The History of Christmas Traditions
How the Christmas Tree Came to Be
The use of a Christmas tree indoors appears to have begun in Germany. Christians would bring trees into their homes to decorate. In some areas, evergreen trees were so scarce that families would build a Christmas pyramid, or a simple wooden structure decorated with branches and candles.
The English royalty helped popularize this symbol in England by decorating the first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated the first English Christmas tree with candles, candies, fruits and gingerbread.
When the German immigrants went to America, they also brought along their Christmas trees traditions. One of the first public displays of a Christmas tree was set up by German settlers in Pennsylvania. At the time, many still considered the tree to be a symbol of the pagans and it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Americans began accepting it as a part of the Christmas celebration.
History of Christmas Caroling
Caroling, or “celebrating in song,” is a Christmas tradition that allows the beauty of music to be shared in performance. There are two types of carols: traditional and religious. In the early days, carols were sung by “waits” or bands of men and boys singing outdoors, usually for money. By the 14th century these traditional carols, often accompanied by dancing, were firmly ingrained as part of the festivities surrounding Christmas.
Caroling is one of the many Christmas traditions that bring together both young and old. One such celebration is “Carols by Candlelight,” an outdoor sing-along of Christmas carols in Australia. At dusk, anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 people come together to sing carols while holding candles or torches. This tradition began in 1937 after Norman Banks of Melbourne, Australia, saw an old widow holding a single candle and singing along to the radio by herself. Although originally confined to Australia, “Carols by Candlelight” has now spread to New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Canada, while the tradition of caroling continues to flourish all over the world.
The Legend of Santa Claus
The legend of Santa Claus began ages ago and has been passed down throughout the generations. Each Christian culture has its own version of who Santa Claus really is. In the United States, Santa became popular due to an illustrator and cartoonist named Thomas Nast. Americans and others around the world have adopted his drawings of Santa Claus as the official holiday figure.
In France, Pere Noel, whose English translation means Father Christmas, is depicted as a kind old man with the traditional red fur suit trimmed with white fur. He’s rivaled in some parts of France by Aunt Airie, a fairy who wears a cape and gives gifts while traveling on her donkey.
Throughout Scandinavia, there was a wide-held belief that there were tiny magical creatures called nisse who lived in attics and basements to bring people good luck. When they discovered Santa Claus, they gave the nisse a red suit and a long white beard and called him Julenisse.
Not all Santa figures are male. According to legend, La Befana was an old woman from Palestine who refused an offer to go with the Magi to see the baby Jesus because she had too much housework to do. Ever since, La Befana, which means “The Epiphany” in Italian, wanders throughout Italy on January 5 in search of the Christ child. In her travels, she stops at all the houses of the children and leaves presents for them to make up for not having joined the Magi.
Very similar to the legend of La Befana was Babushka. She was a witchlike old woman who gave the Magi wrong directions on their trip to Bethlehem. In order to atone for her trick, she was condemned to roam around Russia on Epiphany Eve, giving presents to all good children. Babushka was very popular in Russia until the Communist Revolution, after which she was outlawed due to her religious association.
All the Santa figures around the world still incorporate the tradition of celebrating the season by giving gifts, especially to children. While the story of how they came about has been altered in different cultures, the basic premise of Santa Claus remains the same across the globe.
History of Giving Christmas Gifts
Gift-giving, especially to children, is an integral and universal part of the Christmas tradition. Some say it originated with early Roman festivals that occurred on New Year’s Day when gifts including food, simple jewelry, and candles were exchanged. Others believe the tradition goes back even further to the Magi, or Three Wise Men, who visited Jesus after his birth in the manger carrying gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.