From what sources did we get many of our Christmas traditions? I am thinking about Christmas Trees, wreaths, holly and ivy, garland, etc.? These mainstays of the holiday season become a source of debate and discussion among many believers as to their appropriateness and whether they obscure the real meaning of Christmas. Let’s see how they originated.
The Hanging of Stockings. There is no official record of when the hanging of stocking began, one of the most logical explanations is that it’s a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning.
Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters’ dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father’s feet after being thrown through a window.
In 1883, The New York Times wrote: “In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings, even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions.”
Christmas Caroling. Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.
Christmas Trees. Before Christianity, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them “Paradise Trees” around the time of Adam and Eve’s name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.
The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British Royal Family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, 1 in 5 American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.
The Colors of Red and Green. There’s no hard-and-fast reason or event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas. Several theories include that the color green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.
Regardless of your preferences, believers in Christ are to make sure that everything they do brings honor and glory to the Lord (I Corinthians 10:31). This includes the decorating of our homes at Christmas.
May the Lord’s truth and grace be found here.
Soli deo Gloria!