History

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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The turkey, its trimmings, and even the leftovers are nothing more than a memory; as the television and every other media source is telling us, now it’s time to turn on the Christmas cheer. But why exactly do we hang socks by the chimney, purchase poinsettias, or steal smooches under dangling greenery during this time a year? What’s the real story behind these holiday traditions?

1. From Saint to Santa

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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St. Nicholas of Dutch origin is often portrayed as a tall white bearded man dressed in red clerical robes. Known as the patron saint of children, wolves, sailors and pawnbrokers, several stories exist as to why he became such colorful symbol of Christmas. One says that he saved sailors from a dangerous storm earning him much love from their grateful families, another claims he gave money to a poor man to save his daughters, one even claims that three boys murdered by a crazy butcher were brought back to life by the good saint.

Upon his death, the bones of Saint Nicholas were distributed to Catholic churches throughout Europe and became honored religious relics. The traditions associated with St. Nicholas first came to the New World via the Dutch colonists. In 1809, Washington Irving writes in the “History of New York” about a portly man flying about in a wagon dropping gifts down a chimney.  Then in 1823, Clement Clark’s famous “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” replaces the wagon with a sleigh led by eight tiny reindeer. Finally, during the Civil War years, German born American cartoonist Thomas Nast published a series portraying Saint Nicholas as he is known today – the jolly old fat man squeezing down chimneys with a bursting bag of toys.

2. Stuffed Socks

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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We can blame a poor widower for the tradition of hanging stockings. Worried that his impoverished status would ruin the marital prospects for his girls, the distraught widower’s story was known to all the town.

St. Nicholas, doing some holiday shopping of his own, caught wind of the sad story and decided something must be done. Late that evening, the sly saint secretly slipped down the chimney of the man’s home. Finding the stockings of the beautiful daughters drying in front of the fire, he quickly stuffed each of the three socks with gold coins.

Waking the next morning, the widower found his troubles solved as his nouveau riche daughters would now attract numerous suitors. A slightly different version of the story replaces three gold coins with golden balls. This might explain why oranges (representing the gold balls) are often found in stockings today.

3. Deck the Doors

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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Wreaths historically tied to the ancient Romans symbolized victory and celebration. They were often used to denote status as well and adorned homes of the wealthy and were even worn on the head. Over time the Catholics used wreaths to celebrate the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day by lighting a candle once a week on each Friday of Advent at dinner. The circular shape representing no beginning and no end celebrated Jesus and the candles celebrated Christ as the Light of the World.

During the 19th century, wreaths began to appear on the doors of Northern Europeans to denote address. As numbers are used today to distinguish homes, each wreath was different and used to identify a particular family home. As Northern Europeans came to the New World, the tradition of decorating doors with wreaths continued and continues to this day.

4. Sweet Treats

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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In 1607, a choirmaster hoping to keep his tiny carolers quiet during long Christmas services, is said to have bestowed candy canes to the children. Some believe the well-known “J” shape is representative of a shepherd’s staff symbolizing the ones who visited the newly born baby Jesus.

Others maintain that it was a business man in Indiana who created the “J” shape symbolizing the shepherds and used the letter J for Jesus. Swirling colors were chosen for decoration –  red to represent Christ’s blood and His dying for our sins, and white for the Virgin Mary and Christ’s purity.

Whatever the reason for their shape, the largest producer of candy canes drew a long sigh of relief when a Georgia priest invented the Keller machine in 1919 that mechanized the process of creating the shape and revolutionized their production.

5. Pucker Up, Baby

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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Since Greek and Roman times, mistletoe has been valued for its healing properties aiding in everything from epilepsy to spleen issues. Celtic Druids in 1st century A.D. came to believe that these plants that bloomed throughout the winter symbolized health and longevity, and used them in fertility ceremonies for both humans and animals.

Norse mythology tells us that Frigg, the goddess of love, distraught over the death of her son Baldur by a poison arrow made from the plant, was overjoyed when the gods brought him back to life. Now honoring the plant as a symbol of love, she declared she’d kiss anyone who passed beneath it.

During the 18th century, servants began hanging mistletoe during the holidays. Soon the middle class embraced the tradition as well. Each time a woman found herself underneath it, a berry was plucked and a man was allowed to plant a kiss upon her. Bad luck rained upon those who denied the kiss. And once the berries had all been plucked, no more kisses were available for giving.

6. The Magic Bouquet

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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We can thank the first Ambassador to Mexico, John Poinsett, for the Christmas Poinsettia. So the story goes, Poinsett, also a botanist, spotted an interesting plant growing along the Mexican roadside. He learned the plant was called Euphorbia Pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful” and brought cuttings of it home to his greenhouse in South Carolina. After its arrival in the U.S., other greenhouses began growing the plant as well, leading to an increase in its popularity. William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist renamed the plant after the ambassador in his book “Conquest of Mexico.”

Its association with Christmas comes from a legend about a poor Mexican girl desperate to find a gift to honor the baby Jesus. Because she had no money, she finally settled on giving a bouquet of weeds to the baby. When she delivered the bouquet to the church, a miracle took place and they magically transformed into an armful of Flores de Noche Buene, or poinsettias. The red and white leaves that make up the familiar flowers are thought to represent the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to the manger where Jesus was born.

7. Fruitcake – Yum or Yuck?

The History Behind 7 Holiday Traditions

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Oh the dreaded fruitcake – the Christmas gift that everyone loves to hate. Traced back to the ancient Romans, the fruitcake gained in popularity during the Middle Ages as dried fruit became more readily available. Over time, every country in Europe created some variation of this of this ancient recipe.

Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, people deemed fruitcakes special occasion worthy and began serving them at holidays and weddings. No one really knows when fruitcakes began to get the bad rap that is tied to them today. One suggestion, however, is that as they became more common and mass produced travelling all over the country to reach their lucky recipients, their quality and taste declined. Thus, the sad face for many when one arrives at the door.