As holidays go, Christmas is a symbological mishmash of traditions, superstitions, and rituals from dozens of different peoples and ethnic groups. This is especially true in the United States, land of Chanukah bushes, Black Friday, and sexy Santas, where it’s sometimes hard to believe there was ever any meaning behind the madness.
But it’s true, there’s a story behind every seemingly silly tradition. So here it is, X-Mas : Origins, my short list of holiday trivia.
Thy leaves are so unchanging …
You may have heard that the practice of setting up trees inside stems from German traditions, and that’s true. But the very first recorded Christmas tree was set up outdoors, in Riga, Latvia in 1510. Local men decorated it with artificial roses, danced around it, and then set it on fire. The latter is still practiced, though unintentionally, in many households each year. This also began the tradition of holiday public service announcements from the fire department.
Over the years, the tradition became widespread throughout Europe. The trees were brought inside and decorated with apples, sweets, or lighted candles. German settlers introduced the practice to the United States, where, in typical American fashion, it was swiftly decided that the trees should be bigger. Traditional European tabletop trees soon became the floor-to-ceiling gleaming behemoths we know and love. Each year we now marvel at the size and splendor of giant public trees across the country.
Even though Sears & Roebuck began peddling fake trees in 1885, by the turn of the twentieth century the practice of harvesting wild holiday trees had begun to decimate American forests. President Theodore Roosevelt actually tried to eliminate the practice over environmental concerns. Thankfully, he was ultimately persuaded that tree farms could save the forests and help keep our presents covered. Today more than 25 million evergreens are grown on farms for the holidays. Popular varieties include Douglas Fir, Scots Pine, Noble Fir, and Balsam Pine.
It turns out this most popular Christmas plant isn’t a flower. The red-colored parts are actually bracts, a kind of leaf. These Mexican perennials derive their name from Joel Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico who introduced the plants to the states in the 1820’s.
According to legend, a young Mexican boy was on his way to visit the village Nativity scene, worrying that he had no gift for the Christ child. He gathered some pretty green branches from along the road and brought them to the church. The other children mocked his meager offering, but when the leaves were laid at the manger, a beautiful star-shaped flower appeared on each branch.
The Yule Log
Yule is the name of a Scandinavian holiday celebrating the winter solstice, a big deal in a region where winter means almost constant darkness. As missionaries arrived, the began a new tradition: blending Christian and pagan traditions. Both December festivals ended up so intertwined that today Yule can refer to either Christmas or the solstice festival. The Yule log is one example of this crossover. Traditionally, this chunk of red oak was large enough to burn all through Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day. Afterward, a scrap from the burnt log is preserved and kept under the homeowner’s bed to protect the home from fire and lightning during the year. When the next Christmas comes around, that scrap is used to light the new Yule log. It’s kind of like friendship bread, but it’s made of fire.
Log selection is rife with ritual as well. As it’s unlucky to simply buy or cut your own, tradition recommends a lucky log should come from a neighbor’s woodpile. I’m assuming this is meant to continue the ‘season of giving’ theme, so sneaking over the fence is out.
These minty treats were originally handed out in the 17th century to keep kids quiet during the holiday mass at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. The cathedral choir director suggested that the all-white candy sticks be bent into shepherd’s crooks to give them something of a religious bent. The stripes were added later to jazz them up a little. Contrary to popular myth, there’s no indication that the white was intended to symbolize Christ’s purity or the red his blood. Which is good, because then I wouldn’t know what to make of those yellow and orange ones …
Holly and berries has also received some religious rewrites. Folklore suggests that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head by the Romans was in fact made of sharp-pointed holly leaves. The plant’s berries, which were originally white, are said to have been turned red by his blood.
It is known that holly and other evergreen plants were celebrated by ancient European cultures as symbols of life in the dead of winter. Today’s wreaths and greens are a reminder of the changing seasons and a promise of the returning sun in spring.
So even if you can’t understand how the casserole got burned, or why your brother-in-law can’t show up on time, or why that one strand of lights keeps flickering, at least you’ll know why centuries ago, someone decided you should go through all this every year.