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The origin of popular American Christmas traditions

By Amy Bennett | December 10, 2018 

Fireplace video and stockingsI did it. I put my Christmas tree up last weekend. (whew!) The older I get, the harder it is to be motivated enough to decorate. I have been collecting ornaments since I was a child, so I have quite a few. It’s so much work, and then it feels like even more when the time comes to take it down. How can that be? But every year I do it—it’s a tradition. Christmas just doesn’t seem like Christmas without it. As I worked, I wondered about the start of various holiday customs, so I did some Googling, and below is what I found.  

  • The first Christmas tree – Thousands of years ago, Pagans, and Christians used evergreen branches in their winter festivals as a sign that spring would be coming. Although no one seems to know for sure, two European cities both claim the first Christmas tree. Tallin, in the country of Estonia, claims that local merchants put a tree up in the town square in 1441. The same claim is made by the capital city of Latvia, Riga, which has a plaque commemorating the first New Year’s (Christmas) tree in 1510. Also in the 16th century, a German preacher, Martin Luther, is credited with being the first person to put a Christmas tree in his home.
  • Kissing under the mistletoe – Back in Medieval times, people believed that mistletoe (along with topaz, candles, and gargoyles!) possessed mystical powers which could ward off evil spirits.However, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from England where a berry was picked from the mistletoe sprig before the person could be kissed. Once the sprig was bare, no more kissing could occur! 
  • Eating candy canes – It appears that candy canes were invented in 1670 by a German choirmaster who wanted to keep the children in the choir quiet through a Christmas nativity service. Some say the shape of the candy cane resembles a shepherd’s hook while others believe it is actually shaped like the letter “J” for Jesus.
  • “Jingle Bells” – “Jingle Bells” was written by Boston born James Lord Pierpont in 1857. It was written to be a Thanksgiving song, and it was originally titled “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” “Jingle Bells” was also the first song to be broadcast from space in 1965. Who knew?
  • Sending Christmas cards – In 1843, the tradition of sending Christmas cards began when Sir Henry Cole, a postal service worker in the UK, came up with the idea as a way to get ordinary citizens to use the post office. The original Christmas card had three panels. The outer two panels showed the poor being cared for, and the middle panel showed a family having Christmas dinner. The card was controversial as it depicted a child being given wine.
  • Poinsettia on a side tableDisplaying poinsettias – A 16th-century Mexican tale tells of a poor girl who was told by an angel to place weeds at the church’s altar to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The legend goes on to say that the weeds bloomed into the large red poinsettia flowers. Poinsettias are native to southern Mexico and were first brought to the US in 1828, by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first Ambassador from the US to Mexico. Poinsett brought the plants back to one of his plantation in South Carolina that had a greenhouse.
  • Hanging Christmas stockings – This tradition began in the third century in Myra, Turkey. The legend says that St. Nicholas would fill the stockings with gold coins as a way to give dowries to poor girls.

Most families have their own unique holiday customs – a special meal for Christmas dinner, gift exchanges, going to midnight church services, singing Christmas carols, etc. Luckily, many of my co-workers bake and share cookies as part of their holiday tradition. This year, we even decided to spread some holiday cheer and decorate our office in Marian Hall with stockings and a roaring fire. As some of us are single, we’re hoping that St. Nicholas fills our stockings with gold coins this year.

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