Christmas, more than any other time of the year, is a time for tradition. Whether you celebrate or not, we are all surrounded by weird and wonderful festivities that have become so commonplace throughout the festive period that we barely glance twice anymore. You might look forward to decorating the Christmas wreath and kissing under the mistletoe each year, thinking not much more of it than yuletide merriment. But, over time, these traditions that once signified something completely different to our ancestors have been passed down from generation to generation and lost some of their original meaning. Let’s delve into the past and debunk some of these myths about our most beloved Christmas traditions.
Christmas Traditions: The Advent Calendar
Did you know you’re opening your advent calendar all wrong? Don’t worry, though. It’s not your fault. As with a lot of Christmas traditions, the lines have become a bit blurred since the holiday became commercialised. In Christianity, the period of advent actually starts on the closest Sunday to St. Andrew’s Day — otherwise known as Andermas. St. Andrew was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ and is the Patron Saint of Scotland. His martyrdom is celebrated on 30th November. That means, this year, advent actually started on 28th November.
The first advent calendar was created in 1908 by Gerhardt Lang, but later, in order to mass manufacture advent calendars, the idea that advent starts at the beginning of December was propagated by big brands. Thus, the first day of advent quickly became accepted as 1st December. It’s certainly easier for chocoholics to remember when to open that first door!
Christmas Traditions: Santa Claus
You may have heard the myth that Coca-Cola invented our modern interpretation of Santa Claus. Happily, we’re here to debunk that cynical old dinner party tale. Santa Claus has been depicted very differently throughout the ages, as you probably know. It was as early as the 19th century that Santa’s red garb became popularised in America and Canada, thanks to caricaturist and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Our Western red-coated St. Nick had been around for decades before Coca-Cola commissioned their depiction of Santa in 1931.
While the cynics haven’t won this one, it is true that Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was invented for a US retailer, Montgomery Ward, for their Christmas promotion in 1938. Again, the story is more heart-warming than you might think.
Bob May was the ad writer who came up with the character in an attempt to appease his young daughter’s heartbreak after his wife and her mother, Evelyn, died of cancer in early December. He created a picture book for their four-year-old daughter, Barbara, as he couldn’t afford to buy her a Christmas gift that year. When he read it to his colleagues, the firm decided to publish the storybook and it grew immensely in popularity over the coming years, selling millions of copies.
Seeing how it could transform his life, the head of the department store returned all rights to Bob May in a wonderful gesture of goodwill. Rudolph went on to make Bob and his little daughter, Barbara, millionaires.
Christmas Traditions: Carol Singing
Whether you prefer a quiet night inside or enjoy standing on the doorstep to listen to some songs, carol singing is a tradition so closely associated with Christmas that its original place in society has completely changed.
In music theory, the word ‘carol’ simply means a song of praise and joy, and they date back to the Middle Ages. Originally, carols adopted a sacred choral structure and were sung as dance melodies and throughout the year in all seasons and every weather!
As our society has become less intertwined with religion, the activity has been largely dropped for the rest of the year. But, even for those who don’t follow the Christian faith, carols still signify the festive season. Perhaps it’s the sense of nostalgia and togetherness singing as a group provides. Perhaps they are simply universally loved songs that are so ingrained.
Christmas Traditions: Kissing Under the Mistletoe
This tradition is generally credited to Norse Gods and Goddesses. The legend goes that Baldr, son of Odin, was killed when his chest was pierced by a spear fashioned from mistletoe. Upon hearing this tragic news, his mother, Frigg, was so distraught that she set out to ensure no one would ever be killed by mistletoe again. Thus, she decreed it should become a symbol of reconciliation, friendship, and peace.
While some versions of the tale tell of Baldr being resurrected, most agree he was fatally wounded and Frigg’s tears fell and became the white berries of the mistletoe tree.
The Romans also incorporated mistletoe into their Saturnalia celebrations and it features in the Greek myth of Aeneas, a survivor from the fall of Troy. Centuries later, the Celtic Druids in the British Isles would gather mistletoe in celebration of the Winter Solstice and warring warriors who met under its branches would have to lay down their arms and declare peace until the following day.
As you can see, mistletoe has held a special place in winter traditions that had more to do with platonic love than kissing, long before Christianity. The kissing Christmas traditions were first noted in the 18th and 19th centuries when new light was shined on ancient druid customs. Given the Druids believed mistletoe to be a sacred plant with fertile connotations due to its evergreen leaves and the shape of the plant, this comparatively modern romantic custom most likely relates to the mistletoe as a symbol of fertility.
Christmas Traditions: Merry Xmas!
Speaking of kissing, let’s look into the ‘X’ of Xmas. Most would assume this is a truly modern greeting that we have technology and brevity of communication to thank for, while others dislike the term for sounding irreligious. However, the first instance of this term being committed to text was in the 15th century, not in greeting but in ecclesiastical writings. No doubt, this was not for the sake of saving a few precious seconds. In fact, the ‘X’ originally represented the first letter of the Greek word Xριστóς, which means Christ.
However you wish to share good tidings with all, and whichever way you choose to enjoy the holidays, we wish you Seasons Greetings from our CoE family to you!