Santa’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice, so why don’t we make one too?
Traditions are the essence of any festival, be it the ones passed down to us over generations or the ones we make ourselves with personal significance. Christmas traditions help channel the spirit of merriment and also provide a wonderful opportunity to connect and bond over. Let’s look at the origin of some popular ones and make note of a few more to complete our winter checklist.
Christmas trees and lighting
Fir trees aren’t exclusively Christmas trees. Their use was common in several winter festivals, along with spruce and pine. This Christmas tradition was popularized in Germany where they were adorned with treats in the sixteenth century and became essential to the celebration with the publication of an illustration in 1848 that showed the Royal Family gathered around one. In fact, Prince Albert is largely credited with introducing Christmas trees to the UK.
After the Great October Revolution, Christmas trees were banned in Russia and reintroduced as the secular New Year spruce.
The Christmas tradition of lighting up the trees can be traced back to nineteenth century New York. Edward Hibberd Johnson, a bosom friend of Edison, strung light bulbs around a Christmas tree in 1882. Generator-powered, these Christmas lights glimmered in red, white and blue and provided a safe alternative to candles.
Some famous Christmas trees around the world:
Evergreens are put up for decoration in an official church ceremony called the ‘hanging of the greens.’ This decorative foliage comprises holly (representative of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus), ivy, mistletoe, laurel, rosemary and poinsettia. Wreaths, probably an ancient Roman invention, became tied to Christmas in the UK as Kissing Boughs lit by a candle in the middle. It was here that the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe also emerged though its origins might be traced to Norse mythology. Mistletoe is varyingly symbolic of male fertility, luck, protection, peace and love.
The Scandinavian Winter Solstice festival called Yule is credited for the tradition of Yule Logs. The ceremony initially included bringing home an entire tree to be gradually lit during the twelve days of Christmas. Oak, cherry or birch wood might be used for the purpose. The French also sprinkle wine on the log.
Christmas and bells are close buddies too. The latter are closely related to the midnight Masses held at Easter and Christmas. The use of handbells as a musical accompaniment to carol singing became popular in the nineteenth century and the chiming of bells is now linked to the arrival of the bearded gift-bearer as well.
The song Jingle Bells, originally written by James Lord Pierpont, came out in 1857 and was meant for Thanksgiving. In 1965, it also became the first song that was broadcast from space.
Hanging by the fireplace, vibrant Christmas stockings are one of the most familiar images associated with the festival. They came into wide use in the nineteenth century but the legend that seems to have sprouted this Christmas tradition is a lot older. It is told that St. Nicholas spotted a family of three girls and their father who, despite their tight condition, would not accept charity. Riding on his horse, St. Nicholas tossed in some gold coins through their chimney which fell right into the girls’ stockings that were hung for drying.
If Santa rewards the good kids with gifts, there’s also Krampus- half-goat and half-man that hails from Austrian folklore- who punishes the naughty ones. Krampus cards, popularized by Mont Beauchamp in 2004 and the film Krampus (2015) made the monster a sort of an icon in the States.
A traditional Christmas platter
Christmas tablescapes are arranged with immense care and attention to prepare for the dinner. The turkey is a part of most American Thanksgiving and Christmas spreads. The trend got a kickstart in Victorian England when Queen Victoria had it first in 1851. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) also mentions turkey on the occasion of Christmas. Mince pies, enjoyed hot or cold, are placed outside homes in a popular Christmas tradition of leaving something to eat for Santa (and a carrot for the reindeer).
The most adored traditional desserts include the Christmas or plum pudding (nope, it doesn’t have plums), bûche de Noël (chocolate cake resembling a Yule Log) and a creamy (and often spiked!) eggnog. Baking cookies has also become a much-enjoyed family activity for the season. Christmas cookies and other baked treats are often distributed or sold door-to-door for charitable purposes. Gingerbread men and gingerbread houses have also become synonymous with this festive season.
Candy canes, in their striped-down form (literally), are said to have been made out of sugar sticks in Germany in 1670, distributed among young choir kids to appease them. Their bent shapes resemble shepherds’ crooks. The red stripes were a much later addition when the sweets began to be machine-made by Bob’s Candies and thus, Christmas became peppermint-flavored.
Christmas markets are a major attraction during the festive season where you can shop for everything traditional and contemporary, vintage and kitschy. These compact winter wonderlands, largely run by locals and small-scale entrepreneurs, cater to your wishes of a picturesque celebration. Christmas markets in Europe are known for having preserved the legacy of decadent ornamentation and cozy wooden stalls for all your mandatory festive season shopping (usually on a budget!) or a fun excursion with joyrides, skating rinks and a plethora of regional delights.
Christmas villages and towns sound like the stuff of fairytales. Scenic villages like these have, in fact, become a tourist’s haven, cherished for their immersive experience away from the bustle of city life. There’s Santa Claus in Indiana which, as the name suggests, is a one-stop destination for all things Santa. Coburg, Germany, the home of Prince Albert too is known for its celebrations and you’ll get to see the best of German Christmas markets there.
The Swiss town of Montreux has a dedicated community organizing the biggest Christmas market by Lake Geneva. The cozy little city of North Pole in Alaska is perennially decked in a Noël-colored blanket. You can drive through Mistletoe Lane or take a stroll under street lights resembling candy canes.
Christmas traditions we’ve made ourselves!
Outrageous, extravagant and bordering on ridiculous, ugly Christmas sweaters might not be a winter essential but they are an embodiment of anti-fashion. As they were adapted by sitcoms and TV show hosts to symbolize the holiday fervor during the 50s, it became a sort of a Christmas tradition to see how nonsensical and laughter-inducing these sweaters could get (yes, there are Ugly Christmas Sweater contests!).
Don’t forget to get yourself one, preferably from a thrift store, as you slip into party mode and channel that glitter glam! Get ready for the celebrations in the traditional Christmas colors- red, green and gold. A warm makeup palette, a darling red dress and a Santa hat are some other party requisites you must consider.
A Christmas getaway might be on the cards for you- it doesn’t have to be a globally renowned X-mas celebration hub! Look up hill stations, camping spots or forest resorts closer to home to partake of the festivities in a communal setting and let your joy multiply by sharing. It can be a trip with your gang or an alternative for when you’re ridin’ solo during the season.
As someone who’s never seen the snow in her more than two decades of earthly existence, my priorities for Santa season are in order- hot chocolate (and a general sugar overdose), Christmas movie marathons and snuggling up under a pile of blankets, swathed in my favorite sweaters. Those are my top picks for the Christmas traditions I find comfort in.
And so what if you can’t make it to one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas? The spirit is in your hearts, make a home of it!