Christmas History & Traditions
How was Christmas celebrated centuries ago? Why do we hang mistletoe and eat candy canes? You've come to the right place for answers to these questions and more.
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Part of the magic of Christmas is the melding of a multitude of traditions, ancient to modern, to honor the birth of Christ on December 25th.
In the U.S., modern Christmas is a season for giving, sharing, and caring. Many traditions, like Christmas trees and candy canes, are of European origin, but an American imagination brought forth our Santa Claus in all his plump, red-suited glory.
Dating back to 336 A.D., Christmas was first celebrated in ancient Rome, around 300 years after Christ's birth. It was a popular Christian holiday until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Because pagan customs had been enfolded into the religious observance, many Protestants chose not to celebrate it at all, including the American Puritans. In the rest of colonial America, Christmas was a raucous public holiday. Hunting, dancing, and feasting were the custom in the country, while city streets filled with enthusiastic celebrants.
By the 1800s, the holiday-focused merrymaking became such a public spectacle that concerned citizens, including Clement C. Moore, author of the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (popularly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas"), wanted to promote Christmas as a family holiday. His poem, written in 1822, and the pictures illustrator Thomas Nast drew from 1863 to 1886, depict the Santa we have come to know and love today, a cherubic and jolly fellow.
While merchants count the shopping days until Christmas, it is also a time to share with those less fortunate. Collecting and donating warm clothing, toys, and food is as American as bell-ringing "Sidewalk Santas." No matter how you choose to observe it, celebrating Christmas has become a beloved American tradition. It is the season to rejoice with friends, family, and community and dream of "peace on earth" and goodwill for all.
Don't be a Grinch: Read this list (and check it twice!) of the most popular Christmas traditions and their origins.
1. Christmas Greenery Ancient Egyptians used palm branches, while northern cultures preferred evergreens, to brighten the home during the winter. Continuing a custom that dates back to the 16th century, German immigrants were the first Americans to purchase and decorate Christmas trees, typically in the pine family.
2. Old Saint Nick Today's "jolly old elf," Santa Claus, is based on a real saint who lived in Turkey in the 4th century. Saint Nicholas was renowned for his generosity and love of children. According to historical sources, he would drop coins down the chimney to preserve his anonymity and the dignity of his recipients.
3. Gift Giving Once frowned upon as a pagan custom dating back to the Romans, gift giving is an integral part of our Christmas tradition. Santa's alias, "Kriss Kringle," means Christ child in German, and referred to a medieval legend that the infant Jesus distributed presents.
4. Mistletoe Kissing Remember the following Norse fable the next time you sneak a smooch under the mistletoe: Frigga, goddess of love and beauty, wanted to make the world safe for her son, Balder. Everything on earth promised to do him no harm except the one plant Frigga overlooked, mistletoe. Loki, an evil spirit, made an arrow from the mistletoe's wood and killed Balder. Frigga's tears became the plant's white berries and revived her son. In her gratitude, Frigga promised to kiss anyone who passed under the mistletoe, just as we do today.
5. Candy Canes The striped confections we now love to crunch were once straight white sticks of sugar candy. In the 1600s, in Cologne, Germany, traditional folktales reveal that the candies were bent at the end to remind children of a shepherd's crook and to keep them quiet in church.