The Curious World of Christmas

By Niall Edworthy

While billions of people celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, this annual festival has spread further, wider, and deeper into society. Even those who do not celebrate this annual festival know about the traditions that mark the season: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, lights and decorations, bells, and kissing under the mistletoe. Where did these customs originate? Some are as old of time, and many are more modern inventions.

Take a look at the origin of some of our favorite traditions.

Niall Edworthy, author of "The Curious World of Christmas," has written 21 books as a ghostwriter and under his own name on a wide range of different subjects. Living today in southern England with his wife and two children, he grew to love Christmas when, as a young child, he and his family moved to the United States for three years.

Santa Claus: The British "Father Christmas" figure is shrouded in pagan mystery and buried deep in the mists of time, but the American "Santa Claus" owes his existence to the Dutch settlers who brought their veneration of Sinter Klass (St. Nicholas) with them to the New World. A number of engravings from the 18th century show the saint in a hat and robes, while stockings full of gifts and fruit hung at the fireside. The original St. Nicholas may have been Nicholas of Myra, an ancient bishop honored for his holiness.

If Santa did have a birthday, it would be December 23,1822, the night that the American Episcopalian minister and classical scholar Clement Clark Moore wrote his famous poem, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”) to read to his three daughters. Moore’s image of a jolly old man with a long white beard and a sack full of gifts has merged with the Santa Claus and Father Christmas characters we recognize today.

Christmas Stockings: The exact origin of hanging stockings is difficult to trace, but it seems to be a tradition that developed in various European countries through centuries. A receptacle (e.g. a clog, a sock, or a pouch) was left out over the Christmas period and was filled with gifts by St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Some believed gifts were given by a friendly winter spirit such as a fairy, a troll, or a nice witch.

In the early 19th century, the stocking beat its rivals to become the preferred way of receiving gifts--perhaps because it was the largest! The custom of hanging stockings on the fireplace was further popularized by Clement Clark Moore’s famous poem and Thomas Nast’s illustrations.

Reindeer and Santa’s Sleigh: Clement Clark Moore’s poem also introduced the notion of Santa traveling on a reindeer-drawn sleigh to deliver gifts to the children of the world as he called out: Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! / On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!

How Santa manages to do this in one night remains one of the great mysteries that only children understand. Mathematicians have worked out that if Santa’s sleigh was loaded with one Barbie doll and one G.I. Joe for every girl and boy on the planet, the sleigh would weigh 400,000 tons and need almost a billion reindeer to pull it. To deliver them all in one night, Santa would have to deliver to roughly 1,500 homes a second and travel at roughly 5,000 times the speed of sound. This has baffled experts in the aviation industry who say that the aircraft would burst into flames at just a fraction of that speed.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer The world’s most famous reindeer made his nervous entry into Christmas culture in the early 20th century. The timid one with the throbbing red nose, who showed the world that a facial abnormality is no bar to career advancement or a life of contentment, was the creation of American copywriter Robert L. May. He came up with a poem about Rudolph in 1939 to lure more customers into the chain of Montgomery Ward department stores. The poem sold more than two million copies that year, and when it was republished in 1946, after World War II, it sold another three and a half million.

Kissing Under the Mistletoe: The curious--and sometimes delightful--custom of kissing under the mistletoe has its origins in our ancestors’ belief that this parasitic plant conferred powers of fertility and vitality. In medieval times, women wrapped mistletoe around their waist and wrists to boost their chances of conceiving. Mistletoe’s reputation as a magical life force arose from the fact that the plant, which grows at the top of apple trees, is able to live through the harshest of winters and still produce fruit. Its ability to reproduce and grow without roots in the ground added to its mystical aura.

Scandinavian legend reveals how mistletoe ended up at the top of trees: Frigga, Norse goddess of love and beauty and wife of Odin, banished the mistletoe to the forest canopy after her son, Balder the Beautiful, was killed by a dart made from its wood. When Balder came back to life, Frigga made mistletoe a symbol of love and eternal life.

Christmas Tree: Evergreen trees were used to celebrate pagan winter festivals for thousands of years before Christ. Northern Europe used branches of the abundant fir tree to adorn homes starting from the winter solstice through spring. Evergreens were symbols of eternal life at a time of year when all other forms of plant life had died. Southern Europe and the Middle East also venerated evergreen plants during the winter months. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples during the rowdy December festival of Saturnalia.

The Christian Church absorbed the evergreen tradition because the symbolism of everlasting life echoed elements of the Christian faith. The first printed references to Christmas trees come from Germany in the early 16th century. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that Christmas trees became a common feature in homes, as British and American middle-classes began to follow the example set by Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Christmas Lights and Decorations: When you ignite the brandy on the Christmas pudding, light a Christmas candle, wrap a tree in fairy lights, burn a Christmas log, or watch street illuminations being turned on, these are the modern versions of traditional pagan light and fire traditions.

During the winter solstice (December 21st), fires were lit all over northern Europe to honor the rising of the sun and the lengthening of the days. People living off the land worshipped the returning sun because it gave them the food needed to live. During the early 20th century, Christmas lights began to appear in shop windows, but it wasn’t until World War II that the majority of households could afford them.

Poinsettias: Poinsettia The tradition of buying poinsettias at Christmas time comes from Mexico. The plants are native to southern Central America and Africa, and they are named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico. He began importing the plants to the United States in the late 1820s. There are all sorts of Latin American legends about how the plant has become so closely associated with Christmas, but the truth is that poinsettias simply look good! They flower in the winter and happen to come in red and green, the traditional Christmas colors.

Christmas Bells: Bells have been associated with the Christmas experience for many years. They have been celebrated in a number of famous songs such as “Jingle Bells” and poems such as Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Supposedly, the tradition evolved from an ancient practice of using bells to frighten away evil spirits during the dark days of winter.

Over time, the sound of a bell ringing became an expression of happiness. Church bells ring out joyful melodies on days of celebration. The festive association was strengthened with the arrival of Santa and reindeer. Scandinavians would also fit reindeer with bells in order to find them in the dark, in thick winter fogs, and in blizzards.

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