The Holiday Season

     Every year brings with it a heightening sense of expectations for the coming Christmas.  We count off the days and plan for the celebrations, we incorporate a few age-old customs that make the season more meaningful for us.  We are so accustomed to these rituals, we often forget or overlook their origins and symbolism.  We love to hang our handcrafted stockings from the mantel.  We enjoy the baked Christmas cookies and send Christmas cards without thinking of the origin of such habits.  We circle around the Christmas tree singing carols or take a Christmas Eve drive down dark streets lit with rows of glowing luminaria, knowing our ancestors did the same, but not knowing why.  Learning the origins of these traditions makes them a more meaningful expression of the Christmas spirit.

     "The Hearth" is defined in the dictionary as "a vital or creative center".  Another describes a hearth as synonymous with "family life" and "home".  Once  upon a time so much of the daily routine of life in every home centered around the fireplace: cooking food, washing clothes, reading stories by firelight, and staying warm.  In our modern world there is little actual need for the fireplace.  Yet at Christmastime,  we turn our attention to the hearth.  The mantel serves as a stage for our Christmas collectibles and the traditional hanging spot for our Christmas stockings.  Stories are told by the crackling fire of how Santa will somehow descend down the chimney, bringing his bounty of gifts.  Decked with garlands of greenery, the hearth becomes a feast for the eyes and a vital center of Christmas customs in the home once more.
     Santa Claus is much more than a myth.  His character is most likely based on the true life of Nicholas, a bishop of the fourth century who was revered for his benevolence.  Granted sainthood for the miracles he performed in his lifetime, he is remembered on December 6, the anniversary of his death.  One tale of Saint Nicholas recounts his gift of gold to three poor peasant girls.  Because their father had no dowries for his three daughters, they were to be sold into slavery.  The girls had washed out their stockings and hung them by the fire to dry before going to bed.  Saint Nicholas secretly tossed gold coins down the chimney, and they were caught in the stockings.  Imagine their happiness when they discovered this secret, magical gift. 

Immigrants to America brought their variations on the legend of the generous Saint Nicholas with them to the New World.  With Clement Clark Moore's embellishments in the classic poem "Twas

the Night Before Christmas", the wagon became a sleigh pulled by the reindeer, and the jolly old elf filled stockings that had been carefully hung by the fireplace.  The tradition continues today.

     The custom of burning a large yule log is a tradition borrowed from the Nordic Festival Juul, when great bonfires were lit to honor Thor, the sun god, to tempt the sun's return despite the long, dark days of midwinter.  The yule log tradition was passed on to the British, who adopted it as part of their Christmas celebration.  On Christmas Eve an enormous log would be brought to the house and placed on the hearth with great ceremony.  It would be lit from pieces of the yule log carefully saved from the year before, and it was kept burning from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day.  Some believed that ashes left in the fireplace from the yule log protected the house all  year from natural disasters.

     With the invention of the candle, man could have light whenever it was needed.  So, candles were thought to have the power to free man from the terrors of darkness.  Throughout medieval Europe, candles were kept burning from December 25 to January 6.  During Victorian times, candle represented good will for those less fortunate.  Candles were placed near windows in many Victorian homes for the twelve days of Christmas as a sign that warmth and shelter could be found there.  Today, a candle burning in the window of some Christian homes symbolically lights the way for the holy family, as well as serving as a sign of welcome to guests.
     Among the most beautiful sights of the Christmas season are streets and pathways lined with glowing luminarias.  This tradition dates back to 17th-Century Spain, when townspeople lit bonfires along the town paths, symbolically lighting the way to Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph.  The tradition spread to Mexico and later to the American Southwest, where parades of worshipers walked firelit pathways to church on Christmas Eve.  Eventually candles in weighted paper bags took the place of open fires, an idea that may have been inspired by traditional paper Chinese lanterns.  In northern climates, luminarias are often fashioned by placing candles in blocks of ice or hollowed-out snowbanks, heightening the candle's glow.  Many centuries after that first journey to Bethlehem, rows of flickering lights guide visitors all over the world and welcome them to holiday celebrations and worship services.

Jolly old England originated the rather boisterous custom of

wassailing: making merry and drinking toasts to others' good health at Christmastide.  Minstrel troupes traveled door to door, singing carols and shouting.  Pleased audiences would fill the troupe's empty bowl with hot, spiced ale or wine, a drink which became known as wassail.  After a volley of holiday toasts, the troupe moved on to the next house.  Wassailing today is slightly more reserved; though seasonal greetings and a warm mug of holiday cheer still go hand in hand.  In the spirit of hospitality, friends and neighbors are invited into each other's homes to share good wishes and something warm to drink.
     The fir tree was revered long before the birth of Christ because it remained green and alive.  Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians brought small evergreen trees inside their homes in winter to show their hope for the coming of spring.  The decoration of trees at Christmas time has its roots in German traditions.  The German religious leader, Martin Luther, is said to have seen a fir tree illuminated with sparkling stars while walking through the woods one Christmas Eve night.  He was inspired to bring home a small fir tree to his family and light it with candles. 
By the early 20th century, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was adopted by most Americans of European descent.  Small evergreens were decorated with candles, sweets, ribbons, dried flowers, and even small gifts.  These elaborately bedecked trees were kept hidden from children until Christmas Day, as children were told Santa brought the tree and its trimmings in his sleigh.

     According to legend, long ago in a small Mexican village lived a young girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo.  Though they were very poor, they always looked forward to Christmas, when there were many parades and parties in the village.  At the village church, a large manger scene was set up, and it was the custom on Christmas Eve to bring gifts for the church to the manger.  Maria and Pablo had no earthly possessions to give to the Baby Jesus, so on their way to church on

Christmas Eve, they picked some weeds that grew along the roadside.  As they placed the green plants around the manger, the other children teased and taunted them for their foolish gesture.  But to everyone's amazement, the top leaves of the plants turned to bright crimson stars and filled the scene with stunning beauty.  To this day, this native Mexican plant, called "flame leave" or "flower of the Holy Night," is a symbol of Christmas.  In America this plant is called the poinsettia.
         The coming of Christmas is a time of great anticipation, especially for children.  In German Protestant households in the 19th century, the twenty-four days before Christmas were marked off with a chalk line, one day at a time.  This was done to count off the days of Advent, which in Latin means "coming towards."  The first printed Advent calendar, produced in 1908m,  was a series of twenty-four little pictures that could be glued to cardboard to mark the days. Soon after, calendars were produced that had little windows to open, which usually revealed bible verses.  The idea caught on and became very popular until the beginning of World War II, when cardboard was rationed, calendars with pictures were forbidden, and the tradition was lost for a time.  After the war, in 1946m the tradition was rekindled and many Advent calendar styles are now commercially produced in all parts of the world.  Many families mark the passing of each day in
December with a special calendar saved from year to year. 

     Now a seasonal mainstay, Christmas cards were born from procrastination and innovation.  Correspondence at the holidays was already a tradition by the middle of the 19th century.  Sir Henry Cole in England is thought to have sent the very first card for a Christmas greeting. Because he was behind in his holiday writing, he asked a friend to design a suitable card.  Within a few days he had produced a small drawing, copied by lithograph, hand colored, and mounted on pasteboard.  Other artists began to follow suit, and because Queen Victoria loved the idea and sent Christmas cards of her own, it soon became quite fashionable.  By 1860 Christmas cards were being mass-produced and the industry began to flourish.  Countless styles can be purchased, but many people prefer to show extra thoughtfulness by designing their own Christmas cards.

     Cookies, in some shape or form, have been around since the beginning of recorded history, born of the need for portable food with a long shelf life.  During the Middle Ages, bakers in the Middle East used eggs, butter, and cream to lighten flour paste morsels, then added fruit and honey to make them more tasty.  The word "cookie" comes from the Dutch Word koekje, which means "small cake."  It was the Pennsylvania Dutch who first introduced holiday cookies to America.           

     Cookies have been part of celebrations long before the first Christmas.  Germans baked their shortbread for the pagan winter solstice celebrations.  After Pope Julius declared December 25 as Christmas in 350 A.D., Christians adopted cookie baking as part of the Christmas celebration.  Many of the Christmas cookie recipes we bake today originated in the European countries centuries ago; each carries with it generations of folklore and tradition.

 

Reprinted from Hearth and Home - Christmas Customs

 

What makes Christmas special to us are the traditions that were handed down from our grandparents and parents. If you don't have any long standing traditions, consider creating new traditions that can be passed down in your family. Use these suggestions to get started.

  • Enjoy an outdoors day to begin the season.  Visit your local Christmas Tree farms and find that special tree to begin your Holiday Celebrations.  Have your own annual Christmas Tree hunt.

  • Dress up the outside of your home.  Bring your celebration outdoors to share with all.

  • Have a Christmas Tree ornament exchange.

  • On Christmas eve, gather together around your Nativity Scene with mugs of hot chocolate and read the Christmas Story.  Share the true meaning of Christmas.

  • Pick community service workers who have to work on Christmas, i.e., police, firemen, doctors. Make them homemade gifts and lots of goodies and take it to them on Christmas. 

  • Give a newlywed child a white linen tablecloth.  In the corner embroider their names and the date of their first Christmas as a married couple.  The tradition begins at Christmas dinner each year.  Have everyone sitting at the table for Christmas sign their name and the date.  Through the years, each Christmas dinner is recalled and who it was shared with.  Its a "Memories of Christmas Past" tablecloth.  Create permanence by embroidering the signatures and dates.

 

Don't be afraid to dream, for out of such frail things come miracles.

 

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