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Exploring the reasons behind Christmas traditions

The legend of Santa Claus was created from the story of a Dutch saint. (Special Photo)

The legend of Santa Claus was created from the story of a Dutch saint. (Special Photo)

Christmas is a time of festive traditions. Everywhere you look, streets and storefronts are filled with holiday sights that herald in the season. But how did these traditions begin?

SANTA CLAUS: Real in the hearts and minds of young children, this mythical figure has his roots in historical origin. According to legend, the story of this jolly old elf originates with Saint Nicholas, a monk born around 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey. Legend states that he gave away his inheritance while traveling the countryside to help the poor and sick.

The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch nickname for the saint, Sinter Klaas, and portrayals of this saint have also inspired Santa’s physical image. Over time, traits of this character have merged with images of Father Christmas to result in the modern figure represented today.

Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man wearing a red coat and trousers and carrying a bag full of presents for children. Images of him rarely have a beard with no moustache. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books and films.

The idea that Santa Claus categorizes children throughout the world into naughty and nice lists according to their behavior became popular in 1934 after the song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was released.

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CHRISTMAS TREES: Though the practice of using evergreens for decorating or warding off unfavorable spirits had long been in practice in many countries, the custom of a Christmas tree is believed to have begun in Germany in the 1700s when Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.

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(Special photo)

The success of Christmas trees in Protestant countries was enhanced by the widespread belief that Martin Luther himself first added lighted candles to the tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

German immigrants brought the Christmas tree to America in 17th century and the claim of the Pennsylvania Germans to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in America is undisputed today.

CHRISTMAS CAROLING: St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Catholic Church’s Franciscan Order, began the Christmas tradition of caroling as a way to sing joyful songs to celebrate the holiday. Before that time, people listened to priests sing solemn Christmas hymns during formal church services, but Francis wanted people to be able to express their joy at Christmas by singing simple songs themselves — wherever they happened to be, such as in their own homes or while walking around outside.

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Christmas caroling became tradition when St. Francis of Assisi provided a way for people sing joyful songs in celebration of the holiday. (Special Photo)

Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas,” probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who traveled from house to house.

MISTLETOE: From the earliest times, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. The ancient Druids consider the plant to have miraculous powers, which could cure illness, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect a person against witchcraft.

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Mistletoe has long thought to have magical properties; it is also poisonous. (Special photo)

In some cultures, mistletoe was symbolic of peace, love and goodwill. The modern day tradition of kissing under the mistletoe stems from Norse mythology. A Norse goddess declared mistletoe as a sacred plant to symbolize love rather than death that, as the myth goes, it previously stood for. Being a symbol of love, kissing under the mistletoe naturally became a tradition.

There are several species of mistletoe that grows in various parts of the world, and most mistletoe plants are poisonous if eaten.

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A Christmas wreath's symbolism of an eternal circle represents different things for different people. (Special photo)

CHRISTMAS WREATHS: Adorning front doors everywhere, the idea of the Christmas wreath being a circle is a powerful symbol that represents many different things, depending on the seasonal holiday you celebrate. If you indeed celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Christ, then the Christmas wreath is said to represent the preparation of the coming of Christ. For others, the Christmas wreath might represent the idea of eternity or divinity. The first Christmas wreaths were said to have been constructed of evergreen branches, symbolizing the life of the Earth that never truly dies.