(Post 3 of a series of 4)
We’re in a little series on the origins of our Christmastime traditions. With the first post, I covered the subjects of the winter soltice and Saturnalia. With the second, I explained the effect the Roman emperor Constantine had upon the winter soltice and Saturnalia celebrations. With this third post, I’ll cover the origins of three major traditions.
Tradition #1 is the name “Christmas” itself. The word comes from the Roman Catholic term “Christ’s Mass.” When you know this, it will come as no surprise that each Christmas Eve the Roman Catholics observe Mass, which is their version of the Lord’s Supper.
Tradition #2 is the Christmas tree. Long before the time of Christ, ancient Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year, the day of the winter solstice. To them, those green palm branches symbolized life. Centuries later the Romans decorated their homes with evergreen wreaths during the days of Saturnalia. The idea of a Christmas tree came out of these historical observances of the Egyptians and the Romans.
The first recorded reference to an actual Christmas tree comes from the 16th century. At that time the families in Strasbourg, Germany are known to have decorated fir trees with colored paper, fruits, and sweets. In 1520, Martin Luther, who was German, saw the beauty of the stars twinkling through the evergreen trees outside his home and attempted to copy this beauty by placing lit candles on his Christmas tree. His neighbors soon followed suit.
The custom of the Christmas tree eventually spread through Europe. Records tell us that Prince Albert of Germany married Queen Victoria of England and set up a beautifully decorated tree in England’s Windsor Castle. The tree was decorated with candies, sugared fruits, and tiny wrapped gifts.
As for the United States, the custom was brought here by German soldiers and Hessian mercenaries who were paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804, U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn, in what is now Chicago, hauled trees from the surrounding forests to their barracks at Christmastime. Once the custom had begun in America, it quickly spread.
In 1851, a man named Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York and opened the nation’s first retail lot. In 1882, Edward Johnson, a partner of Thomas Edison, invented electric Christmas tree lights and hung the first string on his tree. This was safer than Martin Luther’s old idea about placing lit candles on Christmas trees. Franklin Pierce, America’s fourteenth president, was the first president to place a Christmas tree in the White House. Later on, in 1923, Calvin Coolidge began the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, which is held every year on the White House lawn.
Tradition #3 is Santa Claus. In approximately 280 A.D., a man named Nicholas was born in Turkey. He was raised in a wealthy family and received a fine education. As a young man, he became a priest. This Nicholas was well known for his kindness and generosity. When his parents died, he even distributed his inheritance and property to the needy. Ultimately, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra. To this day a feast is held on December 6th, the date of his death.
It is from the life and deeds of Saint Nicholas that the basics of the legend arose. The most famous story is about him making three secret visits to the home of a poor father of three daughters. On each of the first two visits, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the window of the home. On the third visit, he threw the bag of gold down the chimney. As the story goes, the bag landed in a stocking that had been hung by the chimney to dry. The father used those three bags of gold as dowries to get his daughters married into good families. Because of this, over the course of time, people began to thank Saint Nicholas anytime they received an unexpected gift.
According to legend, Saint Nicholas’ cape was bright red and trimmed with white fur. This was the origin of what Santa wears. The name “Santa Claus” comes from “Sinter Klaas,” the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. The Dutch were the ones who brought the story of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) to America.
Once in America, the legend began to take on new details. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote a story about children leaving stockings out for Saint Nicholas to fill. A few years later, in 1821, Irving wrote a book entitled “The Children’s Friend,” in which he said that Santa traveled by a sleigh that was pulled by reindeer. That was different from earlier versions of Santa’s story, which said that he traveled by wagon with the assistance of a magic white horse.
One year later, in 1822, a New Yorker named Clement C. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” It began, “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…” That story inspired an artist named Thomas Mast to draw a cartoon of Santa for the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly. That cartoon depicted St. Nicholas as a jolly, fat man.
Actually, Santa is just one of the many areas in which America has added its own touches to Christmastime. In 1942, in the movie “Holiday Inn,” Bing Crosby first sang the song “White Christmas.” In 1946, Jimmy Stewart starred as George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In 1947, Twentieth Century Fox released “Miracle On 34th Street.” In 1964, Elvis Pressley recorded the song “Blue Christmas.” Also in 1964, television gave us the cartoon classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In 1965, it gave us “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In 1966, it was “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” In 1968, it was “The Little Drummer Boy.” In 1969, it was Frosty the Snowman. All of these elements and a vast assortment of others that we all know so well have become a part of the far-out, odd, colossal mix that we call the Christmas holiday.