There are so many traditions associated with Christmas. Many of them we just take for granted, accepting the “prevailing wisdom” as to their origins. But sometimes things are not what they seem. Here are ten things that you may not have known…
1. Christmas was once against the law in America. When the Puritans came to this continent they brought their objection to Christmas with them. They believed it was a creation of man, not Christ, so it should not be considered a holy day. They weren’t too keen on the revelry that went along with the holiday, either. Christmas was celebrated in America by Anglicans but most Protestant groups forbade it. It wasn’t until June 26, 1870 that Christmas took its official place on the American holiday calendar.
2. Christmas trees were forbidden as a part of the celebrations until as late as 1640. Since the tradition of bringing evergreen boughs or trees into the home at the Winter Solstice was pagan in origin, the early Church forbade them. The first recorded instance of a Christmas tree dates to 1510 when the town of Riga in Latvia brought a tree into the town square, decorated it and then burned it. Thankfully, we have relegated the burning part to the Yule log. Approximately 30-35 million Christmas trees are sold each year in the U.S.
3. Speaking of “Yule,” that word is believed to originate from the Anglo-Saxon for “wheel” (though scholars are not completely certain). A mid-winter festival known by this name has been celebrated since well before 1000 CE, marking the Winter Solstice. The term “yuletide” as a reference to the Christmas season dates back to about 1475.
4. Christmas songs date back to the 4th century: St. Hilary of Poitiers composed Jesus refulsit omnium for a Christmas Mass. The Renaissance brought lighter songs and the earliest English carol came in 1410. It was composed by Ritson and is found in the Ritson Manuscript. One of the oldest carols that we still sing today is “O Tannenbaum” from Germany. The most popular Christian carol is “Silent Night,” while the most popular secular song is “White Christmas.”
5. The date on which we celebrate Christmas was chosen by Bishop Liberius of Rome in 354 CE. The actual date has been debated since the formation of Christianity. The biblical account says, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Shepherds in the Middle East would have only had their flocks in the fields from Spring into Fall. In December, the animals were brought in close to shelter to protect them from the cold and rain. The likeliest date for the birth of Jesus is March, 6 BC.
6. Santa Claus is an amalgamation of several figures: St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (modern-day Turkey), the Norse god, Woden, and the Celtic Holly King primary among them. The beard, the cloak, the reindeer… these are associated with the aforementioned figures. Our modern Santa was created by cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1860 for Harper’s Weekly magazine. Every year he added more to Santa, including his home at the North Pole, the “naughty and nice” list, and coming down the chimney. When the Coca-Cola company started using Santa Claus in its advertisements, it built even more on the lore.
7. Gift giving at the Solstice did not originate with the Magi. During the Saturnalia, which had some influence on our own modern Christmas holiday, gifts were exchanged among friends. As for the Magi… the Bible doesn’t say that there were three of them. There were three kinds of gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – so it was just assumed that there were three men who brought them.
8. Mistletoe was a sacred plant to both the Druids and the Norse. According to Norse myth, when the god Baldur was killed by a mistletoe arrow, his mother Frigga wept white berries which brought him back to life. The mistletoe was then blessed by Frigga so that whoever stood beneath it received a kiss. The Druids collected mistletoe by cutting it with a gold sickle, catching it in a cloth before it could hit the ground. The sprigs were placed over doorways to protect the dwelling and bring blessings.
9. The first Christmas cards appeared in 1843, designed by John Horsley, and sold in London for one penny each. The image on the front was of a family raising a Christmas toast which caused the Puritans to denounce it. But cards became very popular anyway. A German lithographer named Louis Prang brought the tradition to America in 1860, printing the cards in his press in Boston. Nowadays, more than 3 million Christmas cards are sent in America alone!
10. Santa’s reindeer are based upon the eight-legged Sleipnir, the Norse god Woden’s flying horse. The reindeer received their names from Clement Moore in his poem, “A Visit From St. Nick” in 1823. Rudolph didn’t join them until 1939 when Robert L. May wrote a verse for Montgomery Ward. Gene Autry recorded the song that Johnny Marks adapted from the poem, releasing it during Christmas week, 1949. It became the second best-selling song of all time until the 1980′s, selling over 25 million copies.
Though we know a lot more about Christmas traditions now, that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating them. Embrace all the origins and stories and archaic reasons we do what we do. Celebrate in your own way and enjoy the season!