Origins of Nine Christmas Traditions
Week before last, we talked about Santa Claus. (Here’s the Link to this post). Last week I showcased candy canes. Here’s a link to that post (put in link to this post). Because this is Christmas Eve, I am finishing this short series by sharing some more Christmas traditions.
December 25th for Jesus Birthday
The idea that the choice of December 25 for Christ’s date of birth does not come from Pagan holiday traditions as many people believe. A major pagan holiday was celebrated around the winter solstice called Saturnalia. However, Saturnalia wasn’t on December 25th. It ran from December 17-23. Another festival happened on New Year’s Day which started back in 153 B.C.
Celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25th started in A.D. 204 with the writings of Hippolytus of Rome. He figured the date by guessing that Jesus death March 25th which had been the accepted date of Jesus’ death since 200 A.D. In addition, according to Jewish Talmudic tradition, all righteous men died on the same day they were conceived, and Jesus’ conception must have occurred around March 25th. Based on this assumption, by counting the days, nine months after conception would be December 25.
The Three Wisemen Visiting the Stable
The wisemen were mystical priests and astrologists. These men saw something in the starts that they needed to check out. It is highly unlikely that these men arrived at the manger, but rather they came some time later. Based on the Biblical accounts, these men came to the ‘house where the child was.” This could have happened any time after Jesus was born. Herod asked the men when they saw the star in the sky and then asked them to show him where the child was so that he too could worship the child. When the wisemen didn’t return to Herod, Herod sent men to kill every boy child in Bethlehem under the age of two.
In addition, it was unlikely only three of these men showed up. They likely came by caravan. The reason we say three wisemen is because of the three gifts that were given—gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Shepherds and Angels
According to the Bible, angels told shepherds in the field that the Messiah had been born.
Legend says that one of the earliest connections of Holly with Christmas occurred back when early Roman Christians adopted holly as a sacred plant. They believed that the wood for the cross was made of holly wood and the crown of thorns was holly leaves with white berries stained red by Christ’s blood.
The Christmas Tree
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
Christmas Tree Lights
The tradition of lighting the darkness goes back to the Yule, a midwinter festival celebrated by Norsemen. The festival boasted nights of feasting, drinking Yule, the Norse god Odin’s sacrificial beer and watching the fire leap around the Yule log burning in the home hearth.
The lighting of the Yule log spread throughout Europe. Many believed the log’s flame summoned the sun’s return and drove away evil spirits. Over time Christianity adopted this tradition and the light from the Yule log came to represent Jesus as Light in the darkness.
Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, born around 280 AD in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was known for helping the poor. By 1600, he was a popular saint, especially in Holland, where he was known as Sinter Klaas. By 1800, Dutch emigrants had introduced him to the United States, later helped by the writer Washington Irving passing on their stories about him, and by Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.
Reindeer are deer species found in the Arctic regions and are well-adapted to living in cold and under rugged conditions, thus a perfect animal symbol to use during the winter season — the season most associated with Christmas. But other than that, reindeer came to be popular in contemporary Christmas lore because of the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which was written by Clement Moore, and the song “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Moore’s poem, also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” talks of Santa Claus and his little sleigh, driven by eight flying reindeer. Moore’s poem was published annually during the Christmas season.
The tradition of hanging it in the house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It is supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the household and wards off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology and that’s where the custom of kissing under mistletoe originated.
The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words ‘Mistel’ (which means dung) and ‘tan’ (which means) twig or stick! So you could translate Mistletoe as ‘bird dung on a stick’! This name came from the fact that mistletoe spread on trees from bird feces to bird feces.
During medieval times, people believed that mistletoe had magical powers. This plant could ward off evil spirits and the devil. It was used in ceremonies and burnt once Christmas was over.
When the first Christians came to Western Europe, some tried to ban mistletoe as a decoration in churches. York Minster Church in the UK used to hold a special Mistletoe Service in the winter, where wrong doers in the city of York could be pardoned.
Mistletoe was also hung on the old English decoration the Kissing Bough.
The custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from England. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing!
Gifts for Christmas
One of the main reasons we have the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas, is to remind us of the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men: Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh.
Frankincense was a perfume used in Jewish worship and, as a gift, it showed that people would worship Jesus.
Gold was associated with Kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the King of Kings.
Myrrh was a perfume that was put on dead bodies to make them smell nice and, as a gift, it showed that Jesus would suffer and die.
Christmas itself is really about a big present that God gave the world about 2000 years ago -Our Lord Jesus!