As I mentioned in a previous post, traditions are powerful things. The celebration of the birth of Christ is among some of the most long-standing and influential traditions in the world, even though they took several centuries to get up and going.
Traditions, however, are not static — they evolve over time and as cultures, languages, and societies change. Words and phrases that once had deep meaning no longer carry any contemporary meaning at all. Customs and rituals that once touched souls become tired practices of which people grow weary. Things that once held great significance get lost in the wave of progress, development, and contemporary concerns.
Christmas is no exception. It is our challenge as contemporary Christ-ians to find ways to express the meaningfulness and significance of Christmas in ways that connect to the people in our time and place, wherever that may be. To do so, we need to know where our traditions came from, how they have developed, and how we can move forward — keeping some tradition intact, transforming other traditions as possible, and (perhaps) allowing some to be laid aside.
With that in mind, here seven things you may or may not have known about the traditions surrounding our celebration of the birth of Immanuel, God with us.
1. Christmas wasn't always on December 25
While most (but not all) Christians nowadays celebrate Christmas on December 25, that wasn’t (and for some still isn’t) always the case. No one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth with certainty (and it wasn’t even celebrated or mentioned until centuries after the establishment of Christianity), though many Biblical historians think it more likely Jesus was born sometime in the spring.
It seems like that December 25 was chosen not for historical accuracy, but rather because the winter solstice already had any number of pagan festivals and celebrations (the festival of Saturnalia, for instance), which honored the agricultural god of Saturn and featured celebrations and gift-giving. If this is the case, it was likely done to make it easy for those converting from their pagan beliefs to Christianity. Jews also had their Festival of Lights, Germans had a yule festival, and Celtic and Scandinavian legends also had events centered near this time of year.
2. Evergreen trees were an ancient tradition
Egyptian and Roman cultures decorated evergreens during the winter solstice to signify that spring would return. So, there is a long history of decorating with green trees, wreaths, and garlands that predates by centuries the advent of the Christmas tree.
No one is sure just when the Christmas tree first entered history. In the 8th century English missionary, St. Boniface, Apostle to Germany, is supposed to have held up the evergreen as a symbol of the everlasting Christ. By the end of the sixteenth century, Christmas trees had become common in Germany.
When Prince Albert of Germany got a tree for his new wife, Queen Victoria of England, the idea “went viral” as it swept across the pond to the Americas. A drawing of the couple in front of a Christmas first tree appeared in Illustrated London News in 1848.
3. Saint Nicholas was real…but he was no Santa
Saint Nicholas wasn’t a jolly ol’ bearded man from the North Pole, complete with furry red suit and his signature “Ho, ho, ho!” Those mythical traditions came much, much later. Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop gave away his large inheritance to the poor and is well-known for rescuing women from slavery. It is his Dutch name (Sinter Klass) that morphed into Santa Claus in English.
Early depictions of Santa Claus were more ominous than cheerful, more spooky than jolly. Then, in 1931, a Coca-Cola advertising campaign introduced a much friendlier jolly ol’ Saint Nick.
4. The celebration of Christmas was once illegal in colonies
The majority of Americans (approximately 85%) jingle their way through the peppermint-infused Christmas season. Not all of these, of course, observe the spiritual significance of the holiday.
In fact, the Pew Research Center found that fewer people think of Christmas as a religious holiday today compared to a generation ago, and that only 51% of people attend church as part of their Christmas traditions. Question to ponder: How many of those 51% will not return to church again until Easter?
We might be disappointed in statistics like this, but most of us probably do not realize that in the colonies the Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas, considering it too pagan and contaminated by self-indulgence. Governor Willian Bradford threatened New Englanders with work, jail, or fines if caught observing Christmas! By the time of the Revolutionary War, the day had so little significance that the new Congress held its first session on December 25, 1789. It was a full century before Christmas became a federal holiday in the United States.
5. “Silent Night” has historical significance
There is no shortage of Christmas and winter music to listen to during the Christmas season. One song, though, has been sung, adapted, and recorded more than any other. More than 733 versions of Silent Night have been recorded since 1978. But the song has a much longer history of which to be proud.
December 7, 1914, five months into the outbreak of World War I, Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary ceasefire during the Christmas season. Military leaders on all sides ignored the request, but the troops in the trenches responded.
As night fell on Christmas Eve, tradition has it that German and English troops sang “Silent Night” (together with other well-known carols) across the no-mans-land. The next morning, unarmed German soldiers approached the British line shouting “Merry Christmas!” They were met with hearty handshakes, gifts of chocolate and cigarettes, and a spirited game of soccer. The so-called “Christmas Truce” was short-lived and never repeated, but it speaks to our shared sense of humanity even in the darkest moments.
6. The sweet scent of mistletoe?
Kissing under the mistletoe might seem like a strange tradition. It is. We might even wonder the contemporary mistletoe challenge is a tamer version of more rambunctious “merry-making” common in some Christmas traditions.
Whatever the case, the warm feelings we might get with the thought of having an opportunity to smooch with a loved one, the mistletoe plant itself might give us pause. Mistle thrush birds eat the plant's berries, digest the seed, and then help the plant germinate with their droppings. In German, “mistletoe” literally means “dung on a twig.” Now that the mood has been set, go ahead and go get your smooch!
7. Scrooges Humbug and Tiny Tim’s Father
In 1843, in Victorian England, Charles Dickens published a small book entitled A Christmas Carol. It quickly grew in popularity, though it really had little to do with Christianity. The penny-pinching grump, Ebenezer Scrooge, is contrasted with generous merry-makers such as his nephew, Fred, and with the struggling poor, symbolized by Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. The book's appeal to good works and charitable contributions defines what has become known as the “Christmas spirit” in English-speaking lands.
There you go!
Merry Christmas to you and your family and friends!