Christmas and Hanukkah Traditions and Their Origins
Bring new meaning to your Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations by learning about the origins and symbolism behind these familiar holiday traditions.
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Amaryllis means "sparkling" in Greek, and that's an apt description for its vivid, dazzling blooms. The flower was discovered by a German physician in the Andes Mountains of Chile in 1828. Since then, the tall stems of this easy-to-force bulb have been regarded as a symbol of pride, and its brilliant blossoms in red, white, pink, or salmon are a favorite for brightening up winter.
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In 1670, a German choirmaster gave his young singers white sugar sticks to keep them quiet during the long Nativity service. In honor of the occasion, he bent the sticks to resemble shepherd's crooks. It wasn't until the 20th century that candy makers added red stripes and peppermint flavoring. Christian legend claims the white symbolizes Christ's purity, the red stands for his blood, and the peppermint represents the gifts of spices brought by the wise men. The hardness is a reminder that Jesus is the rock and foundation of the church.
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The tradition of baking and serving Christmas cookies transcends cultures, from German springerle to Norwegian krumkake to Swedish papparkakor. Europeans have baked cookies at Christmas since the 1500s, but the tradition became widespread in the United States only after the introduction of inexpensive tin cookie cutters in the 1930s.
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Long before the spread of Christianity, pagans celebrated winter solstice by bringing evergreen trees into their homes as proof that life still existed in the dark of winter. Christian missionaries adapted the custom to represent the everlasting life of Jesus. Martin Luther is often given credit for first lighting a tree, adding candles to show his children what forests of trees look like in starlight.
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The Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel created a gingerbread house craze in Germany in the early 1800s. In the story, the children find a witch's house made of bread, with a cake roof and sugar windows. As the tale became popular, German bakers started selling elaborate gingerbread houses decorated with icing and candies.
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In 1843, Sir Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, wanted to remind his friends to help the poor during the holidays but didn't think it was possible to handwrite so many letters. Instead, he commissioned a card showing the feeding and clothing of the poor along with the message "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You." The card also had a place for the name of the recipient and the giver. One thousand lithograph copies of the card sold to the public for one shilling each.
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Several ancient pagan religions used holly in their winter celebrations. Romans decorated their homes with it, and the Druids wore it in their hair. The early Christian church adopted holly as a symbol of Jesus Christ, its pointed leaves representing the crown of thorns and the red berries symbolizing Christ's blood.
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A Victorian invention that encouraged even the most modest of English ladies to kiss and be kissed in public, this lofty decoration is made up of mistletoe, holly, greens, and ribbons. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant believed by everyone from the Druids to the Greeks to possess healing and life-generating powers. According to the custom, anybody caught standing under the kissing ball has to give or receive a kiss or embrace. In France, smooching under the mistletoe is reserved for New Year's Day.
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Hanukkah commemorates the Jews' rededication of the holy temple of Jerusalem in 165 B.C. Although there was only enough oil to light the temple's menorah (a seven-branched candelabra) for one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. A modern menorah has a center "servant" candle (called a shamas) and eight branches. Each night of Hanukkah, another candle is lit, starting at the right and moving left, the same way Hebrew is read.
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Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker ballet, first performed in the United States in 1944, did much to link the nutcracker to Christmas traditions. German toymakers fabricated nutcrackers from a single piece of hardwood, often fashioning them as unflattering versions of military officers, kings, police, and other unpopular figures. These carved pieces were used as toys as well as, of course, utensils for opening nutshells.
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You won't find any plums in plum (aka figgy) pudding, but this dense steamed cake does contain currants, raisins, nuts, and sometimes even beef suet. In England, where the dish originated as early as the 14th century, each member of the household takes a turn stirring the pudding while making a wish. And small silver charms baked into the pudding -- such as a coin for wealth or an anchor for safe harbor -- are symbols of good wishes for the coming year.
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The poinsettia is prized in its native Mexico as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. Legend says an angel created the plant from a bouquet of weeds gathered by a poor girl so that the child would have a beautiful gift to lay on the manger at church on Christmas Eve.
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Frosty the Snowman thumpety-thump-thumped into Christmas lore in 1950. He came to life from the pens of songwriters Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins. They sold the song to Gene Autry, who'd already topped the charts with "Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer." Autry's recording landed "Frosty" on Christmas playlists in perpetuity.
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Christmas stockings originate from the 16th-century Dutch Christmas Eve traditions of children. By the fireplace, they left their clogs full of straw and carrots for the donkeys they believed accompanied Sinterclass, an early version of Santa Claus. Sinterclass in turn would leave a treat in each clog. In the 1800s, Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas) helped spread Americanized versions of the Santa Claus story, which include stockings hung with care.
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Revelers have come a' wassailing for centuries. This Scandinavian tradition migrated to England in the 1400s. A communal bowl filled with hot spiced ale would be passed around a room or carried between neighbors' houses. Each round was toasted with the Old English phrase waes haeil, which means "be in good health."
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Wreaths were first created in ancient cultures to adorn the heads of the rich and royal. Somewhere along the way, the wreath evolved to an interior and exterior decoration. The tradition of hanging one on the front door dates back to ancient Europe, when wreaths served as house numbers. The flowers and greenery that made up each wreath identified the family who lived in the house.
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