Why Do We Decorate For Christmas, and Other Christmas Customs Explained

Why are evergreens and holly used for decorations?

Evergreens show that the circle of life continues in the depths of winter. In pre-Christian times, many cultures put up evergreen boughs in winter to encourage the return of the sun gods. According to Ann Koski, former director of the Wisconsin Historical Museum and Christmas customs scholar, some Christians preferred holly with the red berries representing the blood of Christ amid eternally green leaves. In Wisconsin, cranberries have often been decorations, she noted. Selena Fox, the head of Circle Sanctuary who studies holiday lore, observes that this custom comes from the Winter Solstice, celebrated in cultures the world over for thousands of years.

How did it change to using a whole tree for the celebration of Christmas?

The first records of whole trees being used to celebrate Christmas date from the early 16th Century. But even in the Middle Ages, trees called “paradise trees” were used to symbolize the Nativity in widely staged holiday plays, since Christmas Eve was also considered to be the feast day of Adam and Eve. But as Christianity Today reports, these plays were banned in many places in the 16th century, “and people perhaps began to set up ‘paradise trees’ in their homes to compensate for the public celebration they could no longer enjoy.” In fact, the earliest Christmas trees used in homes were still referred to as “paradises.” They were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today. While legend credits the Protestant reformer Martin Luther with inventing the Christmas tree after a vision he had while walking through a pine forest, the story has little historical basis.

The custom gained popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and churches began setting up Christmas trees inside the sanctuary. Alongside the tree often stood wooden “pyramids”—stacks of shelves bearing candles, sometimes one for each family member. Eventually these pyramids of candles were placed on the tree.

Modern, more fireproof “candle” on a Christmas tree

Jim Leary, UW-Madison’s folklore professor, explains some other Christmas mysteries for us:

Why do we decorate Christmas trees?

Wisconsin is among the country’s biggest exporters of Christmas trees, in part because Christmas trees hail from Germany, and the state has strong German ties. Queen Victoria’s husband, the German Prince Albert, brought the idea of small tabletop trees to Windsor Castle. And after a woodcut picture was published of the royal family around a decorated tree with presents, its popularity exploded, said Ann Koski.

Why do we hang mistletoe?

According to some sources, the practice of hanging mistletoe in the house goes back to the times of the Druids, members of the priestly class in Britain, Ireland and Gaul and possibly other parts of Celtic western Europe during the Iron Age. (The Iron Age began in the 8th century BCE in Central Europe and the 6th century BCE in Northern Europe.) Mistletoe was supposed to possess mystical healing powers, bringing good luck to the household and warding off evil spirits. (In the Celtic language, the word Mistletoe means “all-heal”. )

It was also used as a sign of love and friendship in Norse mythology. This particular meaning caught on in eighteenth century England, when “kissing balls” started showing up at Christmas parties. The kissing ball had a round frame that was trimmed with evergreens, ribbons and ornaments. Tiny nativity figures were placed inside it. For the finishing touch, a sprig of mistletoe was tied to the bottom of the ball. It was then hung from the ceiling, and party goers would play kissing games underneath it. A kiss under the mistletoe could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and good will.

Washington Irving explained in the 1800s:

“. . . young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

Puck, a popular magazine, shows the mistletoe tradition, 1895, via Library of Congress

Why do we have caroling and holiday parties?

Caroling and parties were merely a seasonal form of begging. (Think of the lyrics from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”: “Now bring us some figgy pudding …”) “In America it was poor people taking to the streets to visit rich people, demanding food and drink from them,” Leary said. “People still do a lot of partying and visiting and caroling, it’s just not a redistribution of the wealth.”

What the heck is Figgy Pudding?

According to the History Channel website, the first records of plum puddings (which are also called “figgy puddings”) date to the early 15th century, when “plum pottage,” a savory concoction heavy on the meat and root vegetables, was served at the start of a meal:

“The ‘plum’ in plum pudding was a generic term for any dried fruit — most commonly raisins and currants, with prunes and other dried, preserved or candied fruit added when available. By the end of the 16th century, dried fruit was more plentiful in England and plum pudding made the shift from savory to sweet.”

Alas, the Puritans in England thought that celebrations of Christmas were getting too pagan (hah! good thing they aren’t around now!) and when the very puritanical Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1647 he had Yule logs, carol-singing and nativity scenes banned, as well as the decadent plum pudding. In 1660 the Puritans were deposed and Christmas pudding, along with the English monarchy, was restored. Fifty years later, England’s first German-born ruler, George I, requested that plum pudding be served as part of his royal feast when he celebrated his first Christmas in England, and the tradition regained popularity.

The Christmas pudding is traditionally “stirred up” on Stir-Up Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Advent, considered to be the final day on which one can make the Christmas fruit cakes and puddings that require time to be aged before being served. Most recipes for Christmas pudding require it to be cooked well in advance of Christmas and then reheated on Christmas day, so Stir-Up Sunday came to be associated with a reminder to make the pudding. According to tradition, all family members must take a hand in the stirring, and a special wooden spoon (in honor of Christ’s crib and stable) is used. The stirring must be in a clockwise direction, with eyes shut, while making a secret wish. (See The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Knightly, 1986.)

You can find a recipe for Figgy Pudding here.

Why celebrate on December 25th?

Dec. 25 as a Christmas feasting day was proclaimed by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December. Several websites suggest that December 25th might have been chosen because the Winter Solstice and the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festivals called ‘Saturnalia’ and ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’ took place in December around this date – so it was a time when people already celebrated things. The Emperor Aurelian, for example, established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun” (the previously referenced Natalis Solis Invicti) in the third century as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations.

Detail of altar to Sol (1st century). Source: romanpagan.blogspot.com

Detail of altar to Sol (1st century). Source: romanpagan.blogspot.com

Christmas was a riotous holiday until it was banned in England from 1647 to 1660 as pagan excess and fell out of vogue. The comparatively modern American ritual became popular two centuries later in the Victorian era.

Why do we wrap gifts?

Gifts were not always wrapped — it became widely popular to do so in 1930. Why? That’s the year Scotch tape was invented, according to Ann Koski.

Why do we hang stockings in front of the fireplace?

Legend tells us that St. Nicholas, a Turkish bishop, heard of a once-wealthy father who squandered his money and his three daughters had no dowry and therefore couldn’t marry. “Nicholas knew that each night the girls washed their stockings and hung them by the fire to dry,” Koski explained, so he came in the middle of the night dropping gold coins down the chimney, which landed in their socks.

Why does Santa get milk and cookies?

Santa the gift-giver is truly multicultural — a few examples are the Turkish St. Nicholas, Befana from Italy, Dutch Sint Klaas and Holda, a Germanic goddess who rode through the sky bringing presents. Selena Fox indicated that offerings for Holda were left on the rooftop while the Swedish put food out for the gnome-like tomten.

The History Channel website explains:

“According to one theory, the cookies-and-milk custom is derived from an older tradition, when families would stuff stockings with goodies for Santa and hang them by the chimney, his preferred mode of entrance, as a welcoming gift. Now, however, those stockings are usually chock-full of treats and smaller gifts for the family members themselves.

Leaving cookies and milk for Santa—and perhaps a few carrots for his reindeer—took off as an American holiday tradition in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In that time of great economic hardship, many parents tried to teach their children that it was important to give to others and to show gratitude for the gifts they were lucky enough to receive on Christmas. Some 80 years later, many children still set out cookies and milk for Santa, whether out of the goodness of their hearts or (in less wholesome cases) as a bribe to receive more gifts from the jolly bearded man in the red suit.”

An NPR article contends that the Victorians had a lot to do with the popularity of this custom.

How did Santa Claus come to be associated with the North Pole?

The earliest published reference to Santa and the North Pole is from the December 29, 1866 issue of “Harper’s Weekly” magazine. The edition featured a cartoon by a famous illustrator called Thomas Nast. It’s in a collection of Christmas images, with one image being a village called “Santa Claussville, N.P.,” N.P. being short for North Pole.

The New York Times reports:

“In the late 1840s and the 1850s a series of expeditions to the Arctic captured public attention, and the area began to be discussed as the home of the elusive Santa Claus.  Year-round the North Pole had the snow that was becoming associated in the popular image with Christmas (the American publishers of magazines, books, and cards carrying Christmas illustrations were headquartered in the snowy Northeast).   Furthermore, the North Pole’s geographic isolation permitted the jolly old elf to work without interruption, and the region’s independence from all nations allowed Santa to be a symbol of universal good will. . . . The linkage of symbol and place was obviously common enough by 1866 that Nast realized he could simply abbreviate ‘North Pole.’”

One of Thomas Nast’s many depictions of Santa Claus

Why do we display creche or manger scenes?

The first Christmas creche was a living Nativity staged by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 in Italy. According to a Catholic Education website, in the year 1223, St. Francis, a deacon, was visiting the town of Grecio to celebrate Christmas. St. Francis realized that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for Midnight Mass, So he found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up the altar. Then, according to St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi:

“. . . in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King. . . “

creche01

Why do we hang lights?

Again according to unverified legend, after Martin Luther saw stars twinkling in the sky between boughs of the evergreens on Christmas, he is said to have placed the first candles on his tree. But electric lights, Koski explains, came from Thomas Edison’s business partner Edward Johnson who had a similar vision but with electricity. “He took home light bulbs and had them wired to a tree and put it in his window and people drove by just to see them,” she said. (Read a more detailed explanation of the invention of Christmas tree lights here.)

Why do we send cards?

Smithsonian Magazine reports that the custom was started by Henry Cole, a prominent educator and patron of the arts, who felt overwhelmed by the number of letters he would have to send out at Christmas, as was then the practice:

“An old custom in England, the Christmas and New Year’s letter had received a new impetus with the recent expansion of the British postal system and the introduction of the ‘Penny Post,’ allowing the sender to send a letter or card anywhere in the country by affixing a penny stamp to the correspondence.”

Cole hit upon the idea of sending a card instead, and commissioned an artist friend to help him. He made a thousand copies of the illustration and sent them out. It was the first Christmas card. Within a ew years, other prominent Victorians copied his idea. You can see an online exhibit of Victorian Christmas cards here.

The First Christmas Card with illustration by J. C. Horsley

When did Santa add Rudolph?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s story was written in 1939 by adman Robert May as a Montgomery Ward department store giveaway to lure holiday shoppers, NPR reports.

Cover of Montgomery Ward’s story of Rudolph from 1939

The corporation gave away 2.4 million copies of the book the first year, and it continued to be popular over the years. In 1949, Robert May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Gene Autry first recorded it, and it became his greatest hit.

Want to know more? For some very unusual Christmas customs from around the world, including Krampus the demon, a bad-tempered Yule Cat and the Mexican Night of the Radishes, check out this article.

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