So wait, you ask: what can we talk about when we've already heavily debated the tradition of the holiday itself?
However, I suspect that while we busily debate this hot holiday subject, few of us give thought to a number of other holiday traditions, how they came to be, and why we still participate in them. And since I’m curious by nature, I decided to do a little research – and found the results so interesting, I just had to share them! After all, no matters its ancient origins, Christmas is still very much a Christian holiday – and many of the traditions we don’t even give a second thought too have ancient cultural and religious meanings that coexist.
Can you guess the origins of each of these traditional things we take part in or display during the holidays?
Many of us place wreaths on doors or hallways to create a festive atmosphere during the holiday season. But where did this idea even come from? Historically, wreaths were a symbol of status or victory for ancient Greeks and Romans. Over time, though, wreaths became associated with the winter months, and symbolized survival of life through the cold. Some general meanings and ideas attached to wreaths are:
- They’re a sign that others are welcome to your house
- They’re considered by some to be a symbol of God’s never ending loving and of eternal faith, although really, wreaths are not specific to one religion
- Since wreaths are traditionally green and were once solely made from plants that stayed green year-round, they represent everlasting life, hope and peace
Like wreaths, these sorts of bright green plants are used to decorate a household and bring about a sense of holiday cheer. As it turns out, items like holly, mistletoe and ivy were traditionally used to ward off the evil spirits roaming the darkness during the long winter nights. Over time, though, religious movements began incorporating these items into their own meaning of Christmas, resulting in “Christian meanings” that coexist with the original idea that the greenery celebrated the very growth of life in general.
- The prickly leaves of holly plants represent to some the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified; the berries, then, are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. In Scandinavia holly is actually known as the Christ Thorn.
- Ivy by nature clings to other objects to survive; Christians use this association to remind others to cling to God.
- Other various shrubbery-type items also tend to hold various symbolic meanings in religious households during the holiday.
Traditionally and historically, households would host a big ceremony focused on the burning of a fresh cut log in their hearth during the holidays. This log had a special name: the Yule log. “Yule” as a word has connections to both pagan and Christian tradition – naturally, considering how closely the two religions intertwined over time. But no matter which path religious observers follow, burning a ritual log at the darkest time of the year, whether for warmth, light, gathering or symbolism, is considered one of the oldest human customs; it can be traced back to the days of the pagan Norsemen, or Vikings. In Christian households, the burning log would also be sprinkled with sat, oil and mulled wine while prayers were said; the process was meant to protect the house from the Devil.
Candy canes for many are just a delicious treat, or perhaps something that we use to decorate our trees - no more, no less. In this case, not much has changed. We know that historically, candy canes were something that decorated our trees. And in fact, the treats would be used to keep children quiet during long religious ceremonies during the holidays. developed items were sweet foods, including straight white candy sticks. And in fact, the treats would be used to keep children quiet during long religious ceremonies held over the holidays.
However, candy canes are also surrounded by legends and urban myths. Supposedly, during the 17th century, craftsmen then created the white sticks of candy in the shape of shepherds’' crooks at the suggestion of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. This may or may not be true; of course, considering the modern day myth about the candy cane is that the white represents purity and the red the blood of Christ, perhaps this simple little treat is just meant to always be shrouded in some mystery.
While many of us send e-cards today to send our holiday wishes (or we just text our friends or post on Facebook), some people do still send hand-written or designed Christmas cards. If you do, you have a man from Victorian England to thank. After all, letter writing was, for the longest time, a time-consuming and exhausting process. It still can be, even with the magic of technology. (Imagine doing it longhand by candlelight!)
It was in the 1850s that a British store owner sent in an order for some mass-produced cards that he could use in his Christmas greetings (although the first Christmas cards are noted to have been printed in the 1840s, and were not received positively at the time). Things continued from there, and over time, more and more cards were developed for the holiday season.
Those are just five traditions we take part in annually, consciously or otherwise, that I felt like learning a little more about; if you click on any of those links, most of them will include lists that examine plenty of other holiday customs we take part in but may not think about.
So give those sites a read – and enjoying learning a little more about the history behind the most wonderful time of the year!