Christmas Customs

by Bobbi Moreno

As you've sipped your eggnog and trimmed the tree, have you ever wondered how such traditions became synonymous with the holiday? Who designed the first Christmas card? Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
Here is a look at some of the ways these customs evolved:

A Green & Fragrant Holiday
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant movement, started the ritual of decorating trees. Struck by the beauty of the stars twinkling through the evergreen trees, he tried to recreate that sparkling effect for his children by fastening candles to a tree.
Although the idea didn't really catch on until the early 1800s, the German settlers kept the tradition alive by decking trees with fruits, sweets, and paper roses. Colonial Americans not only decorated their trees with gingerbread cookies, candy, and ornaments, but also covered outdoor trees with apples and strings of popcorn.

Christmas Kisses Catch On
We have the ancient Druids to thank for the practice of kissing under the mistletoe. Finding the sturdy clumps still clinging to the oak trees after the rugged winter, they believed that this potent plant could cure all illness, and they thought it powerful enough to make the enemy lay down his sword. The plant was regarded as a symbol of peace and goodwill; the natural progression of this ritual was inevitable.

Holiday Cheer
It appears that even in 1843 people were trying to find ways to save time. Sir Henry Cole, new director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, launched the custom of sending greeting cards because he had no time to write Christmas letters. He commissioned artist John Horsley to create a painting depicting both merry and charitable Christmas scenes and had it reproduced on cards. About three decades later, a German immigrant, Louis Prang, founded the American Christmas card industry. He used a lavish printing process that reproduced 17 colors in a single picture. (From Stories Behind Everyday Things, Reader's Digest Association.)
Another shortcut that found its way into this country was the abbreviation "Xmas." This comes from the Greeks, whose first letter for Christ is an X.
You might be surprised to learn that the rich, creamy drink we know as eggnog started off as a medical elixir rather than a festive refreshment.
Although some social historians trace eggnog to Germany's egg punch, which is made with milk and wine, it is also possible that a centuries-old English drink called Sackposset, a concoction of milk curdled with ale or dry white wine, was our inspiration.
The American name "eggnog" apparently came from an English drinking vessel called a noggin, a small mug with an upright handle, which held the ale that came to be known as nog.

T'was the Night Before Christmas
That jolly old man in the red suit whom we know as Santa Claus can trace his ancestry back to a fourth-century bishop named St. Nicholas. It is believed that after bringing back to life three boys who had been killed by a village innkeeper, St. Nicholas was named the patron saint of children. In his honor, December 6 became St. Nicholas Day.
In the years that followed, a figure dressed in full Episcopal garb of red and white vestments with gold embroidery would visit children on St. Nicholas Eve and inquire about their behavior, rewarding the good with trinkets and punishing the bad. The Dutch introduced St. Nicholas to America as Sinter Klaas, which later became Santa Claus.
Hanging the stockings on Christmas Eve was started by St. Nicholas-quite accidentally. Taking pity on the three daughters of a poor nobleman, St. Nicholas secretly provided them with dowries by tossing bags of gold down their chimneys. On one of his secret missions, a bag of gold landed in a stocking that had been hung at the fireplace to dry, and the practice of stuffing stockings with goodies was born.
The placing of the yule log on the fire began with the custom of not allowing the log to burn out during the Christmas season if you wished for good luck. The log had to be saved to start the fire the following year, after which the ashes would be scattered over the land on New Year's Day to make the land fertile.

About the author: Bobbi Moreno, a freelance writer living in Southern California, has been published in numerous magazines, including American Fitness, Lady's Circle, and Complete Woman.