Symbols of the Christmas Season
The tradition comes from a Christmas story of St Nicholas. In the 1800's, when the father of three young maidens could not afford a dowry for his daughters to be married. From his castle, St Nicholas heard of the poor misfortune of the maidens and secretly threw a bag of coins down their chimney. It is said that the gold coins landed in the girls stockings that were hanging in the fireplace to dry.
Later children in Holland would leave out their wooden shoes in hopes that St Nicholas would fill them with goodies.
Christmas wreaths combine two symbols of everlasting life. The evergreen bough, that stays green all winter and a continuous unbroken circular shape.
The real Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas a fourth century Bishop in Turkey. Famous for acts of kindness, especially towards children, he eventually became popular in Holland, where he was known as "Sinter Klaas". Around 1870, the Americans turned the name into Santa Claus.
In nineteenth century Britain the Elizabethan character Father Christmas - the jolly old man imagined to provide the Christmas feast - merged with Santa.
Up to 1890, he was sometimes depicted as tall and thin, wearing green or brown as often as red. Santa's present appearance was created by Swedish artist Jenny Nystrom in a series of Christmas cards. Fellow Swede Haddon Sundblom helped universalise the new image when he adopted Nystrom's ideas for Coca-Cola's advertising campaign - Santa matched Coke's red-and-white logo. Sundblom also refined the character, making his body a little fatter and giving him his herd of flying reindeer.
The idea of Santa Claus entering people's homes by dropping down the chimney comes from American Scholar Clement Moore's famous 1822 poem A Visit from St Nicholas.
Sir Henry Cole, a publisher and innovator who founded London's Victoria & Albert museum and was influential in setting up the Royal College of Music, the Albert Hall and public lavatories, sent out the first Christmas card in 1843. But the cards, at first handmade and very expensive at a shilling each did not become popular until later in the century.
Tom Smith, a confectioner in London started to develop Christmas crackers in the 1840's. They began as individually wrapped lollies, like the ones Tom had seen on sale in Paris. Then Chinese fortune cookies gave him the idea of putting a love motto in the wrapping.
Some years later, watching a log crackling in the fire, he had the further idea of adding a crack. Tom's cracking sweets, called cosaques, appeared in 1870.
He later swapped the sweets for metal charms, and by 1900, an annual 13 million Christmas crackers were sold worldwide. Today the Tom Smith Group produces 50 million crackers a year.
In the early seventeenth century, Germans began bringing trees indoors at Christmas and decorating them with candles. It was the German Prince Albert who popularised the Christmas tree in Britain after putting one up at Windsor Castle in 1840. Over the next 20 years, candlelit trees became popular, the lights symbolising rebirth.
In 1882 the first electrically lit Christmas tree was set up in the New York home of a friend of the inventor Thomas Edison; it had 80 bulbs and cost a small fortune. Even when strings of lights were produced commercially in 1903, they cost an average American's weekly wage.
The Christmas Fairy/Angel
The fairy at the top of the Christmas tree was originally a little figure of the baby Jesus. In late seventeenth century Germany this became a shining angel. Windsor Castle's Christmas trees were topped by a large angel.
In Victorian Britain, little girls would take the angel down after Christmas and dress him in dolls' clothes. Eventually the angel turned into a thoroughly female fairy, complete with wand.
The transformation was boosted by the pantomimes that became popular in the Victorian era - and, naturally, included a good fairy in the cast.
Ancient Romans lit candles to ward off evil, and to convince the sun to shine again. In Victorian times, candles came to represent good will for those less fortunate during the holiday season. Candles were often placed in windows during the Christmas season as a sign to those passing by that shelter and warmth could be found within.
Druids believed that holly, with its shiny leaves and red berries stayed green in Winter to keep the earth beautiful when the sacred oak lost it leaves. They wore sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch their priests cut the sacred mistletoe. Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honor him. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of Saturn with it. Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus . To avoid persecution, they decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly lost its pagan association and became a symbol of Christmas.
Mistletoe is an aerial parasite plant that has no roots of its own and lives off the tree it attaches itself to. Without the tree it would die. Mistletoe was thought to be sacred by ancient Europeans. Druid priests employed it in their sacrifices to the gods while Celtic people felt it possessed miraculous healing powers. In fact, in the Celtic language mistletoe means "all-heal".
Later, the eighteenth-century English credited mistletoe not with miraculous healing powers, but with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young woman standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the woman remains unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year. Whether we believe it or not, it is always fun at Christmas celebrations.
Dr Joel Poinsett, the country's first ambassador to Mexico, brought the fire red flower to the United States more than 100 years ago. Mexico's legend of the Poinsettia tells of a poor Mexican girl Maria and her little brother Pablo. The two children loved the annual Mexican Christmas festival with its large Manger scene, but each year they were disappointed that they had no money to buy a present for the baby Jesus.
One Christmas eve Maria and Pablo stopped to pick some weeds growing along the roadside on their way to church, to give to the baby Jesus. The other children chided them for their gift, but Maria and Pablo knew their gift was from the heart, and it was all they could give. As they began to place the weeds around the Manger, the green-top leaves miraculously turned into bright red petals. Soon the Manger was surrounded by the beautiful star-shaped flowers we love too see during the holidays.
The Christmas Tree
People often wonder where the custom of having a tree in the home during Christmas time comes from. We will probably never know for sure. But there are many historical clues that point out where this custom came from.
Thousands or years ago, there were people who believed that evergreen trees were magical. Even in winter, when all the other trees and were brown and bare, the evergreen tree stayed strong and green. People saw the evergreen as a symbol of life and as a sure sign that sunshine and spring would soon return. Candles, or the electric lights we use to decorate our trees today, are also an ancient symbol. They represent the light of spring overcoming the darkness of winter.
So when did the Christmas tree go indoors? Legend has it that the tradition was begun by Martin Luther in Germany. He was a monk and church reformer who lived from 1483 to 1546. According to the legend, Luther was returning home one wintry night when he saw the stars twinkling in the sky through the tree branches. Luther was amazed by the sight, and when he arrived home, he was eager to tell his family about it. To help them understand, he went to the woods and cut down a small fir tree. Luther brought it indoors and decorated it with candles, which represented the stars he had seen.
The custom spread in Germany, and from there all over the world. In England, the Christmas tree first appeared when Queen Victoria married Albert, a German Prince. In 1841, Albert set up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle near London to remind him of his homeland. The Christmas tree custom was brought to the United States by people from England as well as by many German immigrants who came in the 1800's. Whatever its origin, the Christmas tree is a beautiful symbol for everyone who celebrates Christmas.
Plum porridge - a soft, sweet mixture enriched with dried fruit, known as plums - was a luxury for Elizabethans. In the eighteenth century, this evolved into a thicker plum pudding.
One firm, Matthew Walker of Derby now makes some 16 million a year - 40 percent of the world's Christmas puddings.
Turkeys came into England from Mexico in 1526, when Yorkshire man William Strickland bought six from American Indian traders and sold them in Bristol for two pence each.
Edward VII made eating turkey at Christmas fashionable, but it remained a luxury until the 1950's.
The Germans are thought to have initiated the custom of distributing Advent Calendars to children. These designs have changed very little and are still usually silver frosted landscapes with 24 hinged openings in Germany, and 25 hinged openings in most other countries. They are numbered with the date when they may be opened leading up to Christmas. Each little door yields a secret picture or message, or perhaps a small present.
The Christmas crib was first popularised by St Francis of Assisi, who set up a simple manger scene at the little town of Greccio in Italy in 1224. It included a real manger and straw, a live ox and an ass, and local villagers who took the parts of Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds. The ceremony proved so popular it was repeated each year.
Various customs are associated with Advent. One that still survives in parts of Europe, notably in Germany, is the hanging of Advent wreaths. These are rings made up of sprigs of evergreens such as holly and ivy, into which are fixed four red candles. They are hung from the middle of the ceiling and on each Sunday of Advent one candle is lit so that by Christmas all four are burning. In Britain in Victorian times, the Christmas pudding had to be made before Advent commenced. This was always on Stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, when the pudding was solemnly stirred in an anti-clockwise direction by every member of the household before it was boiled (with silver charms or coins hidden in it) for several hours, then left to mature until Christmas Day.