptians, the Ancient Romans also celebrated the winter solstice with evergreen branches. They called this festival Saturnalia, in honor of the god of farming: Saturn.
Centuries later, in 725 AD, a missionary named Boniface moved from Britain to the European continent. He met a Germanic tribe who were preparing to sacrifice an animal. Boniface wanted to stop this ritual, and so he chopped down their sacred tree: the sacred Oak of Donar.
Boniface then showed the Germanic tribe a fir tree, which he claimed was a holy tree. He believed its triangular shape was a symbol of the Christian Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit). He also explained that its branches pointed your gaze upward toward heaven. Boniface encouraged people to bring evergreens into their homes to remind them of the story of Jesus. In the same way that the wisemen provided gifts to the baby Jesus, these families were encouraged to give gifts to their children.
Between the 11th and 16th centuries, plays telling Bible stories – known as miracle plays – became very popular. The most famous miracle play was about the story of Adam and Eve, and it was performed on December 24th. One of the most important symbols of the play was the Paradise tree – a fir tree that was decorated with red apples.
Our Christmas tree today is an evolved version of the Paradise tree. Moreover, green and red continue to be the traditional Christmas holiday colors.
The tradition of lighting a Christmas tree began in upper-class households in the 18th century in Germany. At that time, they used candles to light their trees.
But the invention of the light bulb soon popularized the use of electric lights, which replaced candles. Edward H. Johnson, who was the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, set up the first Christmas tree with electrical lights. Thomas Edison is famously known as the inventor of a practical electric light bulb.
Johnson ordered a set of red, white and blue light bulbs that were about the size of walnuts. He displayed his tree in his home in 1882 on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
However, these electric Christmas lights were still too expensive for the general public to purchase. It was only in the 1950s that they became affordable and began to replace candles in the average household. These became very popular in the US.
The first recorded instance of using Christmas lights outdoors was in San Diego in 1904.
The tradition of Christmas stockings began in Germany. Originally, children simply used one of their own socks and they would hang them on the fireplace mantel.
Families typically filled these stockings with five gifts, each of which stimulated one of the five senses. They could, for example, give children candy (taste), nuts to crack (hearing), coloring books (sight), clay for crafts (touch), and perfume (smell).
According to legend, in about 280 AD in modern-day Turkey, there was a monk named St Nicholas. He gave away all of his possessions and went on a journey to help the poor and the sick. He became a popular figure known for taking care of children and sailors.
He died on December 6, and so his feast day is celebrated on that day. This was seen as a lucky day to make a purchase or to get married.
By the time of the European Renaissance, St Nicholas had become the most well liked saint on the continent, especially in Holland. And by the end of the 18th century, the legend of St Nicholas started to become popular in the United States. Dutch families in New York would gather to celebrate his life story.
Saint Nicholas’s Dutch nickname was Sinter Klaas. In 1804, John Pintard gave out woodcuts of Sinter Klaas, and in the US his name eventually evolved to Santa Claus.
In 1822, a minister named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his three daughters. His poem lay the foundations of our modern image of Santa Claus as a porty figure who flew around the world with eight flying reindeer to distribute gifts to children who behaved themselves.
In 1881, Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, drew a picture of Santa Claus that matches our present-day image of him. He drew him in a bright red suit with white fur, as well as his wife Mrs Claus, his elves, and his gift workshop in the North Pole.
A Tradition of Generosity, Love and Joy
These various Christmas traditions - among many others that are also practiced - point to a history of generosity, love, and joy.
Unfortunately, today the Christmas season is not always a cause for celebration. For many, the holiday season can be a very difficult time of the year. Some struggle to keep up with social pressures to purchase expensive gifts. Others are saddened by family conflicts. And for many, the holidays can be very lonely and depressing.
If holiday anxiety or depression is affecting your ability to enjoy the original meanings of Christmas, then be encouraged that you are not the only one who is struggling. There are also therapists and counselors across North America who can help you along your journey to mental health. May this coming year be a time for you to discover much joy, hope, and peace of mind.
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Farmer, Jacqueline, 2010. O Christmas Tree: Its History and Holiday Traditions. Charlesbridge Publishing.
"Santa Claus," 2013. History.com. [online] Available at: <http://www.history.com/topics/santa-claus> [Accessed 15 December 2013].