Inside: Signs of the Christmas season are all around us, but did you ever wonder how some of our beloved traditions came to be?
From fruitcake to fat jolly men, the season is rich with symbols. While I’ve only scratched the surface concerning this topic, it’s been fun to learn the history of some of the Christmas traditions we hold dear, and, well, have strong opinions about. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop, was famous for giving gifts to children. His feast day, December 6, became a children’s holiday in Holland, though they refer to him as Sint Nikolaas, or Sinter Klass. English colonists living in New York–the former Dutch colony of New Amsterdam–called him Santa Claus because the Dutch name was too hard to pronounce. The English then began celebrating the feast day on December 25.
The German version of Santa Claus, Kriss Kringle, developed in the 1600s. German Protestants recognized the birth of the Christ Child (Christkindl) as the time to give gifts. Christkindl eventually became Kriss Kringle. In the Netherlands and Germany, their Santa often rode through the sky on a horse to deliver presents.
Our modern American version is largely due to Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” (think, ‘Twas the night before Christmas) which created quite a stir after it was published in 1822. Stores were quick to capitalize on the popularity of the Santa Claus figure, using him in their Christmas ads, and in the late 1800s, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, inspired by Moore’s poem, gave Americans their first glimpse of the Santa Claus we know today, adding in the red suit with white-trimmed fur, North Pole workshop equipped with elves, and Mrs. Claus.
Legend has it that St. Nicholas placed homemade food and clothes in the children’s freshly laundered stockings as they hung by the fire to dry. In one account, he heard of a poor widower who worried about his three beautiful daughters and their slim chances of marriage due to being impoverished. Knowing the man would not accept charity, St. Nick slid down the chimney and placed gold coins in the girls’ stockings as they hung by–you guessed it–the fireplace.
The story goes that a confectioner created the candy cane to represent Jesus. The shape of the letter “J” stood for Jesus as well as the staff reminiscent of His role as the Good Shepherd. The color white symbolized purity and Christ’s lack of sin. Red symbolized His blood shed for us on the cross. The peppermint flavor is similar to hyssop, a Middle Eastern mint that is mentioned in the Bible.
Another version of the story told of a German choirmaster who wanted to keep children quiet during Christmas Eve mass. He decided candy might help him achieve his objective, so he asked a local candy maker to put a bend in the candy to remind the children of a shepherd’s staff and to make the candy white to reflect the sinless life of Christ. There is no mention as to whether his method worked.
The Christmas Tree
While the practice of bringing greenery indoors is an ancient one, the modern Christmas tree can be traced back to the eighth century and a man by the name of St. Boniface who was converting the Germanic tribes to Christianity. The tribes worshipped and decorated oak trees for the winter solstice, and it was Boniface who chose to chop down one particular enormous oak tree, the center of their worship. In the place where that oak tree had been, a fir tree grew, which was offered as a symbol of Christianity, and the new converts began decorating the evergreens.
Prince Albert, who was German, introduced the Christmas tree to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840, and it became all the rage in London. Back then, it was common to put burning candles on the trees. (Can you say fire marshal?) German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to America.
Called “The Flower of the Holy Night” (Flores de Noche Buena), the plant is found growing naturally in Mexico for only a short time during the Advent season. The red bracts of the flower represent the Star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to the Christ Child, and seventeenth-century Franciscan priests in Mexico placed the flowers around the manger in their Nativity celebrations.
In 1828 Dr. Joel Poinsett, the American ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant to America after cultivating it in greenhouses. Currently poinsettias make up 88 percent of Christmas plant sales.
The cake everyone loves–or loves to hate! Who knows when someone came up with the idea of combining fruit, honey, nuts, and alcohol into an edible gift, but records dating back to before Jesus’ birth reveal a Roman concoction of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts, and raisins. In the Middle Ages, as dried fruit became more available, Western Europe embraced the fruited bread. The ingredients greatly reduced spoilage, particularly as folks traveled long distances with the dense cake.
The fruitcake we know today finds its origin in English plum cake recipes. The tradition of reserving fruitcake for special occasions gained in popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to the costly ingredients.
Perhaps it was the “make in advance” quality that resulted in fruitcake as a food to serve for Christmas. Months and months in advance in some cases. Or maybe it was the convenience of mail-order fruitcakes, dating back to 1913 and still going strong today. Whichever side you come down on concerning this controversial subject, fruitcakes are likely here to stay. I’m hoping Mom picks up a small one so I can sample a little (or big) slice sometime over the Christmas holiday.
Yep, I’m one of those people.
My favorite fruitcake.
What are your favorite traditions? Tell us about it in the comments.