At Christmas play and make cheer
For Christmas comes but once a year
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall
Brawn, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall:
Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best:
Pig, veal, goose and capon and turkey well drest:
Cheese, apples and nuts, jolly carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.
Thomas Tusser (ca. 1520-1580)
Today in the US, our Christmas celebration has numerous customs and rituals. For followers of Christ, it is first and foremost a festival of the birth of our Savior. But regardless of faith or religious beliefs, this time of year is notable with great pageantry and magnificence all over the world. And of course, as is typical throughout human history, some aspects of Christmas have evolved or lost their original significance.
So. . . from where did these traditions come? Who initiated this comportment, behavior and imagery? What were the original meanings of the vocabulary terms we now associate with the Christmas season?
Let’s look at just five recognizable examples:
Garland – a circular or spiral arrangement of intertwined material (as flowers or leaves). Garland is now associated with Christmas decorations, but it likely began in Europe as a more general home ornamentation. Because many plants are dormant during this time of year, evergreens (holly, spruce, pine) naturally are the focus of these decorations…adding smell to the sensitivities associated with Christmas. And the use of evergreens during the bleak Winter symbolizes the hope of the renewing Spring around the corner…just as the birth of Christ offers hope of an eternity with God.
Mistletoe – a semi parasitic green shrub with thick leaves, small yellowish flowers, and waxy-white glutinous berries. It is believed a mistletoe tree could propagate from bird droppings, therefore the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word is “dung on a twig”. The famous saying “kissing under the mistletoe” has its origin in Norse mythology and Celtic rituals. The cutting of the mistletoe from an oak tree signified a young boy had transitioned into manhood. Perhaps its correlation to Christmastime is a result of its prominent visibility in the woods during the winter months. Mistletoe is an evergreen ball usually high up on a barren deciduous tree limb…and a lot of fun to bring down pieces with a shotgun!
Nutcracker Ballet – The Nutcracker Ballet was first presented in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 17, 1892. Peter Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose the ballet score based on Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” – a story about a family’s dreamy Christmas Eve experiences. The ballet performance first appeared in England in 1934; in San Francisco in 1944, and is now considered a classic Christmas story and tradition across the globe. As traditions should be – this music will forever take me back to my childhood Christmases, generating visions of my beautiful mother whistling to the Nutcracker while she prepared the Christmas meal for my family. (I’m listening to Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a now as I write!)
North Star – Mariners have understood the importance of always knowing the location of the North Star. As the only fixed point in the night sky, the North Star is a constant companion and sure reference for setting one’s course. The Bible tells about a star that helped the three wise men to find the route to the dwelling place of Jesus Christ at the time of his birth, and is found in the Book of Matthew 2. “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Matthew 2:9-10) Because Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the North Star is often synonymous with the Biblical worldview: Christ enthroned at the Father’s right hand.
Yuletide – aka Yule Time or Christmastide is the festival season from Christmas Eve until after New Year’s Day … originating from Germanic peoples, as are many of today’s Christmas traditions. The actual date of Christ’s birth was not recorded so the early Christian Fathers simply ascribed it to Yule-tide, changing the occasion from the birthday of the sun… to that of the Son. The birthday of Christ was celebrated on dates varying from the first to the sixth of January; or on the dates of certain religious festivals such as the Jewish Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. Pope Julius, who reigned 337-352 A.D., determined that Christ was born on or about the twenty fifth of December, and by the end of the fifth century that date was generally accepted by Christians. The transition from the old to the new significance of Yule-tide happened so quietly that it was easily absorbed by the masses.
What unique traditions are practiced in your home? Can you trace their origins through your ancestors? Those wonderful and comforting moments of the past are sure to bring joy as you share and continue them for your descendants to experience year after year. Next year (part 2) perhaps we’ll explore the Presidential Christmas traditions within the White House.
Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Originally composed 2014; Edited & Uploaded December 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0021
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC. God bless America! Treasure Liberty always and pass it on! “Architecture aims at Eternity.” [CHRISTOPHER WREN, Parentalia]