2012-12-20 / Faith

Ever wonder where our Christmas traditions came from?

Santa originally came from Greece
By Darleen Principe

PUCKER UP—Kissing under the mistletoe is a holiday tradition with roots in ancient times. PUCKER UP—Kissing under the mistletoe is a holiday tradition with roots in ancient times. While moms and dads meet beneath the mistletoe for a kiss on Christmas Eve, their children rush off to sleep, hoping to wake up early and find presents from Santa Claus.

Decorated fir trees, stockings hanging on mantels and striped candy canes are just a few timehonored Christmas traditions.

Many of the customs we observe today come from pre- Christian stories and legends, and age-old pagan rituals brought to America by early European immigrants. Here are the origins of a few of the most popular:

Christmas trees and wreaths

The Christmas tree as we know it today is largely credited to 16th century Germany, according to Michaela Reaves, chair of the history department at California Lutheran University.

German monk and Protestant reformer Martin Luther was said to have seen twinkling stars shining through the branches of the Tannenbaums—the German word for fir trees.

SWEETTREAT—Candy canes were originally plain white peppermint sticks used to keep restless children occupied during long Christmas services. SWEETTREAT—Candy canes were originally plain white peppermint sticks used to keep restless children occupied during long Christmas services. “He wanted to re-create that, and supposedly that’s what started the tradition of putting candles in the trees,” Reaves said.

We have replaced the candles with garlands of lights and ornaments, but the cone-shaped fir tree remains the traditional choice for celebrating Christmas.

As for boughs of holly and decorative wreaths, those roots lie in ancient times—before the advent of Christianity, when early Romans celebrated the winter solstice.

In mid-December, ancient Romans would celebrate Saturnalia, a festival honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. Romans decorated their homes and temples with ev- ergreen boughs because the plants stayed alive throughout the winter, symbolizing life and bounty.

After Rome converted to Christianity in the fourth century, the empire adapted Saturnalia to the new religion, Reaves said.

“It’s relatively the same,” she said. “I accept that the Roman Catholic Church adopted the already-in-place Saturnalia celebration because Jesus was actually born in spring, not winter.

“When Christianity became the religion of Rome, they probably didn’t want people celebrating some pagan tradition.”


Gift giving may also have originated with ancient pagan festivals, according to historians.

As part of the Saturnalia celebration, ancient Romans would hold large feasts and exchange gifts.

“It was also a time when the higher (social) classes would go out to relate physically with lower classes and advocate a kind of equality,” Reaves said. “It’s the same notion we use for things like Toys for Tots today, the idea of giving to children or those who are economically less fortunate.”


Search the room during an American Christmas party and you’re likely to find a bundle of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.

And with a little bit of luck and skill, you might be able to steer the object of your affection in that direction and snag a little smooch.

The ancient Celts and druids of Europe revered the parasitic plant because even in cold climates it would retain its green leaves and red and white berries, Reaves said.

“They used it to ward off bad spirits,” she said. “Romans got the idea from the druids that you could lay your weapons underneath it for protection and good luck.”

As time passed, the tradition evolved.

By the 16th century, kissing under the plant had become a popular trend in England— possibly brought over by the Scandinavians—at a time when public displays of affection were usually considered taboo.

It was said that young men had the privilege of kissing girls under the mistletoe as long as it contained berries.

Every time a kiss occurred, the young man would have to pluck a berry. Once the berries were gone, the privilege of kissing would end.

Santa Claus and stockings

Although there are many theories about the origin of Santa Claus, one of the most widely accepted versions begins in the fourth century with St. Nicholas—or Nikolaus of Myra, a Greek bishop who lived near the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey.

He was known for his piety, generosity and love for children, according to the St. Nicholas Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit.

One of the earliest stories about the saint involves a nobleman who could not afford to pay the dowries for his three daughters to be married. Nikolaus heard of the man’s plight.

Not wanting the father to be forced to sell his daughters into slavery, Nikolaus tossed bags of gold into the window at night for each daughter’s dowry.

The gold landed inside the daughters’ stockings or shoes, which had been left by the fireplace to dry.

The anniversary of Nikolaus’ death on Dec. 6, 343, became an annual celebration, and the story of his generosity paved the way for the tradition of hanging stockings by the fi re.

Candy canes

Striped peppermint candy canes have been associated with Christmas for decades.

Some believe the red and white stripes on the candy cane symbolize the blood and purity of Christ and that the hooked shape of the treat represents a shepherd’s staff.

According to historians, candy canes did not get their stripes until the 1900s—about half a century after German immigrant August Imgard started using the canes as Christmas tree decorations at his home in Wooster, Ohio.

Reaves said candy canes are documented to have been plain white sticks made from stretched confectionary sugar. In 17th century Germany, the candies were given to restless children in church to keep them well-behaved during long Christmas masses.

“(Candy canes) are probably the most modern Christmas tradition we have today,” Reaves said. “There may be a connection between the red stripes and the symbolism of Jesus dying for us, but that’s something people still aren’t sure about.”

Today candy canes come in a variety of colors and fl avors.

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