Unwrapping Christmas History

Some traditions have stood the test of time and remain constant symbols of “the holidays”—but how did they come about?

Credit: Flickr Commons / boopsie daisy

Whether it’s the arrival of the eggnog latte at your local coffee shop or the twinkling Christmas trees decorating the windows of homes around your neighbourhood, interpretations on the holiday spirit come in many different forms and change with each generation. Nonetheless, some traditions have stood the test of time and remain constant symbols of “the holidays”—but how did they come about?

This holiday season, GardenWise Online considers this question, with a run down on where many Christmas traditions originated and why we still care. Keep in mind, most of these accounts have been passed down from generation to generation and are generally undocumented. However, whether you believe in them or not, these stories make for great anecdotes at holiday parties and with kids.

And what’s interesting to note is the theme that runs throughout—that of life and vitality conquering death and winter inertia.

Seeing Red and Green

Green is thought to represent the continuance of life through the winter and the Christian belief in eternal life through Christ. Red symbolizes the blood that Jesus shed at his Crucifixion.

Lovely Branches

The oldest record of a decorated Christmas tree came from a diary found in Strasburg in 1605. The tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies. This tradition likely spread across the world through emigration.

Records indicate Egyptians had a similar tradition long before the Germans. Ancient Egyptians believed winter came because the sun god was ill. By filling their homes with green plants, Egyptians paid tribute to the triumph of life over death, bringing health back to their sun god.

Victory Rings

Christmas wreaths, like the evergreens used as Christmas trees, symbolize the strength of life overcoming the forces of winter. In ancient Rome, people used decorative wreaths as a sign of victory and celebration. The custom of hanging a Christmas wreath on the front door of one’s home probably came from this practice.

Oh by gosh, by holly!

The prickly red-berried plant is believed to have the power to fight ill treatment and has been long-viewed as a sacred plant by many cultures. The Romans used to offer a holly arrangement to the god Saturn at the Saturnalia festival, while the Druids used to adorn their heads with twigs of holly whenever they went to the forest. The Christians associate the leaves of the holly with the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to adorn his head with, while its red berries reminds them of the blood that Christ had to shed in this world.

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe

Mistletoe is an evergreen plant with dark leaves and shiny white berries. Ancient Celtic priests considered the plant sacred and gave people sprigs of it to use as charms. The custom of decorating homes with mistletoe probably came from its use as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans.

In many countries, a person standing under a sprig of mistletoe may be kissed. As an ancient love charm, one belief was that it has the power to bestow fertility. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses might kiss and make up.

Flowers of the Holy Night

Mexican legend surrounds the poinsettia, which is known there as Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. In the Mexican Christmas tradition, a young girl wished to present a present to baby Jesus but had no money. The girl, Pepita, could only pick weeds along the road as she went to visit the Christ child. But as she neared the alter in the church to present her Christmas gift, the simple weeds suddenly transformed into the vibrant, beautiful Flores de Noche Buena. It is also known as the Mexican Flame Leaf and the Winter Rose.

A Stocking Full of Christmas Oranges

The true story of the Christmas stocking is said to originate from Saint Nicholas’s life and deeds. One story tells of a poor man with three daughters who was concerned his daughters would not be able to marry because he could not afford a dowry. Knowing the father’s despair, Nicholas snuck in three small bags of gold from his pouch, placing these into the daughters’ washed stockings, which hung to dry by the fireplace. These sacks of gold, resembling three gold balls, were replaced by oranges to become symbols for St. Nicholas.

Sweet Mint Swirls

Many people believe the candy cane possesses a religious meaning because of its J-like shape, representing Jesus, and its resemblance to the shape of the shepherds’ crook, symbolic of how Jesus, like the “Good Shepherd,” watches over his children like little lambs.

As well, peppermint is similar to another member of the mint family, hyssop. In the Old Testament, hyssop was used for purification and sacrifice, and this is said to symbolize the purity of Jesus and the sacrifice he made.

Go back to GardenWise Online’s Holiday Page