Grace-Light.com - for the spiritual side of life
I believe that traditions and rituals help reinforce our links of love to one another. When I started the the research for this article, I had no idea that so many of our cherished Christmas customs originated in Victorian days and even before.
Many ancient Christmas traditions customs were derived from pagan practices. In an effort to tidy up the religious experience, the Puritans, who seized control of England in 1649, banned public celebrations of Christmas. By the 1860s, Queen Victoria's German-born husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, succeeded in importing the traditions of his homeland to his adopted country. These became the staples of the Victorian Christmas.
The Victorians had elaborate standards of behavior, dress and social activity that many of us today find fascinating if for no other reason than our casual lifestyles and time-crunched lives make such rule-bound living impossible. Still, we've retained more of those old customs than we might at first suspect.
The Christmas tree owes its importance to the ancient Germanic veneration of trees. The evergreen means renewal of life and was sometimes referred to as the paradise tree. Decorated with apples, candles and cookies, it symbolized the Garden of Eden. Medieval huts were bedecked with swags, garlands and wreaths as well as trees. Victoria and Albert made the Christmas tree popular in England.
Kissing beneath a sprig of the once sacred mistletoe as we do now began with mistletoe and evergreens woven around an apple to form a kissing bough. The red of the apple stood for fertility. Every time a kiss was given or taken, a berry was removed from the mistletoe. Once the berries were gone, the kissing had to cease.
Father Christmas is different from Santa Claus. Father Christmas has roots in the Green Man, a pagan fertility symbol. He is usually wearing green, which symbolizes the return of spring. Tales concerning St. Nicholas, the kindly Byzantine bishop who was the original Santa (saint), came to America by way of Dutch immigrants in the 1600s. Sinter Klaas, popular in Holland, came to be called Santa Claus with his sleigh and reindeer in Great Britain circa 1870.
Christmas cards originated because people in the mid 1800s were too busy to write letters to all their family and friends to wish them holiday greetings. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole hired an artist to design a Christmas card for him to send to one and all. He had one thousand cards printed and sent the unused cards back to the printer who tried to sell them for one shilling each. No one was interested in buying any until the 1870s when they were mass manufactured amass and sold less expensively.
Christmas Eve church services did not become nearly as popular as they are today until after World War II. Before that time, people always attended church on Christmas morning.
Boxing Day, December 26th, originated to provide for, assist and feed those less fortunate. The name comes from the 17th century tradition of giving money in earthenware containers or boxes to the needy.
The real Christmas gift was the feast. Goose was served by the affluent, but turkey, although popular in America, was not common with the English middle class until the very late 1800s because it was so costly.
Christmas pudding was made with raisins, beef and prunes. Mixed clockwise for luck with a wooden spoon to symbolize Christ's wooden manger, it was prepared on Stir-up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent, to give the flavors time to meld.
Mince pies were made with sweet mincemeat (originally very small pieces of meat), fruit and spices. They were to be consumed during the twelve days of Christmas, which represented the coming twelve months. Each pie had to be made by a different person.
English cakes were often decorated for show only and these decorations were discarded when the cake was eaten.
Sugarplums were made with nuts, dried fruit, dates and fondant. They were placed inside sugarplum cases that were hung from the branches of the Christmas tree.
Wassailing or drinking spiced apple cider comes from a medieval English custom whereby the needy went door to door, caroling and offering their wassail to those who might donate food or money to them. In return, the carolers wished good health, prosperous crops and healthy animals to those who gave aid. The Wassailing Song, “Here we come a wassailing among the leaves to green … ” was sung between sips.
If gifts were exchanged, they were handmade such as pomanders made of clove studded oranges, which were hung on the tree or in armoires.
Festive paper cornucopias were filled with candy and hung from the tree. Red and green paper chains were fun for the entire family to make. Strings of popcorn and cranberries added color to the Christmas tree and when the holiday was over, they could be hung outdoors for the birds to feast upon.
Christmas stockings first became popular circa 1870. They were filled with a few fruits and nuts.
The cracker was invented in 1840 by either Tom Smith or James Hovell, both London confectioners. A paper tube was filled with wrapped candy, called French bon-bons, tiny toys and treasures, a message - called a kiss mottoe or joke (copied from the Chinese fortune cookie), and a paper party hat. Mr. Smith is said to have received the inspiration for the snap of the cracker while watching a blazing fire pop - the basic design of the cracker resembles the ancient Yule log, which can also be seen in the traditional French bunche de Noël cake. Crackers are often placed across the plates of British diners to this day and elegantly dressed guests can be seen wearing their tissue paper crowns while feasting.
Smashing a peppermint pig dates to the 1880s in Saratoga Spring, New York. The hard candy hog, symbolizing good health, wealth, and happiness, was broken inside a cloth bag with a hammer after dinner. The pieces were then shared in hopes of a prosperous new year.
The Christmas carol, O Come, All Ye Faithful was originally written in Latin and translated into English in 1843. O Little Town of Bethlehem was published in 1868 and Away in a Manger in 1883.
After all the sledding, tobogganing, snowball fights, snowmen, snow forts, snow angels and ice skating, snow pants, galoshes, boots, muffs, mittens with strings (idiot mittens), ear muffs, scarves, knit caps, hot cocoa with marshmallows, spice tea, gingerbread houses, and cut out cookies, the all-important spiritual reason for the season is still the same. As it was with the Victorians, this time of year is filled with benevolence. May it ever continue.
"Don't forget to stop and smell the mistletoe." Chance Browne, Hi and Lois more quotations
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