Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Traditions Explained

Last year I outlined a list of Weird Christmas Traditions from around the world. This year I thought I’d take a better look at some of the traditions that most Christians take part in every year and may not have any clue as to why.

Also, to our non-Christian, anti-Christmas readers: Merry/Happy Whatever!

5. Christmas Lights

During the Christmas holidays lighting a person’s house or trees – which we’ll get to later – is one of the most common practices of the Christian faithful. Houses are adorned, inside and out, with bright coloured or white lights from front to back.

So where did the tradition come from?

As you may or may not know, the Christian religion wasn’t always in the state it is today. There was a time where Christians were persecuted for their beliefs and had to hide in secret to congregate and profess their faith.

During these hard times Early Christians would light a candle in the window of the building they were performing a mass in, so that other Christians would know the location.

Now, as any good little history buff knows, the Christian religion is a conglomeration of many faiths. Winter solstice traditions, which were a mainstay of Pagan religions, are where most of our Christmas traditions take root.

Winter for the Pagans was a dark, horrible time of the year. During the colder months they had to hope that their food stores held out, survive the bitterly cold days and nights, and generally deal with the grief of those whom died during the winter – of which there were many. A celebration during these months helped to uplift spirits and break the bleak depression of the winter.

The Winter solstice celebrations – held on the darkest day of the year - included most of the merry-making we enjoy today, like a big feast with family and friends, gift-giving, and the burning of a large log in the hearth. This not only offered heat for the home, but represented the sun – which would return after the dark days. This tradition would become the “Yule” log and would be the basis of lighting candles in homes (for decoration, that is) and – in turn – for those horribly tangled LED lights you curse out every year as you staple them to your house.

4. Eggnog

What we call eggnog today is a drink that is heavily milk-based, contains loads of sugar, and - as per its name - contains eggs. It has a yellowish colour and depending on the level of milk used in the mix - from low-fat to downright cream - it can be very thick and creamy. Although these days you see people that just drink the nog, it is often mixed with some kind of liquor and served at social gatherings around the holidays.
So where did the tradition come from?

In days-gone-by milk and eggs had no "shelf life". There were no refrigerators! They were also costly. The only people that really had access to them were dairy and egg farmers, and the upper crust of society whom owned all the farms.

In an effort to keep the milk products they would be mixed with different liquors, including sherry and brandy. Eventually this became a treat that was enjoyed at many aristocratic social gatherings.

So why nog? That is a topic of debate by historians. There are several hypothesis, though. One includes that eggnog would often be mixed with rum or grog. The idea is that the term egg n' grog eventually became eggnog. Another idea is that eggnog would have once been drunk from a noggin - a wooden, carved mug used to serve booze back in the day. The drink might've been called an egg noggin and eventually shortened.

The mystery doesn't stop there, I'm afraid. Why do we drink it around the Christmas holidays? Well, there's no good reason. Like I mentioned before, eggnog was often enjoyed at social gatherings by the aristocrats. The belief is that over time it just became vogue to drink eggnog around Christmas and New Year's and that just eventually became the convention.

3. Mistletoe

Mistletoe, in regards to the Christmas decoration, is known as Viscus album in the UK. In NA a different form of mistletoe is used to adorn homes during the holidays, known as Phoradendron seritonum. It's a hemi-parasitic plant. Yeah, that's right. Plants can be parasites, too. Mistletoe actually survives by stealing sustenance from other plants.

So where did the tradition come from?

This one goes as far back as the Norse, at least. You see mistletoe, for some reason or another, has been linked to male virility for a very long time. In Norse mythology a mistletoe arrow was described as having killed Baldr, god of love and happiness. There are also descriptions of a sword made of mistletoe itself. If you don't get it, look up phallus.

Even in pre-Christian Europe mistletoe was considered a sign of male essence. Want to know why? Because when the berries are crushed up, they resemble semen. Yeah, bet you wish I didn't go there.

So how does this translate to the kissing Christmas decoration we know so well? The exact reasons aren't known, although it is again an extension of the male virility and fertility history of the plant, but as early as the 1820s there is literature that describes the use of mistletoe as a Christmas staple.

It would be cut from the bush and then hung in the home around Christmas Eve. It must then stay there and not touch the ground until Candlemas - a Christian feast that is held on February 2nd. It was believed that it could protect the home from lightning or fire, which I have no idea why; silly superstitious 19th Century Christians. 

The tradition of kissing is an extension of mistletoe's history as some weird phallic/male symbol, as young men could steal a kiss from the girl they were courting as long as they removed a berry from the bush. Once the berries were gone, the plant no longer held its spell.

I won't make any comments about that one.

2. Christmas Trees

The main decoration in a Christian's home around Christmas is the Christmas tree. It is adorned with lights, decorations, and in some traditions gifts, candies and fruit. At the top of most Christmas trees is a star, which depicts the Star of Bethlehem, but what started the tradition of people dragging perfectly good Evergreen trees into their homes?

So where did the tradition come from?

As far as we can tell from our history books, the Germans came up with the Christmas tree. In around the year 700, St. Boniface - in an attempt to fight off the pre-existing beliefs in Norse mythology - cut down a representation of the tree of Thor. Years later he found a fir tree growing in the roots of the old oak and saw it as a sign from God. He is quoted as saying, "... let Christ be at the centre of your households..." and from then on the tradition of taking a fir tree into one's home at Christmas began.

It is also recorded that in Estonia, circa 15th and 16th centuries, that a tree would be taken into the town square nearing the end of the Christmas holiday. It would be adorned and was the centre for dancing and singing. On the final night of reverie it would be burned and there would be a celebration held around the fire.

In a sort of amalgamation of traditions, families would take trees into their homes and decorate them, and would also light them with candles. It would remain a Germanic tradition for many years. It was customary in earlier times for the family to decorate the tree and hide it from the children for several days before Christmas eve, when it would finally be revealed.

The Christmas tree was actually considered a Protestant tradition, as were many of the Germanic Christmas traditions. It would be adopted by the Roman Catholics around the 16th and 17th centuries simply because it could not be stopped.

Today instead of candles on a large, dried out piece of wood, we take a safer route to light our trees… we plug sixty or so strings of lights into one socket, wrap them around our trees and stare glossy-eyed at all the pretty lights.

1. Santa Claus

Where to even begin?

Santa Claus has become the iconic image of Christmas, much to the dismay of the Catholic church. Seems there was a rather iconic birth on Christmas day as well. Although we consider the image of a plump, jolly bearded fellow in a red suit to be the definitive version of Santa Claus, that is just one of the many versions that exist all over the world of whom was once known as the Sinterklaas.

So where did the tradition come from?

The most common history associated with Santa Claus is that he is a legend based on St. Nicholas – a devout Catholic who lived in what is known as modern day Turkey. He is best known for giving gifts to the poor and even saving three young women from being made into prostitutes by giving their father a hefty dowry in their names. What a nice guy, huh?

Images of the man - known as Sinterklass to the Dutch and surrounding countries - certainly fit the part with a long beard and adorned robes, however this is but the roots of what would become the man we know so fondly as Santa.

In the UK he’s known as Father Christmas, and although very similar to our Santa Claus, he generally wears robes and is reported to live somewhere in Poland, not like the American Santa that lives in a perpetually wintry North Pole.

He is often reported to have some kind of magic at his disposal. In North America he lives with elves and several magic reindeer that help him to deliver presents to all the good little girls and boys in just one night. In Nordic countries he rides a magical goat to deliver his presents. The goat is actually the Yule Goat, which was once the reported gift-giver of the Nords, but over the centuries has merged with the St. Nicholas character.

In 1843 the man himself made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Christmas Carol as the "Ghost of Christmas Present". It’s a far cry from what we call Santa, but you can see that he’s a plump, bearded man that represents the festivities of Christmas.

There is a common misconception that the red-suited Santa is just a clever marketing campaign started by Macy’s and now owned by Coca-Cola. Although Macy’s definitely uses the image of Santa in their holiday marketing, as does Coca-Cola, they do not own the image of Santa Claus. Santa is the very essence of public domain. This common myth came about because Macy’s has Santa appear at the end of their Thanksgiving Day parade to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, and Santas have famously appeared at their store for many generations. There’s also the film A Miracle on 34th Street, which involves Macy’s and Santa Claus. This is just ingenious holiday marketing.

The same goes for Coke. The image they use on their holiday packaging may be trademarked, but they do not own the man in the red suit. There is a belief that it’s because of Coke that Santa’s suit is red, not its original green colour. The truth is that the red suit was first depicted by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly (1863) and has nothing to do with Coca-Cola – although it is a very opportune coincidence that Coke has capitalized on.

There are a great many other depictions of Santa in all different countries and religions the world over. The fact is that Santa is a representation of the good cheer and celebration of the Christmas season. So, to you and yours I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Cole D'Arc said...

festive and educational. we owe the ancient Pagans so much. i think that's going to be my religion from now on.

Ryan said...

We should totally be Wiccan.

Cole D'Arc said...

i'll have to wing it. all the books ive seen on it are pretty pricey.

Shane said...

I done got educated on Christmas things what happen each year. And I was thoroughly fascinated. Cool stuff.

Unknown said...

So basically nothing about Christmas has to with the actual birth of Yeshua....how interestimg