Savoring the Traditions of Christmas

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OK, it is time to delve into all the craziness of the Christmas season. Perhaps no other holiday is as steeped in tradition as Christmas. There are the more popular ones that almost everyone partakes in like trimming the tree, decking the halls, making cookies, buying gifts and caroling. The list can sometimes be endless.

Tradition is good. It gives us continuity and stability in a world that sometimes changes way too fast. It links us with our past and, hopefully, will be passed on to future generations to form family links through the years. This is good.

When it is not so good is when we try to keep every tradition alive and just go through the motions because we think we have to. A tradition should be kept alive for the sheer joy in doing it. With that said, I was curious about the history behind some of our more popular Christmas traditions. Here is what I found:

CHRISTMAS TREES: Perhaps the most-practiced tradition, this dates back to the 16th century. The first person to bring a fir tree into a house as we know it today may have been Martin Luther, a German preacher. The story goes that the night before Christmas he was walking through the forest and looked up to see stars shining through tree branches. He thought it was so beautiful that he went home and told his kids that it reminded him of Jesus who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. We have definitely strayed from those first pure trees that were real and decorated with edibles like apples and nuts. Now we buy artificial trees, cover them with dazzling ornaments and try to make the tree look like a real tree and smell like a real tree. Why don’t we just buy a real tree?

CANDY CANES: These treats started out as just sticks of white candy. A choirmaster in 1670 was concerned that children would not sit quietly all through the long Christmas nativity service so he gave them something to eat. Later, to remind people of Christmas, they were fashioned into a “J” shape like shepherds’ hooks. In the early 1900’s stripes were added as was peppermint for flavor.

HANGING STOCKINGS: Stocking stuffing can be traced back to charitable donations in the 4th century. Saint Nicholas, who is the basis for Santa Claus, believed that childhood should be enjoyed. However, in those days children as young as 10 years old often had to work to help support their families. He gave what he could in food, clothes and other small items and, as he looked for a good place to leave the gifts where they would be found, he saw a young girl’s stockings hung by the fireplace and thought “Why not?” Another theory goes that he dropped bags of gold into the stockings of three daughters of a poor man to help deliver them out of slavery.

WREATHS: These started out as harvest wreaths which were hung to bring about bountiful harvests. Evergreen was added as it is a symbol of strength and fortitude as it will live through the harshest winters. Berries and other natural ornamentation was added and wreaths became known as symbols of power and strength.

MISTLETOE: Ahh, the fun plant, every time you step under it, you supposedly get a kiss. No one really knows where this tradition started, only that you may want to check and see who is around you before you step under it! Actually, it is not a romantic plant at all, but rather a parasitic plant that perches on a tree branch and absorbs nutrients from the trunk. Even so, it is customarily hung at Christmas, many times left up all year and replaced the following year because it has also been thought to protect homes from fire and lightning as well as having healing power. Its cousins, holly and ivy, are also associated with Christmas. Ivy represents constancy and holly stands for good luck and life.

CAROLING: Probably not so much a custom anymore since the electronic age hit, but carolers of olden days were a welcome sign of the holidays. Who wouldn’t welcome cheery faces approaching your door and singing the songs of the season. Carols actually grew out of the first Christmas hymns. They were sung at community events and festivals and later associated primarily with Christmas and sung in churches. The tradition of going door-to-door probably came from the root word for carol, carula, which means circular dance.

POINSETTIA: I love the meaning behind the tradition of poinsettias at Christmas. It is said that a poor Mexican girl had nothing to give baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve service. Her cousin tried to cheer her by telling her that even the smallest gift would make baby Jesus happy. So, she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made a bouquet. When she laid them in front of Him, the weeds burst into bright red flowers and everyone thought it a miracle. To this day, the shape of the poinsettia’s flowers, which are actually its leaves, is a symbol of the star of Bethlehem.

COLORS OF CHRISTMAS: Ever wonder why the colors of red, green and gold are the chosen colors of Christmas? Green has always been a reminder that spring would come and winter would not last forever. Of course, Christmas trees are traditionally green; thus green is a favorite color of Christmas. The red of holly berries represents the blood of Jesus and is also the color of bishops’ robes which were worn by Saint Nicholas and would become the color of Santa’s suit. Gold is the color of sun and light, coupled with red it makes the color of fire which represents warmth, for both the body and soul. Of course, gold was also one of the gifts of the Magi.

Traditions do enrich our lives, especially at this magical time of year. They say that with age comes wisdom and, if nothing else, I have learned that following traditions are sweeter if you pick and choose only the ones that are dear to your heart. You don’t have to do them all just because everyone else does. With that said, I think I’m heading for one of my favorites (whether it is a tradition or not) the Christmas cookie!