One of my family’s favorite traditions is grabbing a coffee and driving around, looking at all of the people who have decorated their homes and lawns in celebration of the holiday season. As we were driving around, I wondered why putting up lights and decorations for Christmas is even a tradition, and how this tradition evolved into what we see today. It turns out that our modern day Christmas decorating habits and rituals are basically a melding of Christian traditions with the pre-existing pagan festivals.
Evergreens: One behavior that has lasted the test of time is the practice of bringing greenery in from the outdoors and into the home to symbolize life and vitality in the depths of a cold and barren winter.
The Tree: The Christmas tree did not grow in popularity until the early 17th century, and was originally a German tradition. When Christians adopted the concept of Christmas trees, they were often put on shelves next to candles which eventually led to putting the candles on the tree, all the way to us stringing up electric lights to give our trees that special glow. Often these trees would be used in nativity scenes, which led to their association with Christianity.
Santa: There is a bit of mixing of legends when it comes to Santa Claus. It appears that our modern day iteration of Santa Claus is a mixture of English and European folk tales, as well as some pagan legends about spirits that took to the air during the winter.
Feasting: Feasting, which seems to be pretty universal during this time of year, is most likely due to the fact that all of the harvesting for the year is over and there is no more farming to be done until right before spring, so it made sense that people would kick back and relax a bit after all of their hard work in the fields.
Lights: When you look at the prevalence of lights in the wintertime, it seems odd that we would fixate on adding a glow to our nights, but if you dig deeper, this custom seems to have some logic to it. Winter tends to pose the darkest and longest nights of the year, and sunlight becomes fleeting in the short days from December to March. If you live in a place where it becomes cold and dark this time of year, lighting and celebration take away some of the bleakness that can lead to melancholy and depression. This is probably why lighting the darkness was especially dominant in the Norse celebration of the Yule, where Norseman would drink Yule, Odin’s special sacrificial beer, and light the Yule log, which was thought to summon back the sun’s light and to drive away nefarious evil spirits. Christians later adopted the practice of light from the Yule in order to symbolize Jesus’s light in the darkness.
Gift Giving: This a kind of a touchy subject, and a relatively new tradition. It used to be that gives were given at the New Year, and it wasn’t until the 1800’s that the English royal family began giving gift around Christmas. There is also the inevitable conversation that materialism takes away from the idea that Christmas should be religiously centered, which is a debate that persists to this day.
Holiday traditions stem from centuries of practices, and have trickled down to how each and every one of us choose to spend our holidays. Tell us, what are some of the holiday traditions your family practices?