The History Behind the Traditions

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:18

    It's done year after year. It's practically a ritual so familiar that very little, if any thought is given to its meanings at all. The purpose we know is to decorate, making our homes look festive for the Christmas season. The tree, the stockings, the wreath, holly, cards, candles; they have all been around for centuries. But where did they come from? Does anyone know what a Yule log actually is? What its origins are? Believe it or not, some traditions predate the birth of Christ, back to Pagan times when the celebration was for the winter solstice. The Yule log has been noted in France and Italy since the 1200s, and is believed to have been an ancient worship ritual. The log is made of red oak and should be lit on Christmas eve and burn into Christmas day. For good luck, the new log of the season should be lit with a piece of the last year's log. The gift giving tradition is the result of the Wise Men giving gifts to baby Jesus. St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century bishop, is also credited for this tradition. He was famous for giving gifts to children. Although there are a few versions to the legend, it seems that the tradition of hanging stockings on the fireplace began when Saint Nicholas threw coins down the chimney of three poor sisters who left their stockings on the mantel to dry. The coins landed in each of the stockings, which then began the tradition. The more modern version of today's Santa Claus was actually created by Coca-Cola when in 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom drew his first Santa portrait for the company. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was created as a promotional storybook to be given away to customers for the Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939. Two reindeers suffered name changes over the years due to a lyric error in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer song, which changed Donder to the more modern Donner, and Vixen to Blitzen. The original names first appeared in "T'was The Night Before Christmas" story by Clement Clarke Moore. Greenery is a must for Christmas decorations. There are many stories about the first Christmas tree. Bringing an evergreen tree into the house began as a Pagan tradition representing fertility, life and reproduction. The common belief is that later the famous German preacher, Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the house and lighting it with candles to represent stars. German immigrants did in fact bring this custom with them to America. However, the role of the fir tree dates back to pre-Christian times when the tree symbolized nature's triumph over winter's darkness and deadly cold. Christians began using the trees and other evergreens as symbols of Christ's gift of everlasting life. The doorways of London were adorned with evergreen boughs. It was Germany again who began the custom of shaping them in a circle to represent the love of God which has no beginning or ending. The custom of the bell ringing began as a way to drive away evil spirits. Today bells ring at Christmas time to celebrate Christ's birth. Candles or lights on the tree are to celebrate Jesus as the light of the world, while candles in windows served as a guide to the Christ child. The first creche, or nativity scene was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1224, using live animals and people. The familiar scene has been a source of controversy for scholars and historians ever since. The sharp edges of holly is thought to symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore, and the red berries represent his blood. Candy canes are thought to represent either a 'J' for Jesus or the shepherd's staff. The color white symbolizes purity and the red stripes symbolize blood. Peppermint is similar to a Middle Eastern mint, hyssop, which is mentioned in the Bible. The ritual of sending cards at Christmas dates back to 1843, when the first formal card was designed in England. Prior to that, it was common to send Christmas letters, but letters took time to write. The original cards were printed in black and white and then colored by hand. The scene was that of a family raising a toast at a party. Some criticized the cards for promoting drunkenness. Since it cost only a penny to send a card back then, the custom caught on quickly. Everyone has seen it or uses it: The ‘Xmas' abbreviation. Although some believe it to be a modern sign of disrespect, in reality the X is a substitute for the Greek, Chi, which was an early church representation of Christ. It has been around for a long time and had no meaning of disrespect. Ornaments on the tree also have symbolism attached to them. A pickle ornament is considered a very special part of the tree in Germany. The parents hide the ornament on the tree last and who ever finds it wins a prize. Birds are considered a universal symbol of happiness and joy. Even today, birds are a common ornament made out of the tradition glass as they originated in Germany. A bird's nest ornament were symbols of good luck. German folklore tells that to be touched by a chimney sweep will bring good luck. The sweeps were very popular ornaments and can sometimes be spotted on great Grandma's tree. In Germany oak trees are considered sacred. The acorn ornaments are therefore thought to be good luck symbols. Pinecones on a tree were considered symbols of motherhood and fertility. So, as you gaze at your beautifully decorated home this season, some very familiar items may now have new, yet old meanings …