It appears that sometimes we get so caught up in holiday routines such as gift shopping, decorating, sending cards, putting up the tree, etc, that we overlook the original meaning of these tasks.
Living in America, we have such a wonderfully diverse pot of cultural traditions, each contributing to the holiday celebrations we practice today. We are the product of our ancestors, subliminally remembering them through family traditions passed down through the years. In a sense, it is our obligation to keep these cultural memories alive and well and nurtured in the spirits of the generations to follow.
This year, as your family celebrates around the Christmas tree, decorates a gingerbread house, opens stockings on the fireplace mantle, take a moment to share the roots of each tradition. Understanding where and why such traditions exist exemplifies the warmth and goodwill behind it. Read on and test your holiday trivia!
The Christmas Tree: Christian missionaries used evergreen trees to represent the everlasting life of Jesus. First widely used in Germany, using real lit candles as decoration.
Gingerbread Houses: The Bothers Grimm tale, “Hansel and Gretel” created a gingerbread house craze in Germany in the early 1800s. As the story of two children finding a witch’s house made of cake and candy became popular, German bakers started selling elaborate gingerbread houses decorated with icing and candies.
The Kissing Ball: A Victorian invention that encouraged even the most modest of English ladies to kiss. A ball made up of mistletoe, a plant believed by the Greeks to possess healing and life-generating powers, hung from the ceiling with a ribbon. According to the custom, anybody caught standing under the kissing ball has to give or receive a kiss or embrace. In France, this smooching under the mistletoe is saved for New Year’s Day.
Snowman: Frosty the Snowman came to life in Holiday carols in 1950, penned by songwriters Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins, who sold the song to Gene Autry. Building a snowman has become a winter holiday tradition ever since.
Christmas Cookies: The tradition of baking and serving cookies transcends various cultures, where the Europeans (particularly the Germans, Norwegians, and Swedish) have been baking cookies for sweet treats celebrating Christmas since the 1500s, but the tradition only reached the United States after the introduction of inexpensive tin cookie cutters in the 1930s.
Christmas Stockings: Christmas stockings originate from the 16th century Dutch Christmas Eve tradition of children leaving their clogs-full of straw and carrots for the donkeys they believed accompanied “Sinterclass”(an early version of St. Nick), by the fireplace. Sinterclass, in turn would leave a treat in each clog. In the 1800’s, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Night Before Christmas” Americanized versions of the Santa Claus story, which included “stockings hung with care.”
Holly: Several ancient pagan religions used holly in their winter celebrations. The Romans decorated their homes with it. Holly was adopted by the Christian Church as a symbol of Jesus Christ, its pointed leaves representing the crown of thorns, and the red berries symbolizing Christ’s blood.
Candy Canes: In 1670, a German choirmaster gave his young singers white sugar sticks to keep them quiet during the long Nativity service. In honor of the occasion, he bent the sticks to resemble shepherd’s crooks. It wasn’t until the 20th century that candy-makers added red stripes and peppermint flavoring. Christian legend claims the white symbolizes Christ’s purity, the red stands for his blood, the peppermint represents the gifts of spices brought by the wise men, and the hardness of the candy is a reminder that Jesus is the rock and foundation of the church.
Greeting Cards: In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, wanted to remind his friends to help the poor during the holidays but didn’t think it was possible to handwrite so many letters, so he had cards printed showing a picture of poor people getting clothed and fed, with a message “A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You.”
Wreath: The tradition of hanging a wreath on the front door dates back to ancient Europe, when wreaths served as house numbers.
Poinsettia: The poinsettia is prized in its native Mexico s a symbol for the Star of Bethlehem. Legend says an angel created the plant from a bouquet of weeds gathered by a poor girl so that the child would have a beautiful gift to lay on the manger at church on Christmas Eve.
Plum Pudding: There are actually no plums in plum pudding (also known as figgy), but this rich, steamed cake does contain currants, raisins, nuts and sometimes even beef suet. Originating in England in the 14th century, members of English households used to take turns stirring the pudding while making a wish. Small silver charms were baked into the pudding as symbols of good wishes for the coming year.
Lisa Lelas is a bestselling author, productivity consultant & book writing coach. Remember to sign up for Lisa’s 15th annual Goal Setting & Vision Board workshop on Saturday January 23 via Zoom this year. www.LisaLelas.com/Events