Deck the halls
With boughs of holly
Fa, la, la, la, la
La, la, la, la
'Tis the season
To be jolly
Fa, la, la, la, la
La, la, la, la

 

 

It’s time for celebrating the holiday season and decking the halls!  Christmas and holiday traditions abound, but if you are like me, you often don’t know where and how these traditions started.  Over here at the Van Voorhis house, our current top 5 traditions include the following:  assembling a Lego advent calendar (given to us every year by our wonderful neighbors) each day of December through Christmas, putting up stockings and nativity scenes, attending a Christmas Eve candlelight service, reading the story of Jesus’ birth, and giving to others.

 

There are so many other traditions that many of us carry out each year.  Some common U.S. Christmas traditions are listed below.

1.  Decorate a Christmas Tree
2.  Send out Christmas Cards
3.  Make or Buy Presents for Loved Ones
4.  Go Christmas Caroling in the Neighborhood
5.  Visit Outdoor Holiday Light Displays
6.  Kiss under the Mistletoe
7.  Listen to Christmas Music
8.  Plan a Cookie Exchange or Bake for Others
9.  Watch Christmas Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Christmas Carole, The Grinch, etc.
10. 
Dress Up in Our Christmas Finery or Tacky Sweaters
11.  Write Thank You Notes
12.  Build Snowmen
13.  Put Lights on the House or Landscape
14.  Decorate with Poinsettias
15.  Drink Eggnog
16.  Leave Cookies out for Santa
17.  Count Down the Days with an Advent Calendar
18.  Embellish Gingerbread Houses
19.  Give Special Ornaments
20.  Receive New Pajamas on Christmas Eve
21.  Hang Up Stockings
22.  Adorn Your Home with Nativity Scenes
23.  Attend Worship Services
24.  Decorate with What You Have (make a wreath, string popcorn for the tree, paint pinecones, etc.)
25.  Read a Christmas Story
26.  Give to Others We Know and/or Those in Need
27.  Celebrate with Family, Friends, & Neighbors
28.  Make or eat fruitcake
29.  Etc.

 

There are also traditions unique to various cultures, cities, and states.  In Hawaii, people sometimes celebrate Christmas dinner with a hula and a pig roast over an open fire because this happened during the first Christmas in Hawaii in 1786.  Some Louisiana folks burn log structures on Christmas Eve on the levees as a celebration of the Creole culture, while some Minnesotans eat lutefisk dinners on Christmas (dried white fish soaked in water for several days and treated with lye) as a Nordic holiday tradition.  In New Mexico, ristras (a type of red pepper) adorn homes and are part of wreaths as they are said to bring health and good fortune.  In Mount Vernon, Virginia, a Christmas camel makes an appearance because George Washington did so for Christmas in 1787, and in Colorado, many Hispanic residents re-enact the journey of Mary and Joseph from inn to inn before Mary gave birth to Jesus during Las Posadas.1

 

As we gear up for the Holidays, it can be fun to discover the origins of the customs we have adopted along the way.  Listed below are five Christmas traditions and their origins or legends.

 1.    Christmas Trees

The tradition of placing a tree inside the home is thought to have started in Germany in the 16th century when Christians began to cut and decorate small trees or evergreen branches.  The addition of lights is attributed to Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, who was awed by the stars at night and wanted to bring that beauty to his Christmas tree.  Americans, specifically Pennsylvania Germans, began decorating trees in the early 1830’s, but decorating a tree did not become widely popular until after 1846 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched for the London News with their children around a Christmas tree.2  

 2.    Stockings

Why do we hang stockings? The legend of the stockings involves a widowed Englishman with three daughters who was having a tough time supporting the family.  Despite the loveliness of his daughters, the man worried that their poor state of affairs would prevent them from marrying.  St. Nicholas was walking through the town where the man resided, and he heard townspeople discussing the family’s situation.  To help in secret, St. Nicholas slid down the chimney of the family late one evening and filled the girls’ recently washed stockings, which were drying by the fire, with gold coins.  Other versions of the legend note that St. Nick left three gold balls in each stocking.  The girls woke to find these treasures and eventually, all three daughters were able to marry.  As a result, many began to hang socks (the larger the better) or personalized/handmade foot-shaped bags at the fireplace during Christmas.   Some people today put oranges in stockings as a more cost-effective reminder of the gold balls that St. Nick left in the stockings for the young girls.  We have the poem from 1823, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” with the lines “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there” to remind us of the legend of the stockings.3

 3.     Christmas Caroling

Christmas caroling dates just back to the 19th century, but caroling preceded it and didn’t always involve Christmas.  Caroling is associated with people wishing good cheer to their neighbors in hopes of getting a gift in return.  The combined traditions of singing AND visiting neighbors started in Victorian England when church carols began to merge with Christian folk music.  People at this time caroled for festivals like May Day, and eventually, they started caroling at Christmas.  Today’s popular Christmas carols emerged from William B. Sandys in 1833 in London.  He was the first to print “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noel” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”4

 4.    Advent Calendars

The Advent Calendar is another German tradition dating to the early 19th century and refers to the season leading up to Christmas beginning four Sundays before December 25th.  German Protestants marked the days of Advent by burning candles or using chalk to mark walls or doors each day.  Later, people often hung a devotional image each day of Advent.  The first wooden handmade Advent calendar is thought to have been made in 1851 and by the early 1900s, the first printed calendars emerged.  Gerhard Lang added small doors to the calendar in the 1920’s, and Bible verses behind the doors emerged in the 1930s.  The calendars disappeared during the outbreak of war with a Nazi ban on the printing of the calendars with images.  After the war, Richard Sellmar of Stuttgart was granted permission to print and sell them again.  Advent calendars with chocolates appeared in the 1950s, and they became wildly popular in America when President Eisenhower was photographed opening the advent calendar with his grandchildren.5

 5.    Kissing under the Mistletoe

The Greeks were known to use mistletoe as a cure for ailments ranging from spleen disorders to menstrual cramps, while the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder remarked on its use as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons.  The Celtic Druids of the 1st century provided its romantic symbolism because mistletoe blossoms during frozen winter months.  As a result, Druids gave mistletoe to both humans and animals with the hope of restoring fertility. The associations of mistletoe with fertility and vitality continued through the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century, it was also a part of Christmas traditions.  Kissing under the mistletoe is thought to have begun among servants in England.  As part of custom, men were able to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe.  If one refused, it was viewed as bad luck.  Other traditions encourage people to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss and to stop kissing once all berries are gone.   

 

The beauty of traditions is that they are rituals and practices that remind us of the past, bond us together in a shared activity, and celebrate our shared humanity.  As you carry out your holiday traditions, adopt new ones, and create your own, take time to discover what your loved ones know and appreciate about traditions. 

 

It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.

W. T. Ellis

 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

John 3:16


 

References

 

1. Fantozzi, J. & Shaw, G.  (November 30, 2018).  The most unusual Christmas traditions in every state.  www.thisisinsider.com

https://www.thisisinsider.com/unique-us-christmas-traditions-2017-12

 

2.  History.com editors.  History of Christmas trees.  (2018).

https://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

 

3.  Spivack, E. (December 14, 2012).  The legend of the Christmas stocking.  Smithsonian.com.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-legend-of-the-christmas-stocking-160854441/

 

4.Oloffson, K.  (December 21, 2009)  Christmas Caroling.  Time.

http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1949049,00.html

 

5. The history of Advent Calendars

https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/1-advent-calendars/

 

6.Andrews, E.  (December 24, 2013).  Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? History.com

https://www.history.com/news/why-do-we-kiss-under-the-mistletoe

 

Dixon, J.  (December 5, 2016).  Top 10 Christmas traditions and their origins.  The Telegraph.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/finest-christmas/festive-traditions-origins/

 

Giorgio, K. M.  All-time favorite Christmas traditions.  Better Homes and Gardens.  www.bhg.com

https://www.bhg.com/christmas/parties/all-time-favorite-christmas-traditions/?slideId=slide_d01dfd25-c7b9-4e93-b812-985b8bda4509#slide_d01dfd25-c7b9-4e93-b812-985b8bda4509

 

Nowak, C.  The History of 10 Favorite Christmas Traditions.  Reader’s Digest.

https://www.rd.com/culture/history-of-christmas-traditions/

 

Sanson, A., & Aldrich, J.  (November 12, 2018).  15 Christmas traditions to celebrate with your family.  Country Living.

https://www.countryliving.com/life/g3868/christmas-traditions/

 

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