Have you got your lights up, stockings hung by the chimney with care, wreath on the door? So much to do right?
Have you ever wondered where some of these holiday traditions come from? Why do we hang the wreath and the stockings? What about mistletoe, why do we kiss when we find ourselves under the mistletoe?
I have done some research on a few Christmas traditions to shed some light on them. At the end of this post there's also some information and links to a few New England places to go and see some festive holiday displays with your family before it's too late!
Click the titles or links for more information if available.
So why do we hang our stockings by the chimney with care? How did that tradition get started? Well there are a couple of different theories.
The Dutch Theory
The tradition of the Christmas stocking was introduced in America by the Dutch. This theory says that in the 16th Century, the children in Holland kept their clogs filled with straw, by the hearth for the reindeer along with a treat for 'Sinterclass' (Santa Claus). As a return gift, the Sinterclass would leave some gifts for the children. Over time, the clogs became stockings and Sinterclass became Santa Claus. What do you think?
The Nobleman Theory
A nobleman and his wife had three daughters and they were living quite happily. One day the wife become very ill, which led to her untimely death. Devastated by his wife's death, the nobleman squandered all his wealth and property. Left with no money, he and his daughters had to move into a peasant's cottage. Soon, the time came for the daughters to marry. However, the father had lost all his wealth and could not afford to give any dowry. As time passed, the father became more and more worried about getting his daughters married.
Then one day St. Nicholas of Myra happened to pass through the nobleman's village and heard the villagers discussing what the father was going through. St Nicholas knew that the father would be too proud to accept money from him. So he waited till dark and then went to the nobleman's house where the daughters of the nobleman had washed their clothes and had hung their stockings by the fireplace.
St. Nicholas threw three bags of gold coins down the chimney into the stockings, one bag for each daughter. When the family woke up in the morning, they found the money in their stockings. The father used the money to marrying away his daughters, each with a generous dowry. Soon the villagers came to know of St. Nicholas' generosity and started hanging their stockings by the fireplace. What do you think? http://www.worldofchristmas.net/christmas-stockings/history.html
Have you ever been caught under the mistletoe? Why do we kiss when we find ourselves under the mistletoe? I mean depending on who you are under the mistletoe with, it could be naughty, nice, or just plain bad right?
Well there are legends about this tradition as well. So be open minded and see what you think.
From the earliest times mistletoe has been known as a magical, mysterious, and sacred plant. It was considered to bestow life and fertility; a protection against poison; and an aphrodisiac!
The mistletoe of the oak was sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the "soul" of the oak. Hmmm…. What do you think?
Mistletoe was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas comes from the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. The Greeks also thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.
Ok –What you really want to know is why we kiss under the mistletoe
In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.
There is also a legend that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love, mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which alarmed his mother because if her son died, all life on earth would end. To prevent this from happening, Frigga asked air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant to promise that no harm would come to her son.
Balder had one enemy though, Loki, god of evil. Loki knew of one plant that Frigga had forgotten to get the promise from, the lowly mistletoe. Loki made an arrow tip from the mistletoe and gave it to Hoder, the blind god of winter. Hoder shot it striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by his mother Frigga.
It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them and they receive a token of love. Gotta love folklore! http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/mistletoe.htm#6H9Vgw50tyPKoKXm.99
Hanging a wreath from the front door is one of the first signs of the Holiday season. The origin of the wreath dates back to the ancient times of the Persian Empire. During that time, wreaths were believed to be a symbol of importance and success. They were much smaller than the present ones and were known as 'diadems'. Royal and upper class members of the society wore the wreaths as headbands.
It is believed that other cultures became fascinated with the tradition of wearing wreaths and adopted them into their own cultures. Around 776 BC, Greeks started placing laurel wreaths on the heads of the athletes who came first in the Olympic Games and soon after that, important military and political leaders of Roman Empire started wearing wreaths.
It is also believed that long ago, an athlete decided to save the headgear as a souvenir of his/her victory and since then began the tradition of using wreaths as a Christmas door/wall decoration. This transition of the wreaths from a headgear to a wall/door decoration is not known with much accuracy however.
The meaning and significance of today’s wreath depends on you! The circular shape, with no beginning and no end, may symbolize an unending circle of life. Evergreen branches may symbolize the life of the earth that never truly dies, despite cold long winters.
If you celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, your wreath might symbolize the preparation for the coming of Jesus. If you are a Pagan and celebrate Yule, your wreath might symbolize eternity. Or your wreath may just be a beautiful decoration! So, what does your wreath mean to you?
There's no definitive history behind Christmas caroling. Where they originated, who wrote them and how they evolved is not clear. Caroling is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.
It is believed that carols commemorating the nativity, or birth of Jesus Christ, were first written in Latin in the 4th and 5th centuries, but they didn't become associated with Christmas until the 13th century.
Saint Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic saint of animals and the environment, is often credited with incorporating upbeat Latin hymns into Christmas services. The joyful carols were in sharp contrast to the somber Christmas music of the day. The concept of Christmas carols, and spreading them to the community to celebrate Christ's birth, is thought to have spread across Europe.
Today many caroling groups sing for charity in churches and neighborhoods; some historical accounts claim this is rooted in feudal societies, when poor citizens would "sing for their supper" in exchange for food or drink.
Another theory is that carolers traveled door-to-door because they were not originally allowed to perform in churches.
A common legend says that Christmas carols were named after Carol Poles, a little English girl who supposedly went missing in London during the holiday season in the late 19th century. People supposedly searched for her by going door-to-door, singing to declare their good intentions. Although it may be a nice story, it has no factual basis! http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/christmas-caroler1.htm
The tradition of sending Christmas cards was started in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant.
Sir Henry had the idea of Christmas Cards with his friend John Horsley, who was an artist. They designed the first card and sold them for 1 shilling each. The card had three panels; the outer two panels showed people caring for the poor and in the center panel was a family having a large Christmas dinner. Some didn't like the card because it showed a child being given a glass of wine!
Christmas cards became much more popular and were produced in large numbers from about 1860. In 1870 the cost of sending Christmas cards dropped to half a penny. This meant even more people were able to send cards.
The first cards usually had pictures of the Nativity scene on them. In late Victorian times, robins and snow-scenes became popular. The postmen were nicknamed 'Robin Postmen' because of the red uniforms they wore. Snow-scenes were popular because they reminded people of the very bad winter that happened in the UK in 1836.
Christmas Cards appeared in the United States of America in the late 1840s, but were very expensive and most people couldn't afford them. In 1875, Louis Prang, a printer who was originally from Germany but who had also worked on early cards in the UK, started mass producing cards so more people could afford to buy them. Mr. Prang's first cards featured flowers, plants, and children. In 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers today! http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/cards.shtml
Christmas Lights and Festivities
Well, now you know a heck of a lot more about Christmas traditions than you did, right! One final tradition that many have is just driving around and looking at the Christmas lights on houses in the neighborhood, or better yet, going to a big festive light display. Here are a few links to some Christmas light displays and festivities in New England - Go before it's too late!
Click the title, image or link for more information on days and hours!
Millis Wonderland, Millis MA
Check back next week on Thursday for the next installment of Crazy for Christmas!
It's me, just trying to get by.