Christmas Through the Ages
Where Do Christmas Traditions Come From?
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas is coming, and it’s bringing with it it’s unique ability to transport us back in time. Our many traditions make Christmas a strangely intransigent sort of holiday; because no matter what might happen in a year, we are often so devoted to the memory of Christmas in years gone by that we work as hard as possible to recreate exactly the celebrations of previous Christmases. (This phenomenon is so prevalent it even forms the basis of the plot in the film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.)
Think about Christmas as you know it for a second. More than likely, your mind recalls family traditions cemented over a lifetime. Some perhaps are unique to your family and you know exactly where they came from; but what about some of the other, more broadly celebrated ones?
Though we often take cultural traditions for granted as coming part and parcel with Christmastime, some traditions stretch back further than you think; while others are comparatively new additions to our collective Christmas milieu.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, for example, that some of the most iconic holiday season songs were released. Many of the tunes you’ll hear on repeat this month (Winter Wonderland, Let it Snow, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town) were written between 1930 and 1945, while Tchaikovsky's Christmas classic “The Nutcracker” was only performed outside of Russia for the first time in 1934.
Even leaving cookies and milk out for Santa started during the depression era, supposedly inspired by parents teaching their kids to be grateful and kind to others even when things were scarce.
Christmas trees, on the other hand, are a little older; the universal symbol of Christmas in the Western world – they were made popular in the Anglosphere by Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert in the mid-19th century. The Christmas tree’s German origins, however, stretch back even further, to the time of Martin Luther (indeed Luther is rumoured to have been the first person to decorate a tree with candles).
Mulled wine; a regular fixture for many at Christmastime, dates back to the Roman era, when soldiers would heat the alcoholic drink and add spices to it to ward off sickness. Eggnog – another favourite – has its roots in medieval England, where it may have originally been called “posset” and was brewed by monks.
Readers will have likely heard the expression “Yuletide cheer” in Christmas celebrations; and yet this curious phrase denotes nothing of “Christ” or the religious origins of the Christmas holiday. So where then, does “Yule” come from?
An Old English word, “Yule” was used to describe the 12 day period of feasting which took place around the middle of winter in Anglo-Saxon culture. This period was marked by sacrifices to pagan gods, rich banquets, and the burning of the giant Yule-log.
One thing that hasn’t changed when it comes to Christmas is feasting – to this day, all over the world, different cultures celebrate the birth of Christ with a spectacular meal. A Christmas turkey, most popular in the West, traces its origins back to none other than King Henry VIII, who was the first to crown his Christmas table with this recently-discovered bird from the Americas.
In Italy, meanwhile, seafood and veal are popular choices for Christmas dinner, while in Japan, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken is the national go-to. (KFC in Japan on Christmas bizarrely stems from an ad campaign run by the company back in the 70s!)
Before we wrap up: one more tradition that might pique your curiosity – the mistletoe. With a long and complicated history set deep in Norse mythology, the mistletoe started to resemble the tradition we know today in the 18th century. Apparently, young ladies would be remiss not to grant a kiss under the mistletoe if they ever hoped to find a husband; a lady who didn’t kiss under the mistletoe could find herself single again next Christmas!
Now, as you consider all the traditions around you this year, hopefully you can appreciate the rich history that lies behind so much of what we celebrate at Christmas.