The Story of Our Christmas Traditions

The arrival of December stirs an inner desire to follow a ritual of rites, symbolism, and activities. Many will confess that traditions such hanging exterior lights, decorating the tree, and writing Christmas cards begin on approximately the same day year after year. If you have ever wondered how our traditions arrived and continued throughout the centuries, each story is unique to our celebration and history.

The Winter Solstice: The word “solstice” is derived from two ancient words combining the name of the sun god, “Sol,” and the word still, “stice.” When the sun stands still on the shortest day of the year, it’s known as the winter solstice. In the ancient days, the solstice celebrated both the end of the harvest, and the sun for winning over the darkness of winter. Yule logs were used, and feasts were planned. On December 25th, a holy day, the Romans celebrated the birth of the unconquered sun. By the fourth century, Christians accepted the day of December 25th as the birth of Christ.

Lights: In the December darkness, outdoor Christmas lights arrived in 17th century Germany. From a distance, the glow of light was seen in tree branches. With the effort of binding small candles to sturdy branches with either pins or melted wax, onlookers could witness the first lighted Christmas tree. Candles also were brought indoors, placed on window sills to signify the household was Christian, and to welcome others who might be interested in worshiping together. In 1880, the first electric light was introduced. Ten years later, Thomas Edison altered his invention to reveal a string of Christmas lights, but it took decades for the lights to be affordable.

Gift Exchange: Many interpretations can be linked to the idea of gift giving on December 25th. During the winter solstice, the celebration of feast and trading gifts such as candles, or fruits and nuts, was established to bring good fortune in the new year. The belief of a gift exchange was not fully adopted by Christians until the Victorian era.

Saint Nicholas: Indeed, a Christian priest in the fourth century, named Saint Nicholas, was known to give generous gifts by night to the poor. Hoping to help three daughters of a poor Christian man, he left gold in wet stockings hung to dry by the fire in payment for their dowries. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of many diverse groups, namely the one of children, and has been a beloved title since the 1400s. The representation of a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur was presented in 16th century England, and his name was converted to “Santa Claus” in the American press in 1773.

An Accidental Advertisement? In 1955, Sears incorrectly ran an ad encouraging children to call the US Continental Air Defense to tell Santa Claus what they wanted for Christmas. Colonel Shoup ordered his staff to give the children updates on Santa’s flight. “NORAD Tracks Santa” continues via an iPhone app.

Christmas Cards: Sir Henry wondered how the Post Office could benefit “ordinary people.” In considering creating Christmas cards, he asked his friend, John Horsley, to design pictures for a three-panel card. In 1843, 1000 cards were sold for a shilling. As printing methods improved, the popularity for sending cards also grew.

Rollo the Red Nose Reindeer? The story of Rudolph the red nosed reindeer could have been named Rollo or Reginald, and was created in 1939 to sell coloring books.

Jingle Bells, a Thanksgiving Song? In the 1850s, James Lord Pierpont wrote a song for his Boston Sunday school class. It’s hard to imagine that the wonderful tune Jingle Bells was originally written for Thanksgiving.

Hesitant to Publish: In 1922, Clement Clarke Moore, a classics professor, wrote a Christmas themed poem to celebrate the honorary day. If it wasn’t for his personal chauffer, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” would not have been included among our favorite forms of literature. Beyond its success, it took 15 years before Moore admitted to writing it.

Spreading Christmas Cheer: A powerful presentation was given to the people in the form of a story, A Christmas Carol. Not only does it include the importance of kindness and charity toward all humanity, but it also described the customs of gift giving, decorating, sending cards, and the Christmas feast in good company. This message continues to warm our hearts and further those ever important “classic” traditions.