The most wonderful time of the year approaches, and with it the many wonderful traditions we all know and love. Gift-giving, lights, and nativity scenes adorn the Christmas season. But like all traditions, they had a start somewhere—where do our Christmas traditions begin?
- The Christmas tree. Before the days when the church adopted the practice of decorating evergreen trees as a symbol of Christmas, pagans actually put up their own trees as a sign of the spring to come, during the festival of the winter solstice. The church did not have Christmas trees until the 1400s at least—two cities in Latvia, Riga and Tallin, dispute which of them first used a Christmas tree. The first known case of a tree being brought into the home was in the 1500s, though, by none other than Martin Luther. Luther was walking through the forest, saw the beauty of the stars shining through the trees, and decided to recreate it with his own tree and a number of candles. From this stems our earliest tradition of the Christmas tree—a symbol of our eternal life with God.
- Stockings. Santa—or Saint Nicholas—stems from an early legend from the Church itself. The details of the tale are disputed, but the most popular incarnation says that Nicholas threw bags of gold down the chimney of a poor family, where they landed in the stockings hung by the fire. In any event, other children began to mimic the practice and hung their stockings up as well. Small gifts like fruit, candy, and toys are typical in today’s stockings rather than money, of course.
- Advent wreaths. Like many Christmas traditions, the advent wreath originated as a pagan tradition—non-Christians made wreaths as symbols when they prayed for the clock to turn and dispel the winter. But the Christians had adopted it by the Middle Ages, and they used it differently, as a symbol that Jesus is the true Light of the World whose birth dispelled winter. The evergreen branches of the wreath symbolize eternal life, and each of its four outer candles symbolize a different week of Advent. There are three purple candles (one for hope, one for love, and one for peace), one rose (my family uses pink) candle for joy, and in some cases, a white candle in the center of the wreath, in representation of Christ.
- Carols/caroling. The word “carol” means “dance or song of joy,” and that is what carols have always been meant to be—declarations of, as one puts it, “comfort and joy.” The earliest carols of Christmas were written in Latin and thus inaccessible to the common people, who did not speak this language. Francis of Assisi changed that in Italy in the 1200s when he began to write carols and hymns in the everyday tongue of the people. The tradition of Christmas songs came in fits and bursts between Francis and the Victorian era, at which point they really took flight. Nowadays, it is impossible to imagine Christmas without its distinctive music.
Christmas traditions take center stage this time of year. Their origins are fascinating, and they are truly worth the time spent in studying them. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus—let’s take time this December to rejoice that he was born!