A look at Christmas traditions

| December 9, 2010

Christmas has some curious customs.

Has dragging a dead tree into your living room and decorating it ever struck you as odd?

How about telling your kids that an old man in a red suit will bring them presents if they behave?

Then there’s a reindeer named Rudolph, a snowman named Frosty, mistletoe and carolers.

Where did all this come from?

Let’s start at the beginning.

As we all know, Christmas -,  Dec. 25 – is the day that Jesus Christ’s birthday is observed; however, no one really knows the exact date.

Ironically, early Christians didn’t even celebrate Jesus’ birth because they considered celebrating anyone’s birthday a pagan custom.

The first mention of a celebration was around 200 A.D., and Christian leaders set the date as Dec. 25 in 336 A.D. to try to overshadow Saturnalia, a pagan holiday in Rome.

The word “Christmas,” is derived from “Christes Masse,” an early English phrase meaning “Christ’s Mass.”

Some historians believe the custom of exchanging gifts began as a tribute to the Magi who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.

Here Comes Santa Claus

These days, Christmas gifts are synonymous with that fat man in red velvet – Santa Claus.

Santa is derived from Saint Nicholas, a bishop who lived around 300 A.D. in what is now Turkey. According to legend, Nicholas often went out at night in his red bishop’s robe and gave gifts to the needy.

He once left gold coins in stockings, which three poor girls had hung by the fire to dry.

During the Middle Ages, a feast day was established for Nicholas on Dec. 6. The custom died out in much of Europe, but in the Netherlands, they continued to have a day where a person depicting “Sinterklaas” rode through the streets on a white horse.

Dutch settlers, who began arriving in New York in the 1600s, brought the custom with them, and for English-speaking children, Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.

It’s believed that Santa entering through the chimney came from an old Norse legend of a goddess appearing in a home’s fireplace and bringing good luck.

However, Santa,  as we know him, with a fluffy white beard and a red coat, was an American invention.

Much of what we know of Santa is owed to Clement C. Moore’s famous poem “‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” He wrote the poem for his children in 1822, and it was reprinted in newspapers and magazines across the country.

He’s responsible for giving Santa a bag of toys, a sleigh with eight reindeer (whom he named) and that famous,  belly that shook “like a bowl full of jelly.”

Cartoonist Thomas Nast further developed Santa’s appearance with a series of drawings that ran in Harper’s Weekly beginning in the 1860s. Those drawings depicted a portly old man wearing red, riding on a sleigh and putting presents in stockings.

O Christmas tree!

Christmas trees are a German tradition that date back to about 800 A.D.

Legend has it that Saint Boniface came across a group of Druids about to sacrifice a young man at an oak tree, which they considered sacred. He made them stop and cut down the tree; a small fir tree sprang from the oak, and Boniface proclaimed it as the tree of Christ.

By the 1400s, Germans were decorating trees with apples and treats, and German settlers brought Christmas trees to America in the early 1800s.

By 1851, Christmas trees were being sold commercially, and in 1883, Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling artificial trees. The 33-limb model was 50 cents.

Glass ornaments also were introduced in the late 1800s.

In 2009, U.S. households purchased 28.2 million real Christmas trees and 11.7 artificial trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Oregon is the leading producer of real trees at 6.8 million, while about 80 percent of artificial trees are made in China, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

With your nose so bright

“‘Twas the Night before Christmas” lists eight reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

But “the most famous reindeer of them all” didn’t join the group until about 100 years later.

The story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” first appeared in a booklet that Montgomery Ward stores gave away in 1939. The store distributed 2.4 million copies of the story, which was written by a man in its advertising department.

Gene Autry made the story into a smash hit when he recorded it as a song in 1949. The 1964 television special, which is re-aired every year, added to Rudolph’s popularity.

A jolly snowman

One year after recording “Rudolph,” Autry had another hit with “Frosty the Snowman.”

Jack Nelson and Steve Rollins wrote the song about the jolly snowman with a “corn-cob pipe and a button nose” for Autry after seeing the success he had with Rudolph. Once again, the 1969 cartoon added to Frosty’s popularity.

A Christmas carol

If you’re ever out caroling, you might find yourself singing one of Autry’s songs.

“Rudolph” is the No. 2 best-selling song, right behind “White Christmas.”

Caroling is another tradition steeped in history. During the Middle Ages, Christmas carols were sung at church services.

Following the services, the congregation would walk down the streets singing.

Beneath the mistletoe

If you’ve ever been caught under the mistletoe, you’re actually part of another long tradition.

Ancient Druids used to give the plant, which grew on sacred oak trees, as a charm.

In Scandinavian culture, it was considered a plant of peace. If enemies met under it, a day of peace was declared.

Their goddess of love, Frigga, also was associated with the plant, and it’s possible that’s where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe originated.

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Jacob Glassner

Jacob Glassner, News Editor/Plate Spinner

Jacob usually has his eyes glued to a computer screen, editing stories and making sure the paper gets out the door each week. Multi-tasking is his modus operandi – similar to the plate spinners you’d see on the old “Ed Sullivan Show.” Turn ons: freshly-sharpened pencils. Turn offs: exclamation points!!!

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