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The Origins of Our Beloved Christmas Traditions

Learning is Lissa's passion, and helping others gain useful knowledge and learn new practical skills is her goal.

Gingerbread houses are one of many great and delicious holiday traditions.

Gingerbread houses are one of many great and delicious holiday traditions.

Christmas Customs, Explained.

Have you ever wondered where the idea of Santa Claus came from, or why his sleigh is pulled by reindeer? Have you ever wondered why we hang stockings by the fire, or decorate a Christmas tree every year? Have you ever eaten candy canes at Christmas and wondered how they were made? This article is here to explain the origins of some of our most beloved Christmas traditions.

Was Santa Claus Based On A Real Person?

Christmas started as a religious holiday, but it wouldn't feel like Christmas without Santa.

Christmas started as a religious holiday, but it wouldn't feel like Christmas without Santa.

For kids all over the world (and many grown-ups too!), it wouldn't be Christmas without a visit from Santa Claus. The jolly old elf flies across the planet on the night of Christmas Eve, delivering presents to all of the good boys and girls, and coal to those who were more naughty than nice. We leave him milk and cookies as a thank you, and marvel at how such a big man can fit inside our chimney and shimmy through without waking us up. Many of us have tried and failed to stay awake long enough to catch him in the act, or we've sent him letters asking for the things we want the most. Maybe you've wondered where the legend of Santa originated. The story begins in the third century A.D., in the country of Turkey.

St. Nicholas of Myra was a travelling Christian monk who lived a simple life. He was born on March 15, 270 in the city of Patara to a wealthy couple, Epiphanius and Johanna. His uncle was the Bishop of Myra, a role that Nicholas would eventually take. When his parents died, pious young Nicholas went on a journey to give his inherited wealth away to the poor, and he performed many miracles to help others.

One of the most famous stories about St. Nicholas involved secret gift-giving at night. A formerly wealthy man was now destitute thanks to Satan's jealousy, and he was about to be forced to sell his three young daughters into prostitution. Nicholas overheard the tale, and wanted to save the man's daughters, but he didn't want to shame the man by publicly gifting him with money.

Nicholas snuck over to their house in the middle of the night and threw a bag of gold coins in the window (in some tellings he threw it down the chimney, which may be why Santa Claus comes down the chimney). The coins landed in one of the daughter's stockings, hung out by the fire to dry, which is why we hang our stockings for Santa Claus in the modern day. With that money, the man was able to afford a dowry for his first daughter to be happily married off instead of sold. He did the same thing the following night, and the second daughter could be married off. The father stayed awake the third night, and caught Nicholas in the act. The man fell to his knees thanking Nicholas, but Nicholas ordered him to keep his act of kindness a secret.

The Dowry for the Three Virgins, by Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1425

A painting depicting the story of St. Nicholas and the three young women.

A painting depicting the story of St. Nicholas and the three young women.

Nicholas went on to perform many other great acts, with quite a few of them associated with children and giving gifts, and eventually became the Bishop of Myra like his uncle before him. He died on December 6, 343, which became his feast day when he was raised to sainthood in the late 10th century. He is the patron saint of children, and with his canonization his deeds became widely celebrated and recreated in many of our Christmas traditions. St. Nicholas believed in giving to others, so we give presents to our loved ones in his honor. At first, the gift-giving took place on his feast day, but it ended up spilling over to Christmas during the rise of Protestantism, a time where individual saints were less celebrated. Nowadays, St. Nicholas has many names. The Dutch called him Sint Nicolaas, which eventually became Sinterklaas, which eventually became Santa Claus in America.

Why Is Santa's Sleigh Pulled By Reindeer?

A reindeer in Lapland prepares to pull a sleigh.

A reindeer in Lapland prepares to pull a sleigh.

In the original stories about St. Nicholas, he delivered presents on a white horse. However, the current Santa mythology has him riding around on a sleigh pulled by 9 flying reindeer. When did it switch from a horse to 8, and then 9 flying reindeer?

Reindeer became part of the Santa story in the year 1821. William Gilley, a printer in New York, published a poem by an anonymous author that had Santa riding on a flying reindeer. Supposedly, the anonymous author's mother lived in an indigenous tribe far to the north of Canada, near the Arctic Circle, and as a child they were told stories of how reindeer could fly.

With the publication of the famous poem The Night Before Christmas in 1823, Santa gained 7 extra reindeer who pulled him through the sky in a sleigh, and they all got their names: "Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on Dunder and Blixem!" Notice the names of the last two. These are the Dutch words for thunder and lightning. Later publications used the German variants of these names, Donder and Blitzen. In the 1949 hit Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Donner would get his final name change.

Speaking of Rudolph, he actually existed before his famous song. The department store Montgomery Ward used to give away Christmas books as promotional items. For Christmas 1939, they commissioned Robert May, one of their employees, to make that year's Christmas book. At the time, Robert's wife was dying of cancer, and he was trying to keep his 4-year-old daughter Barbara's spirits up. Robert had been bullied as a child for being short and shy, and he used that experience to tell the tale of Rudolph, the misfit reindeer with the red nose.

His wife and daughter loved the story, but his bosses were skeptical because they thought Rudolph's red nose would remind people of alcoholics. Robert and his artist friend Denver Gillan went to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and sketched pictures of the reindeer, and eventually won the executives over. The book turned out to be a hit, but unfortunately, Robert's wife passed away right when it was being released. Years later, Robert persuaded his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to write a song based on his book. If the book was a hit, the song was a knockout. Rudolph became canonized as Santa's last, but not least, reindeer.

Why Do We Celebrate The Birth Of Jesus In Winter?

Nativity scenes are holiday decorations that depict the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Nativity scenes are holiday decorations that depict the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Did you know that Jesus Christ was not actually born on December 25th? He was actually born around March 2nd in the year 4 B.C. Christmas Day was put on the 25th of December by Pope Julius I in the 4th century, to coincide with the Roman festival of Saturnalia and a festival celebrating a pagan sun god, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. This time is also around the time of the winter solstice, when the days are shortest and the night is darkest, and the world becomes cold and the crops wither away. It creates an interesting symbolism; the savior of mankind comes to Earth at the time when people need him the most. Whether it's on the right day or not, Christians are happy to celebrate the birth of the son of God. Here's a video calculating the true birthdate of Jesus:

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The True Date of Christ's Birth

Where Did The Christmas Tree Come From?

The Christmas tree is also your cat's favorite holiday tradition.

The Christmas tree is also your cat's favorite holiday tradition.

The Christmas tree is the centerpiece of our holiday displays, with the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center drawing the attention of millions. Every year, 95 million Americans, and millions more in other countries of the world, will buy a Christmas tree. When you think about it, the Christmas tree is a bit of an unusual custom. We buy houseplants, but we don't typically buy an 8-foot-tall tree, put highly breakable decorations all over it, and leave it where the cat can start a war with it. So, when did we start to literally spruce our homes up for Christmas?

Greenery has been part of the Christmas holiday for ages. The very first Christmas trees may come from the story of St. Boniface in the 8th century. He cut down an oak tree to stop a pagan human sacrifice, and a fir tree grew in its place. Evergreens symbolize hope; since they stay green all year round, their hope for warmer and brighter days never dies. Garlands of holly and ivy decorated winter maypoles, and people would kiss under the mistletoe. Mistletoe, however, comes from Norse mythology, not Christianity. Loki, the god of mischief, killed Baldr, the god of light, with an arrow made of mistletoe. Baldr's mother Frigg, the goddess of marriage and fertility, wept for her son, but instead of tears, she cried white berries that brought her son back to life. Frigg blessed the mistletoe so that everyone who passed beneath it would kiss the one they loved.

Decorated Christmas trees come into play in 1419, when a guild in what is now the town of Freiburg in Germany decorated a Christmas tree for their Paradise Play celebrating Adam and Eve. They used the tree as a symbol of the tree of knowledge, and covered it with round red apples (much like our Christmas ornaments today), tinsel, and gingerbread. The tradition of these Paradise Plays caught on across Germany, but eventually fizzled out. However, Christmas trees were here to stay. They became so popular that laws were passed in Alsace to limit Christmas trees to one per household, so people wouldn't cut down entire forests over Christmas glee.

German immigrants brought the custom of the Christmas tree with them to other countries, but they really caught on worldwide thanks to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German husband. When he married Queen Victoria, he went all-out on establishing the tradition of Windsor Palace's annual Christmas tree, and filled a whole room with them, one for each family member. He lit each tree with candles every night and gathered the family around them. This was immortalized in an engraving (pictured below) that was published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, and suddenly everyone wanted one. Nowadays, Christmas trees are sent from one city or country to another as a gesture of solidarity and holiday cheer. They are a sign that even in the darkest of times, we as people are not alone.

Prince Albert and his family celebrating Christmas.

Prince Albert and his family celebrating Christmas.

Where Did Candy Canes Come From?

Candy canes are a Christmas staple for both decorating and snacking.

Candy canes are a Christmas staple for both decorating and snacking.

Candy cane history is a bit of a mystery. The first recorded use of "stick candy" comes up in the 1837 exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, but there is no mention of what it looked like or what flavor it was. The appearance and flavor of the candy cane, white peppermint with red stripes, may have first appeared in a recipe for candy sticks in The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker, a publication from 1844.

However, the bent, J-shaped candy canes that we know and love finally make an appearance in the year 1847, in the house of August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant to Wooster, Ohio. He curved his candy sticks at the end to hang on his Christmas tree as decoration, and his innovation spread across town, and across the world in years to come. Imgard is also known for popularizing the Christmas tree in America.

The earliest candy canes were manufactured by hand. Instead of going to a store and buying a box of them to hang on your tree, it was a labor of love to make a batch of candy canes, carefully smoothing and rolling the molten sugar into shape. You would have to hunt through shops to find your flavoring, since peppermint was not a widespread flavor at the time. It will take some careful manipulation to bend the candy cane, and some careful application would be required to keep the stripes straight.

In the year 1919, a candy maker named Bob McCormack was struggling to keep up production during the Christmas season; his small company was overrun with requests for candy canes, but they took lots of time to make right. His brother-in-law, a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller, invented the Keller machine to help him out, which could bend candy canes automatically. After the invention of this machine, candy canes became available everywhere and McCormack's company, as well as many others, flourished.

Some Christians have adopted the candy cane as a religious symbol, saying that the shape of it resembles a shepherd's crook. The pure white color represents a pure soul untainted with sin, and the red stripes represent the blood of Jesus, who died to purify humanity. Regardless of whether you're Christian or secular, there's a color and flavor of candy cane to please almost everyone out there. They're a staple of our holiday decorating, and beloved by people of all ages.

How Modern Candy Canes Are Made

Christmas Traditions Make The Season Bright

I hope you've learned a lot about Christmas from reading this article. In my opinion, the best thing about Christmas customs is that they are shared. You can make happy memories with your family and friends, and strangers can quickly become friends when they talk about Christmas. Christmas is a great time to celebrate the people we love and show them how much they mean to us. I hope all of your Christmases are merry, and all your holidays are jolly!


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Lissa Clason

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