Probably no holiday season other than this one sustains so many different traditions without question. Sometimes we follow these traditions without knowing why or when they started, just because it has always been that way. This year, I wanted to know the history behind some of the lesser-known traditions that have become ingrained in our holiday celebrations.
How many people decorate without including holly, ivy, or mistletoe? The prickly leaves of the holly come from Christianity and represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified, and the berries are the drops of blood that Jesus shed because of it. Ivy is a vine that has to cling to something to support itself as it grows; it symbolizes the need to cling to God for support in life.
Unlike here in the States, in Germany it is traditional that ivy only be used outside, and a piece tied to the outside of a church is supposed to protect it from lightning. The old theory was that holly was a male plant and ivy a female. An English tradition goes that whichever was brought into the house first over winter dictated whether the man or the woman ruled that year. However, it was considered unlucky to bring either in before Christmas.
Mistletoe, long associated with Christmas, usually grows on willow, apple, or oak trees. The tradition of hanging it in the house goes back to the Druids, who believed it supposedly possessed mystical powers that would bring good luck to the household.
The Norse mythology version is the one that is more closely tied to mistletoe’s modern tradition: It was a sign of love and friendship, hence the custom of kissing under it was born. Today, any time two people stand under the mistletoe, the custom is that they are supposed to kiss. In ancient times, a berry had to be picked before a couple could kiss and, when all the berries had gone, kissing had to cease.
Ironically, the name mistletoe is derived from the Anglo Saxon word “mistel,” meaning dung, and the word “tan,” meaning twig. Thus, translated, mistletoe means “poo on a stick.” How romantic!
Whether in Christmas carols or on gaily lighted town streets, bells are always associated with Christmas. In older days, important news was announced by ringing church bells. In Catholic and Anglican churches, the church day starts at sunset, thus any service after that is the first service of the day. Therefore, a Christmas Eve service is the first service of Christmas. Easter and Christmas are the only two times during the year that Midnight Mass is allowed, reflecting the theory that Jesus was born at midnight.
On a similar note, I have fond memories of visiting Mercersburg, Pennsylvania at Christmas time. The pipe organ of the Mercersburg Academy would chime at midnight on Christmas Eve. What a glorious sound!
Sending Christmas cards is a way of keeping connected to loved ones afar and keeping in contact with those we seldom see. Although Christmas cards were introduced to the United States in the 1840s, they were very expensive. It wasn’t until 1875 that Louis Prang — a printer from Germany who had worked in the United Kingdom where Christmas cards were popular — began mass producing them at affordable prices in this country. In 1915, John C. Hall started a small company called Hallmark, and the rest is history.
The story of the Christmas pickle is one of the strangest modern Christmas customs. In the 1880s, Woolworth stores started selling glass ornaments imported from Germany. Some were in the shape of various fruits and vegetables, pickles being among the selections. Ironically, not many people in Germany have ever heard of this tradition, however, the “German” tradition prevailed in America. Some families still have a tradition of hanging a pickle in the tree. The first child to find it gets an extra present.
Whose tree doesn’t have peppermint candy canes hanging from the branches? This tradition we also owe to our German cousins. The candy cane originated in Germany around 250 years ago, although we wouldn’t have recognized them; they were straight, white, sugar sticks.
The modern version was “born” in 1670, when a choirmaster was worried that the children would not sit quietly through the long Christmas nativity service. He wanted to remind the children of Christmas and to keep them quiet, so he fashioned the sweet sugar stick in the form of a shepherd’s hook to remind them of the shepherds that visited baby Jesus that first Christmas. Sometime around 1900, red stripes were added and they were flavored with peppermint or spearmint. For Christians, the white of the candy cane represents the purity of Jesus, while the red stripe signifies the blood He shed when he died on the cross. Even the peppermint flavor can represent the hyssop plant that was used for purification in the Bible.
Many of our holiday traditions revolve around food and drink. One of the oldest is the tradition of "wassailing," which is the practice of going house to house singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for a gift. The wassail is a drink usually made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar. My cousin, Vicky, makes her version every Christmas Eve; it has become its own tradition in our family. Wassailing in its original form has pretty much gone by the wayside, with caroling taking its place.
Christmas or Plum pudding was originally the traditional end to the British Christmas dinner. It originated in the 14th century and was a porridge called frumenty. It was made of beef and mutton with raisins, prunes, currants, wine, and spices. In 1595, frumenty slowly changed to plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, and beer and spirits to add even more flavor.
The decorative sprig of holly on the top of the pudding is a reminder of Jesus’s crown of thorns. Putting a silver coin in the pudding is an age-old custom to bring good luck to the person who finds it.
Mince pies, like Christmas pudding, were originally filled with meat such as lamb rather than a dried fruit mix like today. They were also fashioned in an oval shape to represent the manger where Jesus slept as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes. Today’s version are made in the pie round shape and eaten hot or cold.
A custom from the Middle Ages goes that if you eat a mince pie on every day from Christmas to the twelfth night (evening of January 5), then you will have happiness for the next 12 months. On Christmas Eve, children in the United Kingdom often leave out mince pies with brandy for Father Christmas and a carrot for the reindeer.
Christmas traditions add to the merriment of the season and help us to preserve our heritage. Sometimes having and doing the familiar is what makes the season special and keeps us connected to past generations.