Why are some traditions repeated year after year at Christmas? Here are some reasons behind the traditions that have been held dear for centuries:
Origin: Mention of celebrating the birth of Christ did not appear in church literature until 200 C.E. and there are two theories as to why Dec. 25 was chosen, according to “Biblical Archaeology Review.” The most noted reason is that the date was borrowed as a substitute for pagan celebrations taking place during that time of the year (this was suggested in the 12th century). The second is that Dec. 25 is nine months after March 25, which is the Feast of the Annunciation, or the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. The second reasoning seems to have existed in the 200s.
The Twelve Days of Christmas: the period between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 (Epiphany).
Nativity set: St. Francis of Assisi created the first living Nativity in 1223 because he wanted to enact the birth of Christ “in all of its impoverished glory” (www.livingcatholicism.com). Before this, mangers bedecked in jewels and gold were set out in churches to represent the king who laid there. Living Nativity enactments continue to this day and there are many different types of sets available for purchase. Many people display the entire set throughout the season, but others try to be more realistic by adding certain characters on certain dates (for example, they place Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas day and add the wise men around Epiphany).
Santa Claus: The legend of Santa Claus is derived from the beneficent character of Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna, who lived in the 4th century A.D, in what is now modern Turkey. Bishop Nicholas used to give gifts to poor children to encourage them. Bishop Nicholas was later named a saint and became the patron saint of children and seafarers (www.historyofchristmas.net)
Wreath: Hanging a wreath at Christmas is also a century’s old tradition. “Most wreathes are circular, and the circle has long been symbolic of the unbroken span of eternity, as well as the circular nature of life itself. Used in mid December at the time of the Winter Solstice, the circle symbolizes the certainty that the endless cycle of seasons will once again bring the return of light,” Elisabeth Ginsburg wrote on www.naturehills.com. Both the Romans and the Germans used this tradition in their homes and early Christians adopted it as a symbol of life and eternity.
Trees: Since ancient times, people have been using greenery to brighten their homes during winter to remind them that spring was coming and to stave off evil spirits and sickness. In 19th century Germany, devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes as a symbol of hope and faith. It is also said that Protestant Reformer Martin Luther first used candles on his Christmas tree after taking inspiration on a starlit evening. Christmas trees became popular in America after German-born Prince Albert, Queen Victoria of England and their family posed before a Christmas tree for a newspaper sketch. Because Queen Victoria was so popular, fashion conscious East Coast observers brought the concept to America (www.history.com).
Holly: According to allthingschristmas.com, legend has it that holly plants sprang up from the earth wherever Christ stepped. “The pointed leaves were said to represent the crown of thorns Christ wore while on the cross and the red berries symbolized the blood he shed,” the Web site said.
Stockings: “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care …” Clement Clarke Moore wrote in his famous poem “The Night Before Christmas.” But why? This story comes from ancient times when the generous St. Nicholas heard the plight of three young women whose mother had died and their father could not afford a dowry so that they could get married. The young women, who did all of their own chores, used to hang their stockings by the fire to dry. One night, while the family was sleeping, Saint Nicholas placed a bag of gold into each one, thus giving the father enough money to afford a marriage for each daughter. Since then, children have been hanging Christmas stockings “in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there” (www.allthingschristmas.com).
Mistletoe: Mistletoe has always been revered because it had no roots and stayed green all winter. Ancient cultures believed that mistletoe had “magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility and to ward off evil spirits” (www.allthingschristmas.com). The Romans saw the plant as a symbol of peace and Scandanavians associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love. “Those who kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year” (www.allthingschristmas.com).
Candy Canes: This sweet treat has been around since the 17th century, despite what anyone tells you about a candy maker from Indiana who wanted to create a candy that symbolized his faith. It’s a nice story, but that’s all it is. Folks from Europe began decorating their Christmas trees with cookies and candy confections, including straight white sugary sticks called candy canes. The red stripes were not added until the 20th century. The one religious connection may be found in a legend that says that candy canes were shaped into crooks to represent the shepherds. These crooks were passed out to children during the living nativity scene at the request of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany so that they would be quiet (www.allthingschristmas.com and www.snopes.com).
“Xmas”: Should Christians be alarmed when the term “Xmas” is used? Absolutely not. The letter X represents the Greek letter “chi,” which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. The symbol is similar to the letter “X” in the modern Roman alphabet. “The usage is nearly as old as Christianity itself,” according to Snopes.com.