Below are some facts associated with Christmas, but are rarely mentioned in common conversation. Did you know…
Sir Henry Cole was the first to send out a Christmas card. The year was 1843. Cole bemoaned the number of letters he must write to send glad tidings to family, friends and patrons. Cole was an English civil servant and inventor who facilitated many innovations in commerce and education in 19th century Britain. He is said to have employed a local artist to create a scene and then had 1000 cards printed with a Christmas greeting.
The Victorian Christmas tree was an “import” from western Germany. In Germany, the feast of Adam and Eve was celebrated on December 24, [believed by some to have originated in the 8th century with Winfrid, an English missionary later known as St. Boniface], and the tree was the main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a “paradise tree,” a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes. “They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ, were often added. In the same room was the “Christmas pyramid,” a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.
“The custom was widespread among the German Lutherans by the 18th century, but it was not until the following century that the Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition. Introduced into England in the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was popularized in the mid-19th century by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys and small gifts, candles, candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbon and by paper chains. Taken to North America by German settlers as early as the 17th century, Christmas trees were the height of fashion by the 19th century. They were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands. In China and Japan, Christmas trees, introduced by Western missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, were decorated with intricate paper designs.” [“Christmas tree.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., May 19, 2015. https://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree]
Many traditions involving greenery originated in Druid, Celt, Norse, and Roman civilizations, which celebrated the winter solstice around December 21. Because the color green represented eternal life, plants that remained green throughout the year played an important role in these celebrations. The Romans celebrated the solstice with a mid-winter holiday called the Saturnalia, honoring the Roman god Saturn. They lit candles in their homes, spent time with friends and family, decorated their homes with wreaths and garlands, exchanged gifts, and feasted. As a symbol of eternal life, cultures around the world employ evergreen boughs and wreaths to decorate their homes. European pagans were known to worship trees. The practice survived even after Christianity took root. The Scandinavians used boughs of evergreens and holly to drive away the devil as part of their New Year’s celebration. As pagan cultures converted to Christianity, they continued many of their traditional winter solstice activities. Because the use of greenery had pagan origins, early church leaders often objected to its use. However, the traditions were so deeply ingrained that the customs continued – but from a Christian frame of reference.
Mistletoe thrives high above the ground, living as a parasite on oak trees. Ancients believed it represented a connection between heaven and earth. Mistletoe also played a role in various cultures. The Druids believed the plant was sacred and had healing powers. Mistletoe was an important element in the Norse legend of Balder, the sun god. The Romans considered it a symbol of hope and peace, so in the Roman era enemies reconciled under the mistletoe. Perhaps that is the basis of lovers kissing beneath the mistletoe. [Christmas Traditions Rooted in Ancient Cultures]
Wassailing is a very ancient custom that is rarely done today. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’. Originally, the wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. Jesus College, in Oxford University, has a Wassail bowl, that is covered with silver. It can hold 10 gallons of drink! Wassailing was traditionally done on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night, but some rich people drank Wassail on all the 12 days of Christmas! The Wassail drink mixture was sometimes called ‘Lamb’s Wool’, because of the pulp of the roasted apples looked all frothy and a bit like Lamb’s Wool! [Why Christmas]
Here is a recipe for Wassail:
1 gallon dark beer 1/2 tsp. ground ginger 2 cups brown sugar
dash of ground mace 2 cinnamon sticks 1 tsp. grated nutmeg
2 lemons 1 bottle sherry or red wine 1 doz. apples, cored & baked
Cook the top six ingredients over a low-medium heat in a saucepan. When the sugar has melted, add the sherry. Pour the hot liquid over the backed apples and lemon slices and serve.
People dressed as Father Frost, the named used locally for Santa Claus, and Snow Maiden greet passers-by during a New Year parade in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Reuters Image)
Children all over the world call Santa Claus by different names: St. Nick, Nicholas of Myra, Father Christmas, Pilznickel, Sinter Klaes, Hoteisho, Weihnachtsmann, Père Noël, Sancte Claus, Lam Khoong-Khoong, Christkindle, Pelz Nichol, Kriss Kingle, St. Nicholas, and Für Nicholas. The picture of Santa Claus, as we see him, came from Thomas Nast. He was an American painter born in Bavaria. He painted pictures for Christmas poems. Someone asked him to paint a picture of Santa Claus. Nast remembered when he was a little boy in southern Germany. Every Christmas, a fat old man gave toys and cakes to the children. So, when Nast painted the picture, his Santa Claus looked like the kindly old man of his childhood. And through the years, Nast’s painting has remained as the most popular picture of Santa Claus. [Learning English]
Bishop Nicholas of Myra was the original Santa Claus. During the persecution of Christians in the 4th Century in what is now Turkey, Bishop Nicholas was imprisoned and died at a young age. Nicholas had been a well loved to those he administered for his kindness to children. His transformation into Father Christmas began in Germany and was carried to North America by 17th Century German settlers.
While there are no written records of the origin of the Christmas Stocking, there are popular legends that attempt to tell the history of this Christmas tradition. One such legend has several variations, but the following is a good example: Very long ago, there lived a poor man and his three very beautiful daughters. He had no money to get his daughters married, and he was worried what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas was passing through when he heard the villagers talking about the girls. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but knew that the old man wouldn’t accept charity. He decided to help in secret. After dark he threw three bags of gold through an open window, one landed in a stocking. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning they found the bags of gold and were, of course, overjoyed. The girls were able to get married and live happily ever after. Other versions of the story say that Saint Nicholas threw the three bags of gold directly into the stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry. [Morris, Desmond (1992). Christmas Watching. Jonathan Cape. pp. 14–15.]