The origins of some Christmas traditions

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  • Saturday, 13 Dec 2014

1. Christmas trees - Decorating Christmas trees pre-dates Christianity in Europe. Many households today use artificial trees to celebrate.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins.

Some of the things we most associate with the Christmas season are Christmas trees, presents, roast turkey and carolling.

Most people do not question the origins of these traditions and simply take it as standard practice for the season.

With Christmas just around the corner, Metro Online Broadcast (MOB) explores the history and legends that made Christmas traditions what they are today.

1. Christmas trees

Decorating evergreen trees during the winter solstice pre-dates Christianity in Europe, but the modern Christmas tree is widely believed to have originated from 16th century Germany. 

Early trees were decorated with edibles such as apples, nuts and pastries, but these were replaced with glass baubles and tinsel garlands over time. 

Martin Luther, a theologian and Catholic priest from 16th-century Germany, is widely believed to have been the first person to add put lit candles to on a Christmas tree — a predecessor to modern Christmas tree lights.

2. Santa Claus

The figure of Santa Claus is largely inspired by the legend of Saint Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre, Turkey), known for secretly giving gifts of coins to the poor.

2. Santa Claus - The modern image of Santa Claus is largely influenced by a famous poem by American professor Clement Clarke Moore in 1823.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins. Filepix.

However, the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly man clad in red is largely influenced by the famous 1823 poem A Visit From St Nicholas (“T’was The Night Before Christmas”) by American professor Clement Clarke Moore.

3. Christmas stockings

There are no written records on how the tradition of leaving small gifts in sock-shaped bags started, but some attribute this to one of the legends of Saint Nicholas.

3. Christmas stockings - Using Christmas stockings as decorations draws influence from the legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins.

Saint Nicholas was passing through a village where lived an old man who did not have enough money to get his three daughters married.

Deciding to help in secret, Saint Nicholas came at night and threw three bags of gold through an open window, one of which landed in a stocking that was hung over a fireplace to dry.

4. Christmas presents

Nobody knows exactly how the exchanging of gifts came to be associated with Christmas, but historians have proposed several theories.

4. Christmas presents - Some historians theorise that the act of exchanging gifts could be traced to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins. Filepix.

Some believe this could be a leftover tradition from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia that was celebrated on Dec 25 prior to the founding of Christianity.

Others have associated the tradition of gift-giving to the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to the newborn Jesus in the nativity story.

However, it is also believed that Moore’s famous poem may have encouraged this tradition in modern times.

5. Christmas meals

When it comes to Christmas dinners, a whole roasted turkey is one dish most highly associated with the holiday.

5. Christmas meals - Eating the turkey as a staple Christmas dish was only made popular in 16th century England, but celebrations around the world typically serve dishes that reflect the culture of the country it is celebrated in.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins. Filepix.

Eating the turkey as a Christmas staple only became trendy in England from the 16th century onwards.

A traditional Christmas dinner in different parts of the world would have dishes that reflect each individual culture, so it is perfectly acceptable to serve your roast turkey or shepherd’s pie in addition to devil’s curry or chicken murtabak in Malaysia.

6. Carolling

Like in many religions and cultures, music is intrinsic to Christianity, and Christmas carols are regularly sung in church and for worship when the season comes around.

6. Caroling - Door-to-door caroling can be traced to an ancient Anglo-Saxon winter solstice tradition known as wassailing.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins. Filepix.
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However, the act of door-to-door carolling may have originated from an ancient Anglo-Saxon winter solstice tradition known as “wassailing,” in which people visited homes and orchards to sing songs to convey wishes of good health and good harvest to the owner.

7. Candy canes

Folklore in Germany tells the tale of the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral who, in 1670, sought the help of a local candy maker to make sweet sticks to be handed out to children in order to keep them quiet while the nativity play was performed on Christmas Eve.

7. Candy canes - There is no historical record of how candy canes came about, but one popular legend attributes this to the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral, Germany in 1670.Top 10 story: 10 Christmas traditions origins. Photo taken at Sunway Pyramid.

The sweet sticks were made to resemble a shepherd’s crook, just like that ofused by the shepherds in the nativity story.

There is no historical evidence to suggest this was how candy canes started, but they are strikingly similar to a Swedish straight candy cane known as polkagris.

8. Twelve Days of Christmas

More than just a popular 18th century English Christmas carol, the 12 days of Christmas hold actual religious significance as Christmas is celebrated over 12 days until Jan 6 (Jan 5 in some places), which is the Christian Feast of The Epiphany.

Epiphany celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus, signifying the revelation of Jesus as a divine figure. Some cultures observe the practice of the 12th day being the last day to take down Christmas decorations.

9. Yuletide

Often we hear the word “yuletide” being mentioned in a few secular Christmas carols, but only a few know that it is a pre-Christian pagan religious festival celebrated during the winter solstice.

Originally observed by the Germanic people of central and northern Europe, a few of its customs persisted over time and were later absorbed into Christian tradition as it became the dominant religion; the most notable being carolling and the serving of cured or smoked ham.

10. The spirit of Christmas

Christmas was not always known as a time for family and goodwill.

Early Christmas celebrations, especially in England, were a time of excessive eating, drunkenness and all forms of adult merriment.

The situation got so bad that religious extremists outright banned the celebration for a few years, following their victory in the English Civil War in the mid-17th century.

The idea of “the spirit of Christmas” as a positive sentiment was later revived and partly influenced by the famous Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol in 1843.

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