How many times have the Holidays arrived and you’ve thought to yourself, “I wonder why…” but then you move on forget about the looming question of why we drink eggnog, what a dreidel is, or why Santa has reindeer. It’s time to stop forgetting! One day your children, your niece, or your spouse are going to ask where candy canes come from and, my friend, you need to have an answer. Today we’ll look at several of these traditions and where in the world they come from. Enjoy!
Why do we have little cardboard calendars that hide pieces of chocolate from December 1st to December 24th? Or why do we make paper chains counting down the days until Christmas? Like many traditions during this time of year, the origins are religious.
Reaching back more than 1600 years, Advent is the four-week period that leads up to Feast of the Nativity, or what has now become Christmas. It traditionally began on the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle through the following three Sundays. The purpose has ranged from the period being for converts to Christianity to prepare themselves for baptism, to the period being a time for Christians to fast and pray to prepare for the “Christ-mass.”
However, the dates of this period did not become routine until the Roman Emperor Constantine declared December 25th as Christ’s birthday during the 4th century. Now, the four weeks leading up until Christmas are meant to symbolize hope, peace, joy, and love and are commemorated by the lighting of a new advent candle on an evergreen during each Sunday of these four weeks.
Advent Calendars as we know them today date back to the mid 1800s as another tool to focus on the reason for the season. Before paper was a common household staple, German Protestants would make chalk marks on their doors or light candles to count the days leading up to Christmas. In the early 1900s, a German newspaper included a paper Advent in the paper as a gift to its readers, and the modern Advent Calendar was born.
There are many speculations as to why candy canes were made and what they stand for. Since Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ, it is no surprise that many Evangelical Christians cling to the story of the Indiana candy maker creating the candy cane as a witnessing tool. Legend has it that this candy maker made the candy hard, to symbolize God’s church being founded on the rock; the cane is white to represent the purity of Jesus; and the candy is curved to represent both the shepherd’s staff and a “J” for Jesus; the red stripes, Christ’s blood.
Though this theory on the candy cane is endearing and truly is a great witnessing tool for Christians, the origin actually stems back to around 1670. A choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral was tired of the children in the living Nativity being fussy, so he had solid white candy sticks made in order to keep them quiet. They were shaped like the crooks of the shepherds’ staffs to honor the shepherds at the stable. The practice caught on and could soon be found at living Nativities everywhere.
In 1847, a German-Swedish immigrant decorated his tree with the sweet treats in Wooster, Ohio. This brought the popularity of the candy cane to the United States, and around the turn of the century, the candy canes began appearing as they do today with the red stripes and peppermint flavoring.
Evergreens have always meant something special to people during the winter months, even long before Christ was born and Christianity established what we now know as Christmas. Evergreens have been thought by many to have the ability to keep away witches, ghosts, evil, and illness. However, most beliefs involving evergreens revolve around what we know as the winter solstice on December 21st or 22nd. Historically:
Ancient Egyptians worshiped the god Ra who became ill every year, bringing winter. The solstice marked the time of year when Ra would begin to recover and many Egyptians would fill their homes with green palms and branches to symbolize the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans would hold a feast at the solstice called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The solstice meant that their farms would soon be green again, and they marked the occasion by decorating their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
The Christmas Trees we know today, though, can be traced back to the Germans in the 16th century when Christians first brought the decorated trees into their homes. They came to the United States in the 19th century with the Pennsylvania Germans, but there was a period when the trees were seen as a pagan symbol by most Americans and they were even outlawed during the reign of the Puritans.
Christmas Trees became widely popular, as they are today, in 1846 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were shown in the Illustrated London News with their children around their Christmas tree. Due to her popularity, the practice became immediately fashionable, and continues still today.
What’s the story with the spinning tops that mark the season of Hanukkah? I was surprised to learn that it’s actually a gambling game of sorts–that is, until I read further.
A dreidel is a top that has four sides, with each sides showing a Hebrew letter. Outside of Israel, the letters are Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin which stand for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or “A great miracle happened there.”
Within Israel, the letters on the top are Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Pey which stand for “Nes Gadol Haya Po” or “A great miracle happened here.” The miracle these phrases speak of? The miracle of the Hanukkah oil–which I will describe in further detail under the section about the menorah.
So how and why is a game played with the dreidel? The tradition dates back to between 200 BC and the mid 160’s BC when Judea (Israel) was ruled by Antiochus and Jews were not permitted to practice their religion. Devout Jews would gather to study the Torah, but upon hearing soldiers approaching they would hide their studies and begin playing the gambling game with the top.
Today, children play the game with gelt, or gold foil wrapped chocolate coins. Each player puts a coin in the “pot” and they must guess the letter that will appear when the top stops spinning. Whoever guesses correctly wins the pot. When a player’s coins are gone, they are out of the game.
Eggnog can be traced back as far as the 13th and 14th centuries to a medieval cocktail known as posset. While this didn’t originally contain egg, once the eggs joined the mix they became an integral part of the beverage. Consisting of milk, egg, sherry and Madeira the drink eventually became a drink of the wealthy as the ingredients became scarce and expensive in England.
However, once the settlers came to America, eggs and milk became readily available as most people had their own cows and chickens. And though the more expensive alcohols were not present, cheap rum was and in the 1700s eggnog became a plentiful drink around the holidays. Even President George Washington had his own recipe, which called for superfluous amounts of alcohol.
Eggnog drinkers beware, though–if what you’re drinking comes from the grocery store, it’s probably not real eggnog. And if you make your own, be sure to use pasteurized eggs or you may end up very ill. Other than that, beware of the calories and the fat content!
Why do we exchange gifts on Christmas? The tradition stems back to the three Wise Men (or the three kings, depending on how you learned the story) who followed the Star of Bethlehem and brought gifts (or offerings) to the baby Jesus. Some Eastern Europeans still celebrate the holiday known as Three Kings’ Day which falls around January 6th, the traditional date of the arrival of the Wise Men to the manger.
Gift giving around this time of the year can also be traced to the Saturnalia festival (mentioned above with the Christmas Trees) which was marked by exchanging gifts and giving thanks for the fruits of the earth and plentiful crops to come.
Of course, one would be amiss without giving credit to the real Saint Nicholas who lived a lifestyle of generosity and giving of those in need. The feast that marks his death on December 6th is commemorated by the sharing of gifts and celebration of his life.
However, the exchanging of gifts that we know today wasn’t started until the late 18th century. December 25th had long been named Christmas as a Christian replacement for pagan rituals related to the winter solstice, but it wasn’t until the department store started running special sections in magazines and newspapers that the tradition of gift giving really took off. Christmas-themed ads and promises of a real-live Santa Claus drove shoppers to stores to make their purchases to commemorate the season. But you can’t blame current-day retailers for the extended shopping hours you’ll often find this time of year–in 1867 the Macy’s department store in NYC stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve to help out those last-minute shoppers.
The Menorah is the prime fixture in the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah itself celebrates the miracle that occurred when the Jews reclaimed their temple from Macedonian conquerors after a three-year war. As part of the celebration, they cleansed the Second Temple and wanted to light the Menorah, but only had enough oil for one day. However, the oil burned bright for eight days, which is now commemorated by the eight-day celebration.
The traditional Menorah is nine branches. On each of the holiday’s nights another candle is added to the Menorah after sundown, with the ninth candle (known as the Shamash, or helper) being used to light the others. The Menorah is displayed to remind people of the miracle. This miracle is also the one referenced by the symbols on the dreidel, discussed above.
Why did anyone ever think about singing about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer? Because Santa has reindeer. Why does Santa have reindeer and why do they fly?
This is one tradition that has absolutely no religious tradition, at least that I could find. In fact, I could only trace the source back to one place, one place that is rich with what is now Christmas tradition. It started with a poem in 1822 titled “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas” that the Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote for his three daughters. Not familiar with the poem? It starts like this, “T’was the night before Christmas…” In the poem, which was published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel under the familiar name of “The Night Before Christmas,” Moore pulled together early New Amsterdam traditions, along with German, Norse, Scandinavian legends and described the jolly old elf that drove a sleigh with eight reindeer. So where did the reindeer come from? They aren’t the cute white-tailed deer that you often see in North America. They come from northern Scandinavia and Finland where people often use reindeer to pull their sleds and sleighs due to the reindeer’s broad, flat hooves for walking on snow, and heavy fur coats.
But what about Rudolph? He didn’t join the crew until 1939 when Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store dreamed up the character in a Christmas-themed poem in order to help bring traffic to the store. The story and its deeper meanings became popular and sales of the story soared. In 1949, Gene Autry recorded a song based on the story, and in 1964 it became the famed television movie narrated by Burl Ives that is still enjoyed by children and adults alike today.
Santa Claus probably isn’t much of a mystery to many of us, but being the icon of Christmas, I had to include him! The tradition of Santa dates back to somewhere around 280 AD in modern-day Turkey with a monk, later Bishop, named St. Nicholas. Nicholas’ parents died when he was a young man, and he received a large inheritance. However, he accepted to vocation of priest and decided to give his entire inheritance to the poor (part of the reason we give gifts around this time of year). He became known over the years as the protector of children and sailors, and has a feast on the anniversary of his death, December 6th.
Santa Claus started becoming popular in America when in the 18th century Dutch families started to gather in his honor on the anniversary of his death. So how did we get Santa Claus from Saint Nicholas? The Dutch used the nickname Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas, and the name evolved from there.
In 1809, Washington Irving continued Sinter Klaas’ fame by naming him the Patron Saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
As discussed above, in 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote what is now known as “The Night Before Christmas” which solidified the picture of Santa as a jolly, chubby, elf in the minds of dreamers everywhere. In 1881 Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, drew on Moore’s poem to create the first pictures of the Santa Claus that we all know and love today.
Furthermore, in the early 1890’s, the Salvation Army began dressing unemployed men as the traditional Santa Claus to help raise money for the free meals they were giving to the needy.
Unfortunately, the origin of the tradition of hanging stockings by the mantle (or on the TV stand if you’re at my house), is not clear. However, here are two great theories/stories/ideas that helped solidify the tradition that we have today.
The first theory on why we hang stockings goes back to St. Nicholas. The most notable story of his acts of kindness and generosity involves a poor widower and his three daughters. Some versions of the story state that the father was evil and he was selling them into slavery and prostitution to support him as he did not have the money to provide a dowry in order for them to get married. Regardless of whether or not the man was truly evil, the money wasn’t there in order for the daughters to marry. In order to remain undetected, St. Nicholas dropped bags of gold down the chimney for the dowry of each daughter, and the gold landed in their stockings which had been hung to dry.
In France and several other cultures, children place shoes outside of their door on the night of December 5th in observance of St. Nicholas Day. They awake the next morning to find treats and gifts filling their shoes.
However, the things that brought the tradition to life in the United States was again the poem by Mr. Moore, “The Night Before Christmas.” Whether the tradition had already caught on before this time or not, this poem which so perfectly describes the stockings being hung by the fire with care has documented the tradition in stone.
What traditions do you and your family celebrate around the Holidays and where do they stem from? Do you know? I challenge you to find out! And please, share it with the rest of us!My sources for this post: http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/12/01/a-brief-history-of-advent/ http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/75684 http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2037505,00.html http://www.wisegeek.com/how-did-the-tradition-of-christmas-stockings-begin.htm http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/christmas2.htm http://www.history.com/topics/Hanukkah http://judaism.about.com/od/holidays/a/dreidel.htm http://thecatholicspirit.com/faith/the-lesson-plan/st-nick-patron-of-christmas-gift-giving/ http://edsitement.neh.gov/feature/gift-holiday-traditions-kwanzaa-hanukkah-and-christmas http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2004/cane.html http://www.examiner.com/article/decoding-traditional-christmas-symbols-candy-cane http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/12/21/a-brief-history-of-eggnog/ http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/12/08/mf.about.eggnog/index.html http://www.unmuseum.org/santa.htm http://www.history.com/topics/santa-claus
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