The Complete Guide To Christmas Traditions
Sunday, December 24, 2000
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The Complete Guide To Christmas Traditions
Sunday, December 24, 2000
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HOW CHRISTMAS WORKS - THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS!
by Marshall Brain
Let's say that on December 20 you were to meet a friendly space alien.
That is, let's say that his space ship discreetly drops him off in your
back yard while you are looking out your window. You walk outside to
meet the visitor, and you find out he's a pretty nice guy. His name
is Gorg, he is wearing a costume that makes him look passably human,
he speaks reasonable English, and he explains that his goal is to spend
a week on the planet to learn about America and its people. He asks
if you would consider being his guide for the week, and you decide to
take on the job.
So you take Gorg around and start showing him your town. Since it is
December 20, one thing is for sure - Gorg is going to ask about Christmas.
And he is going to ask a LOT of questions, because Christmas is a pretty
complicated tradition. Think about all the different questions Gorg
If Gorg can assimilate all of that and make sense of it in a week,
then obviously he is a member of an highly advanced species! You may
find that you yourself don't know the answers to half of these questions.
Where DID Rudolf come from? And why DO we deck the halls with boughs
of holly? In this edition of How Stuff Works we will answer all of these
questions so that you can understand how Christmas works and where all
of these kooky Christmas traditions come from!
WHAT IS CHRISTMAS?
The word Christmas comes from the words Cristes maesse, or "Christ's
Mass." Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus for members
of the Christian religion. Most historians peg the first celebration
of Christmas to Rome in 336 A.D.
Christmas is both a holiday and a holy day. In America it is the biggest
event of the year (especially for kids), and for members of the Christian
religions it is an important day on the religious calendar. The federal
government, all state governments, all schools/colleges/universities
and the vast majority of businesses in America give employees one or
two days off at Christmas, making it an important holiday (other federal
holidays are: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington's Birthday,
Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day,
Thanksgiving). In the Roman Catholic calendar, Christmas is one of six
holy feast days celebrated in America, the others being: Circumcision
(New Year's Day), Ascension, Assumption (Mary's Assumption into heaven,
August 15), All Saints (November 1), and the Immaculate Conception (December
WHY IS CHRISTMAS SUCH A BIG DEAL?
There are two reasons why Christmas is such a big deal:
- According to the 1994 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year, there
are 1.8 billion Christians in a total world population of 5.5 billion,
making it the largest religion worldwide. In America, 241 million out
of a total population of 281 million people are Christians (85 percent).
Because Christians follow Jesus, the birth of Jesus is important to
- In America, the weeks leading up to Christmas are the biggest shopping
weeks of the year. Many retailers make up to 70 percent of their annual
revenue in the month preceding Christmas. Therefore, retailers hype
the event beyond belief.
According to Daniel Boorstin in his book The Americans, Christmas was
largely a non-event in America until the 1860s. 1867 was the first year
that Macy's department store in New York City remained open until midnight
on Christmas Eve. 1874 was the year of the first window displays with
a Christmas theme at Macy's. It has snowballed from there.
WHY DOES EVERYONE GIVE EACH OTHER PRESENTS ON CHRISTMAS DAY?
The tradition of gifts seems to have started with the gifts that the
wise men (the Magi) brought to Jesus. As recounted in the Bible's book
of Matthew, "On coming to the house they saw the child with his
mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened
their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense
and of myrrh."
As mentioned in the previous question, however, no one was really in
the habit of exchanging elaborate gifts until late in the 1800s. The
Santa Claus story (described below) combined with an amazing retailing
phenomenon that has grown since the turn of the century has made gift
giving a central focus of the Christmas tradition.
IS DECEMBER 25TH REALLY THE DAY JESUS WAS BORN?
No one really knows. What is known is that Christian leaders in 336
A.D. set the date to December 25 in an attempt to eclipse a popular
pagan holiday in Rome (Saturnalia) celebrating the winter solstice.
Originally, the celebration of Christmas involved a simple mass, but
over time Christmas has replaced a number of other holidays in many
other countries, and a large number of traditions have been absorbed
into the celebration in the process (as we will see in sections below).
WHY IS THERE A SMALL EVERGREEN TREE IN YOUR LIVING ROOM?
This is a German tradition, started as early as 700 A.D. In the 1800s
the tradition of a Christmas tree was widespread in Germany, then moved
to England and then America through Pennsylvanian German immigrants.
WHY HAVE YOU DECORATED THIS EVERGREEN WITH ORNAMENTS, LIGHTS, FAKE
SNOW AND MYLAR PLASTIC TINSEL?
In Victorian times, people had already started decorating trees with
candies and cakes hung with ribbon. In 1880 Woolworths first sold manufactured
Christmas tree ornaments, and they caught on very quickly. Martin Luther,
in the 16th century, is credited as being the first person to put candles
on a tree, and the first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared
in 1882. Calvin Coolidge in 1923 ceremoniously lit the first outdoor
tree at the White House, starting that long tradition. Fake snow and
tinsel... Who knows? It's probably related to the song "White Christmas".
WHY DO YOU HAVE HOLLY DRAPED OVER THE MANTEL AND STAIRCASE?
Mistletoe has apparently been used as a decoration in houses for thousands
of years and is also associated with many pagan rituals. According to
the book Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary Things by Charles Panati,
"the church forbade the use of mistletoe in any form, mindful of
its idolatrous associations. As a substitute, it suggested holly. The
sharply pointed leaves were to symbolize the thorns in Christ's crown
and the red berries drops of his blood. Holly became a nativity tradition.
The Christian ban on mistletoe was in effect throughout the Middle Ages.
Surprisingly, as late as the 20th century, there were churches in England
that forbade the wearing of mistletoe sprigs and corsages during services."
WHY IS MISTLETOE HANGING OVER THE FRONT DOOR?
For Scandinavians, the goddess of love (Frigga) is strongly associated
with mistletoe. This link to romance may be where our tradition of kissing
under mistletoe comes from.
AND WHAT ABOUT THIS NATIVITY SCENE IN THE CORNER?
The star, the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, the angels,
the heavenly host and the wise men all come from the books Matthew and
Luke in the Bible.
WHY IS THERE A BIG LOG IN THE FIREPLACE?
According to the book "The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins"
by William and Mary Morris, "Yuletide for Christmastime is a term
derived from the yule log, which in olden days was a huge log used as
the foundation of the holiday fires. Bringing the yule log in was, as
recently as the 19th century, as much a part of the pre-Christmas festivities
as putting up an evergreen tree today. Yule can be traced back to the
Middle English Yollen (cry aloud) and is thought to date from early
Anglo-Saxon revels in celebration of the discovery (after the winter
solstice) that nights were becoming shorter."
According to this page, "Up until the 19th century, the custom
of burning the Yule log flourished in England, France, Germany and among
the South Slavs. Out of oak, families carved a heavy, wood block. They
placed it into the floor of their hearth. It glowed throughout the year
under the flames of household fires. Gradually it became ash. "
WHY ARE THERE POINSETTIAS ON THE HEARTH?
Poinsettias were attached to Christmas starting in 1828. Joel Roberts
Poinsett, then the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, imported the plant
from Mexico. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "In warm
climates the poinsettia grows outdoors as a winter-flowering leggy shrub
about 3 metres (10 feet) high; as a potted plant in northern areas it
rarely grows beyond 1 metre. What appear to be petals are actually coloured
leaflike bracts that surround a central cluster of tiny yellow flowers.
A milky latex in the stems and leaves can be irritating to persons or
animals sensitive to it, but the claim that poinsettias are deadly poisonous
is greatly exaggerated." ("Poinsettia", Britannica CD.
Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.)
AND WHAT ABOUT THESE FRUITCAKES?
According to "The Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer and Marion
Becker, "Many people feel that these cakes improve greatly with
age. When they are well saturated with alcoholic liquors, which raise
the spirits and keep down mold, and are buried in powdered sugar in
tightly closed tins, they have been enjoyed as long as 25 years after
No word yet on how they got attached to Christmas...
WHY ARE THERE OVERSIZED SOCKS HANGING ON YOUR MANTEL?
According to a very old tradition, the original Saint Nicholas (see
below) left his very first gifts of gold coins in the stockings of three
poor girls who needed the money for their wedding dowries. The girls
had hung their stockings by the fire to dry. See this page (http://www.holidays.net/christmas/stocking.htm)
for a version of this story. Up until lately, it was traditional to
receive small items like fruit, nuts and candy in your stocking, but
these have been replaced in the last half-century by more expensive
gifts in many homes.
According to this page (http://www.notti.italiane.com/natale/welcomeb.html)
the tradition of a lump of coal in the stockings of naughty children
comes from Italy.
WHY ARE CHRISTMAS CARDS SCATTERED ALL OVER THE COFFEE TABLE?
Christmas cards started in London in 1843 and in America in 1846. Today
about two billion Christmas cards are exchanged every year in the United
WHY DO I KEEP HEARING THE SAME SONGS OVER AND OVER AGAIN?
There is a set of songs that are played continuously during the Christmas
Season. Here's a pretty complete list:
- Away In A Manger
- Carol of the Bells
- Deck The Halls
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
- Jingle Bells
- Joy To The World
- Hark, The Herald Angels Sing
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
- I'll Be Home For Christmas
- It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
- Little Drummer Boy
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- O Holy Night
- O, Little Town of Bethlehem
- O Tannenbaum
- Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer
- Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
- Silent Night
- Silver Bells
- The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
- The First Noel
- The Twelve Days of Christmas
- We Wish You A Merry Christmas
- What Child Is This?
- White Christmas
- Winter Wonderland
Since this list is so short, you tend to hear each song 700 times over
the course of the few weeks leading up to Christmas.
WHAT, EXACTLY, ARE THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS?
The 12 days of Chistmas are the 12 days that separate Christmas day
on December 25 from Epiphany, which is celebrated January 6. Depending
on the church, January 6 may mark Christ's baptism (the Catholic tradition),
or it may mark the day that the wise men visited the baby Jesus with
In the past, there was a tradition of giving gifts throughout the 12
days, rather than stacking them all up on the morning of December 25.
That tradition, as you might imagine, has never really caught on in
America! We just aren't that patient. The song, however, demonstrates
that some people once stretched out their gifts (and gave some fairly
elaborate gifts...) over the full 12 days.
Drennon's Twelve Days of Christmas (http://www.cvc.org/christmas/12days.htm)
offers some interesting perspectives on the 12 days of Christmas and
the song of that same title. This page (http://www.ewtn.com/library/FAMILY/12DAYXMA.TXT)
also contains a thesis full of information!
AND WHY DO CHRISTMAS CAROLERS WALK AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD SINGING?
According to this page (http://www.chin.gc.ca/christmas/carol.htm),
"In the Middle Ages in England and France, carols were dances accompanied
by singing. In the French Midi, for example, the "carol" was
a kind of round dance. In time, the word "carol" changed its
meaning, referring only to certain kinds of songs. The Anglo-Saxon tradition
favoured gathering together small choirs on the village green to sing
carols and Christmas songs for the pleasure of passers-by. A number
of currently very popular American Christmas carols come directly from
France and England."
WHY IS THE DAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS, CHRISTMAS EVE, CELEBRATED?
Christmas Eve is a big deal for religious reasons, such as the midnight
mass, and also for retail reasons. 1867 was the first year that Macy's
department store in New York City remained open until midnight on Christmas
A HSW reader was also kind enough to point out the following: "All
Jewish holidays start at sundown the evening before (not at calendar
midnight). Our holidays start with ceremony the evening before: rituals,
candle-lighting, whatever... at sundown and they last until the following
sundown, and then they're over."
WHO IS THIS SANTA CLAUS PERSON? AND...
- Why is Santa characterized as a short, fat and jolly pipe smoker?
- Why does Santa wear such outlandish clothes?
- Why does he ride around in a sleigh? Pulled by reindeer? That lands
on rooftops? So he can climb down the chimney? With a big sack full
of toys? Which he leaves under the tree for good girls and boys?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Santa Claus started with
a real person, Saint Nicholas, a minor saint from the fourth century:
"According to tradition, he was born in the ancient Lycian seaport
city of Patara, and, when young, he traveled to Palestine and Egypt.
He became bishop of Myra soon after returning to Lycia. He was imprisoned
during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians but
was released under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great and attended
the first Council (325) of Nicaea. After his death he was buried in
his church at Myra, and by the sixth century his shrine there had become
well known. In 1087, Italian sailors or merchants stole his alleged
remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy; this removal greatly
increased the saint's popularity in Europe, and Bari became one of the
most crowded of all pilgrimage centres. Nicholas' relics remain enshrined
in the 11th-century basilica of San Nicola, Bari.
Nicholas' reputation for generosity and kindness gave rise to legends
of miracles he performed for the poor and unhappy. He was reputed to
have given marriage dowries of gold to three girls whom poverty would
otherwise have forced into lives of prostitution, and he restored to
life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in
a brine tub. In the Middle Ages, devotion to Nicholas extended to all
parts of Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece; of
charitable fraternities and guilds; of children, sailors, unmarried
girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers; and of such cities as Fribourg, Switz.,
and Moscow. Thousands of European churches were dedicated to him, one
as early as the sixth century, built by the Roman emperor Justinian
I, at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Nicholas' miracles were a favourite
subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays, and his traditional
feast day was the occasion for the ceremonies of the Boy Bishop, a widespread
European custom in which a boy was elected bishop and reigned until
Holy Innocents' Day (December 28).
After the Reformation, Nicholas' cult disappeared in all the Protestant
countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as Sinterklaas
(a Dutch variant of the name Saint Nicholas). Dutch colonists took this
tradition with them to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American
colonies in the 17th century. Sinterklaas was adopted by the country's
English-speaking majority under the name Santa Claus, and his legend
of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician
who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents."
("Nicholas, SAINT", Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc., 1997.)
It is amazing but true that the common, popular view of Santa that
we all have today, along with all the crazy things around Santa like
the sleigh, the reindeer and the chimney, all came largely from two
publishing events that occurred in the 1800s and one advertising campaign
in this century. Clement Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas"
in 1822 for his family. It was picked up by a newspaper, then reprinted
in magazines and it spread like wildfire. Moore admitted authorship
in 1838. If you read the poem you will find that he names the reindeer,
invents the sleigh, comes up with the chimney and the bag of toys, etc.
Nearly everyone in America has been able to recognize or recite this
poem since the 1830s.
Then, between 1863 and 1886, Harper's Weekly (a popular magazine of
the time) ran a series of engravings by Thomas Nast. From these images
come the concepts of Santa's workshop, Santa reading letters, Santa
checking his list and so on. Coca-Cola also played a role in the Santa
image by running a set of paintings by Haddon Sundblom in its ads between
1931 to 1964.
The red and white suit came, actually, from the original Saint Nicholas.
Those colors were the colors of the traditional bishop's robes.
See also A Brief History of Santa (http://www.santalady.com/history.html)
for a good set of Santa pictures.
WHO IS THIS ONE REINDEER AT THE FRONT NAMED RUDOLF, WITH THE BIOLOGICAL
ABERRATION OF A RED, GLOWING NOSE CAPABLE OF PENETRATING THICK FOG?
The whole story of Rudolf appeared, out of nowhere, in 1939. Santas
at Montgomery Ward stores gave away 2.4 million copies of a booklet
entitled "Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer." The story was written
by a person in the advertising department named Robert May, and the
booklet was illustrated by Denver Gillen. The original name of the reindeer
was not Rudolf, according to the book Extraordinary Origins of Ordinary
Things by Charles Panati. The original name was Rollo, but executives
did not like that name, nor Reginald. The name Rudolf came from the
author's young daughter! In 1949, Gene Autry sang a musical version
of the poem and it was a run-away best-seller. The Rudolf song is second
only to "White Christmas" in popularity.
WHY DOES EVERYONE, EVEN FLORIDIANS, DREAM OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS?
The song "(I'm Dreaming of a) White Christmas," written by
Irving Berlin for the movie "Holiday Inn" (1942) and sung
by Bing Crosby, is one of the best selling songs of all time.
WHY IS CHRISTMAS SOMETIMES SPELLED XMAS? ESPECIALLY WHEN COMBINED WITH
THE WORD "SALE"?
According to the book "Did you ever Wonder..." by Jeff Rovin,
the word for Christ in Greek is Xristos. The use of the shortened form
Xmas became popular in Europe in the 1500s.
The word Xmas is so common in advertising most likely because "Xmas"
and "sale" have the same number of letters, and "Xmas"
is significantly shorter than Christmas.
AND WHY ARE STORES AND MALLS SO GEARED UP ABOUT THIS HOLIDAY? WHY DOES
EVERY MALL HAVE A SANTA VILLAGE, AND WHY DO KIDS COME SIT ON SANTA'S
As mentioned above, stores and malls have been revved up about Christmas
since the late 1800s. In America today, the weeks between Thanksgiving
and Christmas are, by far, the biggest retail sales weeks of the year.
The survival of most retail stores depends on the Christmas buying season.
Therefore, retailers do whatever they can to whip people into a Christmas
buying spirit and to attract them to their stores. Festive decorations,
big ads, Santa's Villages and all the rest are a part of that process.
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