Think Christmas, and the strongest images to float before the eye are the decorated and lighted Christmas tree, stockings hung up near the fireplace for Santa to fill them on Christmas Eve, mistletoe, holly…Think carols and up pops the image of Rudolf, the red-nosed reindeer. All these quaint traditions, and many others, have now become such an indelible part of everything ‘Christmasy’, that it is impossible to envisage the season of Yuletide without them.
Here are the top 6 Christmas traditions that continue to dominate celebrations all around the world:
1. Christmas Tree. There is perhaps no greater or more easily recognised symbol of Christmas than the graceful, evergreen Christmas tree. It dominates family homes and is the most enduring Christmas icon of all. The tradition of setting up a Christmas tree goes back a long way – in fact, the pre-Christian era. Tribes used to sacrifice trees like oak and ash to please their gods. The ancient Romans used to keep a decorated tree in their homes in honour of their Saturnalia festival. Further down the ages, during the 15-16 centuries, the Germans used to decorate fir trees within their homes with candies, apples and coloured paper. It was the Protestant reformer Martin Luther King who first started the trend of lighting candles on fir trees – inspired by the sight of stars shining through the leaves of a fir tree outside. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced the concept of having a Christmas tree into England from his native Germany. It were the Pennsylvania Germans who brought the Christmas tree to America in the late 19th century. It caught the collective imagination of the world, and continues to be an inseparable part of Christmas celebrations.
2. Santa Claus. For a child, Christmas means just one thing. Stockings to hang up at night on Christmas Eve and wait in delicious anticipation of Santa Claus coming from the North Pole in his reindeer-drawn sleigh and depositing toys and other goodies in his or her stocking. The mythical figure of Christmas has his roots in the persona of a 4th century AD Bishop Nicholas who was known to be generous and particularly fond of children. Years later, he came to be known as Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. An Anglo-Saxon version called him Father Christmas and he was supposed to punish the naughty children and reward the well-behaved ones. Finally, the Dutch, British and German settlers in North America brought with them their own version of this rotund, jolly figure. However, it was the Dutch figure of ‘Sinterklaas’ that caught the imagination of all. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace during Christmas Eve, and Sinterklaas would place goodies in the shoes of all the ‘good’ children. It was his name that was anglicised to the now well-known Santa Claus.
3. Mistletoe and Holly. ‘Kissing under the mistletoe’ is another time-honoured Christmas tradition. Any guesses on just how mistletoe got singled out? Well, this evergreen plant was used by Druid priests in their winter celebrations some 200 years before the birth of Christ. The plant was highly revered for its ability to remain green even during the harsh winter months.
While the ancient Celtics attributed magical healing powers to the mistletoe, the plant was regarded as a symbol of peace by the ancient Romans. Enemies would turn friends if they met under the mistletoe.
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably originated from the Scandanavians. They associated the plant with their goddess of love, Frigga. Good luck and happiness followed those who kissed under the mistletoe.
4. Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. It is amazing how some of the iconic aspects of Christmas actually owe their existence to an entirely unrelated cause. Rudolf, the famous ‘red-nosed reindeer’ is one such character. In 1939, Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store, was asked to write a Christmas-themed story to pull in sales. May wrote about Rudolph, a young reindeer, who was an outcaste among his own due to his rather prominent, ‘glowing red nose’. However, a foggy Christmas Eve night catapulted him into instant popularity when Santa himself chose him to lead his sleigh that night. That year, Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story. A further three and a half million flew off the shelves when it was reissued in 1946. Years later, May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, wrote the lyrics and melody for the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949. And one of the most popular and beloved of all Christmas songs was born.
5. Christmas Stockings. Children have been routinely hanging stockings and socks near the chimney (or near the fireplace) every Christmas Eve in the hope that Santa Claus would fill it with delectable goodies. This tradition also has its roots in an ancient legend. A nobleman, stricken by the untimely death of his wife, squandered away all his fortune, leaving his three unmarried daughters facing a future of poverty and spinsterhood. One evening, the daughters washed and hung their stockings near the chimney to dry in the night. Saint Nicholas, moved by the plight of three hapless girls, came during the night and put a pouch of gold in each of their stockings. The next morning, a happy surprise awaited the beleaguered family. The delighted nobleman could now marry off all his daughters. And that’s how the practice of children hanging their stockings at night came into being. Of course, modern homes do not have chimneys these days and they are usually hung near the bed.
6. Christmas Cards. The Christmas card was created in England more than 160 years ago – and that, too, born out of a desperate necessity! Sir Henry Cole, the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was inundated with work commitments in the Christmas season of 1843. Hard-pressed for time to write individual greetings to all his friends, he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to make a painting. The card featured three panels. While the first and third showed feeding and clothing the poor and needy, the central panel depicted a family enjoying Christmas festivities together. The card was inscribed with the words ‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year To You’. Thus was born the world’s first Christmas card!
What’s Christmas without tradition? It brings long-lost friends and family together, making everyone’s lives that much richer and fuller.