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Jennifer Priddy

LI 222-02
31 March 2014

Where Traditions Originated


When people think of Christmas, they mostly picture the modern day, religious holiday of
celebrating Jesus birth. However, the holiday started very differently. By combining many
aspects of a variety of cultures and customs, we are left with a similar celebration that mirrors
ones celebrated centuries before us.
Christmas is most famously celebrated on December 25th, and is well known as a
Christian holiday. However, the Christians seemed to have borrowed the date from other
religions and ritualistic practices. The winter solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere around
December 21st (The Winter Solstice). The date seems pretty close, yet it gets even closer when
you add the fact that the ancient Romans celebrated a pagan holiday of Saturnalia which was a
weeklong festival that began on December 17th and ended on December 25th (Pagan).
All throughout festivals and rituals, one can find the presence of greenery. The Egyptians
thought that evergreen leaves symbolized the triumph of life over death. Druid priests in Britain
used evergreen leaves in their pagan ceremonies, and the Germans used evergreen trees to
symbolize the new spring (Pagan). The Druids among the Celtic and Nordic people practically
worshipped the trees and would often find sacred groves of trees to perform their religious

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ceremonies in. It is not a surprise that trees made their way into many religious ceremonies and
practices throughout history (Harrigan). The Romans would bring greenery into their homes
during the winter because they believed that the gods of rejuvenation and growth could be inside
the plants. Holly and ivy could also be seen in England during the Middle Ages. To them, the
holly symbolized the men and the ivy, the women. Putting them together and combined them in
harmony. Mistletoe is found all over history and in many different cultures. Because the plant is
actually parasitic, people believed that it carried magical qualities. Druids would cut the plant
down in a ceremony in which people would prevent any of the boughs from touching the ground,
believing that it would bring fertility to their animals. The act of loving underneath the mistletoe
originated in Norse mythology as Frigga, the goddess of love was so upset when her son Baldor
was killed by mistletoe, that she made sure that the plant was only used for love instead of death
(Perry).
Decorating trees has been a tradition for many centuries. The Romans used to hang metal
pieces on their trees during Saturnalia. There was some lore that said that Martin Luther was the
first to decorate a tree indoors though. Trees used to be decorated with candles, but that was seen
as a fire hazard. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, his assistant Edward Johnson,
proposed to use small light bulbs to light the trees instead (Christmas).
Wassailing is another popular Christmas tradition that had its roots in old cultures. The
word wassail is derived from the Old Norse ves heil which could mean be in good health or
be fortunate. It started off as a simple greeting, which then turned into a drinking toast. It was
then found in random poems and stories throughout history such as Beowulf or History of the
Kings of Britain. It then became a tradition around the 13th century to use a wassail bowl and
drink to each others health by passing it around with a kiss. It later evolved to people taking
their wassail bowls door to door, and they would often sing as they went (Doares). Within the

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churches in medieval times, there were people known as carol singers. The word carol
literally means to sing and dance in a circle. The singers would do this in the middle of the
church services, which would ruin them for some people. Because of this, they were banned
from the churches and into the street (Trueman). Combine this with the practice of Wassailing,
and you would get our modern day Christmas caroling.
Saint Nicholas actually did exist, however it was in 4th century Turkey. He was the bishop
of Myra and worked with sailors and children. He became a patron saint who was celebrated on
December 6th. Because of the close proximity to the 25th of December, Saint Nicholas soon
became associated with Christmas. Stories, tales, and legends were passed down through the
years until Clement Moore wrote a poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1822 (Krystek). It is
now more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas (Moore). St. Nicholas also gains
some of his characteristics from Norse mythology. Odin was depicted as an older man with a
long white beard, which sounds very similar to the modern description of St. Nick. Another thing
that the two stories have in common is their animals. Odin had an eight legged horse named
Sleipnir who could leap great distances and was fast as lightning. Santa Claus has eight reindeer
(Wigington).
There are many people who think that the act of gift giving began with the Christian
religion. Seeing as the baby Jesus was presented with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, it
can be assumed that is the basis of the act of giving. It is also outlined in the story The Gift of the
Magi. However Christmas day was not always the number one day for the presentation of gifts.
On New Years Day, it was equally as possible to exchange things. However, in the eighteenth
century, gift giving was a one way operation. Sweets, nuts, fruit, books, trinkets, or money was
given by masters, bosses, and parents to their workers and children. There was never gift giving
to someone who was a superior though (Powers).

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It is now obvious that the traditions surrounding Christmas are not solely governed by the
religious holiday. In fact, most of the traditions associated with the special day, was borrowed by
another ceremony, ritual, or practice. A good portion of it came from the Nordic culture, with the
use of evergreen trees to worship, mistletoe, and Odin with his horse Sleipnir. The traditions that
we have borrowed are now easy to see through the cultures and practices that they have
mirrored.

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Works Cited
"Christmas Tree Traditions." Christmas Trees and More. University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://urbanext.illinois.edu/trees/traditions.cfm>.
Doares, Robert. "Wassailing through History." Colonial Williamsburg. The Colonial
Williamsburg Foundation, 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
<http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Holiday06/wassail.cfm>.
Harrigan, Patrick. "Santa Claus and the Origin of the Christmas Tree." Pole-Spirits North and
South. Living Heritage Trust, 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014. <http://livingheritage.org/polespirits.htm>.
Krystek, Lee. "The History and Legend of Santa Claus." The History and Legend of Santa Claus.
The Museum of Unnatural History, 2003. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
<http://www.unmuseum.org/santa.htm>.
Moore, Clement Clarke. "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation,
2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171924>.
"Pagan Origins of the Christmas Tree." History of the Christmas Tree. Christmas Tree History,
2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. <http://www.christmastreehistory.net/pagan>.
Perry, Leonard. "Holiday Greens and Their Traditions." Holiday Greens and Their Traditions.
University of Vermont Extension, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
<http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/greens.html>.
Powers, Emma L. "Christmas Customs." Colonial Williamsburg. The Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation, 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
<http://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/hist_customs.cfm>.
Trueman, Chris. "Medieval Christmas." History Learning Site. N.p., 2000-2013. Web. 28 Mar.
2014. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_xmas.htm>.
Wigington, Patty. "The Origins of Santa Claus." Paganism / Wicca. About.com, 2014. Web. 29
Mar. 2014. <http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/yulethelongestnight/p/Santa_Claus.htm>.
"The Winter Solstice." Windows to the Universe. National Earth Science Teachers Association
(NESTA), 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
<http://www.windows2universe.org/the_universe/uts/winter.html>.

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