Thursday, December 20, 2018

Historical Christmas Traditions We Don’t Question

Christmas is full of small mysteries, including a number passed down through history. Christmas traditions with little-known origins can seem lame -- even slightly deranged. Who first thought it would be a good idea to cut down a perfectly good tree and haul it inside to bedeck the floor with needles? Why, exactly, do folks find it romantic to kiss beneath a noxious parasitic weed tied with ribbon? And what’s with the stripes on candy canes?

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas as well as the next person. But I mean, really… Really? Let’s look into this, shall we? 

Where Did Christmas Trees Originate?

Martin Luther, the renowned 16th-century German theologian and scholar, is said to have started the Christmas-tree tradition. While walking home through the woods late one night, he admired the stars shining through the trees. Eager to share this experience with his wife, he cut down a fir tree and set it up in his house with lighted candles in the branches.

The first Christmas tree recorded is a sculpture on the keystone of a home in Turckheim, Alsace. The sculpture dates from 1576. Use of Christmas trees spread across Europe. It flourished in England due to the influence of Queen Victoria, who adored them.

Why Do We Kiss Beneath the Mistletoe?

British servants started the Christmas tradition of Kissing beneath the mistletoe, but the practice orginated in response to a legend in Norse mythology. The unromantic truth is that mistletoe is a parasitic plant that robs the nutrients of its tree host. However, in ancient times it was valued as a healing herb. Because the plant is evergreen, it was seen as a symbol of vitality.

Why are Candy Canes Striped?

The first candy canes, made about 350 years ago, had no hook, were white, and contained no added flavors. Legend holds that in 1670 a choirmaster at Germany’s Cologne Cathedral bent the white candy sticks to represent shepherd's hooks for the children who attended the church’s ceremonies.

The first use of candy canes at Christmas was documented in 1847 when August Imgard, an immigrant living in Ohio, hung candy canes to decorate a tree. By the early 18th Century, Christmas cards contained white sugar canes.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 19th Century that the white-and-red striped peppermint candy canes appeared. These weren’t used to commemorate Christmas until Bob McCormack from Atlanta gave them to his friends and family in the 1920’s.

Candy canes were made laboriously by hand through the 1950’s, when Gregory Keller of Bob’s Candies invented a machine that automated the process. This led to worldwide distribution.

Many believe that candy canes are formed to hold special meanings. The red stripes are thought to represent the blood of Christ, and the white stripes to symbolize Jesus’s purity. The three fine stripes stand for the Trinity. The candy’s shape resembles the first letter of ‘Jesus’ or a shepherd’s hook. The candy is hard like the bedrock foundation of the Church. Peppermint stems from hyssop, a Biblical herb symbolic of purity and sacrifice.

These meanings are nice to think about, but we can’t state them for certain. What we do know is that the candy cane, like the other traditional items we discussed, is an indelible part of Christmas.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. Known for her vivid writing, this multi-faceted author writes in the western historical romance, medieval epic fantasy, and romantic suspense genres.

Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to garden and explore the great outdoors with her family.

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  1. It's true, some of the traditions we hold dear at Christmas are now done in a random way, without us thinking about it. Without getting into the whole debate that can go on, haha, may I just say that we always need to examine why we do the traditions we do, especially connected with our faith. The traditions aren't bad as long as we understand that our faith is not centered on them. Merry Christmas!

  2. The symbols of Advent and the advent are what my husband and I to the saving knowledge of Jesus in 1981 while we were living in Karlsruhe Germany. I live seeking out the meanings of things we do and take for granted as family traditions.