Time-Honored Christmas Customs and Traditions

Article by Sam Jaim

When somebody says Christmas at this very moment, what plays in your mind? I bet there’s Christmas tree in it, or stockings hanging by the fireplace probably? What about kiss under the mistletoe? Or the red-nosed reindeer? All these customs and traditions, and many others, have become essential in making the celebration ‘Christmasy’, that it becomes almost impossible to do away with these.

The following are the top 6 traditions that continue to play a role in the celebration of Christmas all over the globe:

1. Christmas Tree. Undeniably, there is no greater or more easily distinguished symbol of Christmas than the Christmas tree itself. It can be found in almost all homes and establishments and is the most enduring icon of all.

The tradition of putting up a tree takes its roots in the pre-Christian era when ancient Romans keep decorated trees in their homes to commemorate their Saturnalia festival. During the 15th to 16th centuries, the Germans made use of Christmas trees decorated with candies, apples and colored papers. It was Martin Luther King who began the idea of lighting candles on Christmas trees, as enthused by the stars shining through the leaves of the trees outside.

The husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, was the one to introduce the concept to England from his native land Germany. The Pennsylvanian Germans were the ones to bring the Christmas tree to America in the late 19th century. Up to the present time, this tradition has become an inseparable part of Christmas celebration.

2. Santa Claus. Every kid’s fondest fantasy when it comes to Christmas is no other than Santa Claus himself. Christmas, in a child’s perspective, is a time to hang stockings by Christmas Eve and eagerly wait for Santa to drop by on his reindeer-drawn sleigh.

The mythical icon of Christmas sprang from the persona of Bishop Nicholas in 4th century AD who was known to be bighearted and fond of children. After many years, he came to be known as Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children.

The Anglo-Saxon version of Santa – Father Christmas – was said to punish naughty children and reward the well-behaved ones. Additionally, the British, German, and Dutch settlers of North America brought with them their own version of this jolly man in a red suit. However, the Dutch’s Sinterklaas emerged as the more popular among them. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace during Christmas Eve, and Sinterklaas would creep in and place goodies in the shoes of the nice children. It was his name that was anglicized to the name Santa Claus we now know.

3. Kissing Under the Mistletoe. Another time-honored Christmas tradition! This green plant was used by Druid priests some 200 years before Christ’s birth during their winter celebrations. The plant was highly valued due to its ability to stay green even during the harsh months of winter.

Ancient Celts attributed magical healing powers to the mistletoe, while the ancient Romans regarded the plant as a symbol of peace. Enemies suddenly become friends if they happen to meet under the mistletoe.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe most probably originated from the Scandinavians. They associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love. It is said that good luck and happiness come to those who kiss under it.

4. Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It is fascinating to not how some things originate from unrelated sources, just like Rudolf (the red-nosed reindeer). In 1939, Robert may (a copyrighter at Montgomery Ward Department Store), was told to write a Christmas-themed story to get in more sales. He wrote about Rudolf, a reindeer who was exiled by his own kind because of his glowing red nose. However one Christmas Eve night made Rudolf an instant star when Santa himself chose him to lead the sleight that night.

That year, Montgomery Ward sold almost 2.5 million copies of the story. In 1949, songwriter Johnny Marks (May’s brother-in-law) wrote the lyrics and melody for the song “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” thus the birth of the popular and well-loved Christmas song of all time.

5. Christmas Stockings. It has become an annual practice for children to hang stockings and socks near the chimney or fireplace every Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with presents. This tradition takes its roots from an ancient legend of a nobleman who frittered away all his fortune after his wife’s untimely death, leaving his three unmarried daughters facing poverty.

One night, as the daughters washed and hung their stockings to dry by the chimney, Saint Nicholas was moved by the hapless girls. So he came by the night and placed gold in each of their stockings.

As the morning came, the family was surprised and overjoyed with what they saw. The delighted nobleman could now marry off all his daughters. And that’s how the tradition of hanging stockings came to be.

6. Christmas Cards. The Christmas card was born, out of a desperate necessity, in England 160 years ago. Sir Henry Cole (director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum) was overwhelmed by the work commitments in the Christmas of 1843. Pressured by the need to write individual greetings to all his friends, he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley to make a painting which featured three panels. The first and third panels showed feeding and clothing the poor, while the central panel illustrated a family enjoying Christmas together. The words “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You” were inscribed in the card.

Traditions have become important part of the celebration of Christmas as it brings friends and families together, making everyone’s lives richer and fuller.

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