Where Did Popular Christmas Traditions Come From?
With less than three weeks remaining until December 25th, many places in the world are in the throes of preparing for and celebrating the upcoming Christmas, which is really a season instead of a single day. There are perhaps more traditions and practices associated with the holiday than any other, but where did some of the most popular of these come from?
Wreaths/Christmas Trees: Festive wreaths made from pine boughs and an assortment of ribbons, baubles and other items adorn an infinite number of doors during this time of year. Perhaps an even greater number of decorated Christmas trees sit inside and outside of homes. This tradition of decorating with evergreens began around the 16th century in northern and eastern Europe, with Germans being generally credited as the originators.
Wreaths were an offshoot of the tree practice. Ace Collins, the author of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, explained “Limbs were often cut off in an attempt to make the tree more uniform in shape or to fit into a room. Instead of throwing the pieces of greenery away, the Europeans wove the excess into wreaths.”
The shape of wreaths is no accident, either. Their circular shape obviously make them easier to hang but it is also symbolic of victory and divine perfection, with the circle having no end.
Gingerbread Houses: The origins of gingerbread, including making them into various structures, go back to ancient Greece and China. However, the Germans can once again be thanked, as they started making gingerbread houses during the Christmas season. The tiny delicious dwellings were built as a homage to the popular fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. As more and more bakers made their own version, the ways in which they decorated and lavishly laid them out increased as well. Since ginger snaps were already a popular treat during the holiday season, the houses became a natural extension of the practice.
They have only grown in popularity since then; in some cases, quite literally. The largest gingerbread house on record was a 35 million calorie monster, that measured 60 by 42 feet and included 1800 Hershey bars, 1,200 feet of Twizzlers and 100 pounds of Tootsie Rolls as just a portion of their trappings.
Candy Canes: Boy, we sure owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Germans for our current Christmas tradition. The delicious and minty candy canes trace back to them as well. According to History.com, Carly Schildhaus, public affairs manager of the National Confectioners Association, candy canes go back centuries. She explains, “Legend has it that the candy cane dates back to 1670, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet during the Living Creche ceremony. In honor of the occasion, he bent the candies into shepherds’ crooks.”
Pulled candies were incredibly popular when candy canes first made their appearance. Nothing has changed since, as they are still the best-selling non-chocolate candy during the Christmas season. Nearly two billion alone are produced in the United States annually, with colors now crisscrossing the rainbow instead of just the traditional red and white.
Christmas Stockings: People of all ages love digging through their stockings, which are hung up in anticipation of Christmas morning. Typically filled with candies, fruits and other small and fun items, it’s the perfect appetizer to the gifts that are ultimately opened from underneath the Christmas tree.
Stockings go back to the 4th century when a nobleman named Nicholas (later Saint Nicholas) began the practice. Born in Asia Minor, he devoted his life to Christianity and ultimately became the Bishop of Myra (Turkey). He was celibate and while he had no family of his own, he loved children. He enjoyed bestowing gifts to those where he lived but preferred to not make a big deal of his kindness. As a result, he dropped off the gifts later at night, placing them in stockings left out for him. Unfortunately for him, this was before children began leaving cookies and milk for Saint Nick.