The History of Holiday Traditions

So many times we have our traditions, especially around the holidays and we never think of why we have these customs. The Holiday Season is coming soon and we will begin to unpack our decorations. They are memorable. They are fragrant. They are beautiful. But why do we use them? What did they signify in days gone by?

Tradition of the Christmas wreath
We hang them on our front doors. They rest above the fireplace. We even find ways to hang them on the hood of our car. The wreath is one of the most popular of the holiday decorations next to the actual Christmas tree. The wreath is beautiful, but where on earth did the idea of evergreens twisted in a circle come from?

The history of the wreath actually goes back a few thousand years. Even before the Roman Empire, but it was during this great period that we began to take notice of them. If you were transported back in time don’t expect to see the same kind of wreaths we have today. Like everything else time changes it and it evolves to something that we know today.

In recognizing a victor of a war, a game or a political challenge it became common to place a wreath on the head. It was relatively small compared to our current Christmas wreaths, but they were to sit gently on the head. They could be made of gold or silver or even flowers and leaves. They gave honour to those who wore them.

Many cultures adopted this wreath and incorporated native pieces to them. It became a symbol of completeness. After all it was a circle that never ended. Over time it even came to represent eternity. The wreath is a common symbol. It is evident in many aspects of life: religious, governmental and romantic. It is almost an universal symbol. What it is made out of might be different but the symbolism is the same.

Tradition of the Christmas tree
In 16th century Germany fir trees were decorated both indoors and out with apples, roses, gilded candies and coloured paper. It is held that Protestant reformer Martin Luther first adorned trees with light, While coming home one December evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir inspired him to recreate the effect by placing candles on the branches of a small tree inside his home.

The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert from his native Germany. The famous Illustrated News etching in 1848, featuring the Royal Family of Victoria, Albert and their children gathered around a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle popularized the tree throughout Victorian England. The tradition of the Christmas tree was brought to North America by the Pennsylvania Germans.

Tradition of Mistletoe, Holly and Ivy
Mistletoe was used by Druid priests 200 years before the birth of Christ in their winter celebrations. They revered the plant since it had no roots yet remained green during the cold months of winter. The ancient Celtics believed mistletoe to have magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility and to ward off evil spirits. The plant was also seen as a symbol of peace. Scandinavians associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love and it may be from this that we derive the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
In northern Europe, Christmas occurred during the middle of winter when ghosts and demons could be heard howling in the winter winds. Boughs of holly, believed to have magical powers since they remained green through the harsh winter, were often placed over the doors of homes to drive away the evil spirits. Legend also has it that holly sprang from the footsteps of Christ as he walked the earth. The pointed leaves were said to represent the crown of thorns Christ wore while on the cross and the red berries symbolized the blood he shed. Ivy was often brought indoors to freshen the air and brighten the mood during the long dreary winter.

Tradition of the Christmas stocking
According to legend, a kindly nobleman grew despondent over the death of his beloved wife and foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three young daughters without dowries and thus facing a life of spinsterhood. The generous St. Nicholas, hearing of the girls plight set forth to help. Wishing to remain anonymous, he rode his white horse by the nobleman’s house and threw three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney where they were fortuitously captured by the stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry.

Tradition of the Christmas card
A form of Christmas card began in England first when young boys practiced their writing skills by creating Christmas greetings for their parents. It is Sir Henry Cole, who is credited with creating the first real Christmas card. As the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry found himself to busy in the Christmas season of 1843 to compose individual greetings for his friends. He commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley for the illustration. The card featured three panels, with the center panel depicting a family enjoying Christmas festivities and the card was inscribed with the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

The variations of holiday traditions in North America equal the number of active cultures that have settled in the land. These cultural contributions were given a new lease of life by creative artists, authors, poets and songwriters. It was melded together by the power of secular and commercialized media in record companies, radio stations, television, cinemas and now the internet. There are lots of traditions that are practiced by a number of counties all over the world during the holiday season. These traditions can be as diverse as the culture and religious practices of each and every country.

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