How Eight Famous Christmas Traditions Began (Part II)

In the last blog we looked at some fascinating tradition beginnings…let’s explore four more, shall we?

Santa Claus

How can you have any Christmas traditions without having a child’s favorite? Santa Claus! The legend of Santa Claus begins in the fourth century when the generous Bishop of Myra, located in today’s Turkey, gave gifts to others, especially to children. According to stories, Saint Nicholas, the bishop, could also perform miracles which made people even more devoted to him. He passed away—coincidently in December—in the year 340 and his popularity increased all over Europe when his body was moved to Bari, Italy. In Russia, St. Nicholas was made a patron saint of their country and was well-known by his white, flowing beard, red cape and bishop’s cap. In France, St. Nicholas was the patron saint of lawyers; the patron saint of sailors in Greece; and he was the patron saint of travelers and children in Belgium.

Even though European devotees of St. Nicholas decreased after the Protestant Reformation, the spirit of St. Nicholas remained alive in Holland. There, his name was converted into Sinterklaas and the Dutch kids left their wooden shoes by their fireplaces; if the children had been good, Sinterklaas would put goodies in their shoes. In the seventeenth century, Dutch immigrants came to America and brought with them the legend of Sinterklaas; the name was changed once again into the American English version, Santa Claus.

Many other countries celebrate Christmas and each one calls St. Nicholas something different. In England he’s known as Father Christmas; Puerto Rico, Spain and Mexico have The Three Kings; Pere Noël, Christ Child or Father Christmas is what they call him in France; he’s La Befana in Italy; In Austria and Switzerland he’s called the Christ Child or Christkindl; and other countries call him Kris Kringle.

As a gift for his children, Clement C. Moore wrote a poem in 1822 that was called “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. When it got published, it was changed to “The Night Before Christmas” and became famous. Moore describes Santa Claus in this way:

“He had a broad face and a little round belly,

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.”

This description of the red-suited man is how everyone—adults as well as children—identifies Santa Claus today.

Holly and Greenery

Christmas was celebrated in the middle of winter in Northern Europe. This was right during the time that those cold, winter winds howled so loud that people thought the winds carried demons and ghosts with it. It was thought that, because it stayed green all winter, the holly must be magical. So the Europeans hung this holly above their home’s doorways to ward off evil spirits. The Europeans also used greenery inside their homes to enliven the mood and make the air fresher through the long, harsh, boring winter.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Robert L. May, a 34 year old copywriter for Montgomery Ward, was asked to help with customer’s Christmas gifts in the year of 1939 by writing a book; instead of giving out coloring books to children as they had every year prior, Montgomery Ward wanted to save money by doing something different. So Robert May sat down and wrote a book that was based on his own childhood experiences of being teased as well as the story of “The Ugly Duckling”. He originally thought of Reginald or Rollin for the name of his main character but ended up choosing something else and entitled his story, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, a tale about a misfit reindeer. As he wrote the fable, he chose his four year old daughter to be the guinea pig—is it any surprise that she loved the story?

In 1947, May’s book was commercially printed and then the next year a nine-minute cartoon was shown in theaters. But when Johnny Marks, songwriter and brother-in-law to Robert May, wrote the music and lyrics to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the wonder of Rudolph came alive. The song was turned down by many singers because they didn’t want to grapple with the Santa Claus legend. But in 1949 Gene Autry’s wife encouraged him to record the song and it sold two million copies that same year! Second only to “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” quickly became one the best-selling songs of all time. In 1964, a television cartoon was made of Rudolph and was narrated by Burl Ives. Rudolph the reindeer has developed into a beloved Christmas idol and this 45 minute Christmas cartoon is still a Christmas favorite.

Mistletoe

During winter festivities 200 years before Jesus’ birth, Druid priests utilized mistletoe. In fact, they were in awe of it because this plant stays green through the entire winter without having any roots! The mistletoe was viewed as a sign of peace and it’s claimed that enemies of the Romans would put down their weapons and hug if they met underneath the mistletoe. It was also considered to have magical healing powers by the Celtic people. They used it to treat infertility, poison and to keep away the evil spirits.

In Scandinavia, the people related mistletoe to the goddess of love, Frigga. Maybe this is where the ritual of kissing under the mistletoe stems from. It’s said that anyone who kiss underneath mistletoe will have good luck and happiness during the next year.

There are many more Christmas traditions but they’re too numerous to list here. I’m sure you and your family take part in at least one of these eight Christmas traditions—maybe you’ve even started one of your own. So enjoy your traditions and family and have a very Merry Christmas!

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