Understanding Christmas Traditions
We live in a society that doesn’t care much for tradition. Most of our daily lives are consumed on the present and future, and far too often, we forget the past. Throughout life it’s important to remember history. It gives you a better appreciation for the world, and also can be very eye-opening, teaching you things that may be relevant to you. So many of the different things we do in life are orchestrated by events of in history, and we’re completely unaware of it. We sometimes are guilty of blindly following things that are rooted in tradition, but couldn’t explain why we take part in these traditions, and only partake in them because they are weaved into the current social fabric.
Most notably, these blindly-followed traditions occur throughout many of our celebrated holidays. Holidays are usually days that commemorate a historic event, so the very premise of several of them is based on humanity’s past. We explode fireworks on the Fourth of July to commemorate our independence; we attend church on Easter to honor the day of Christ’s resurrection (more can be learned about this in another article that I wrote).
While many traditions we take part in during the different holiday seasons are self explanatory, we are unaware of the meanings to several of the holiday-oriented traditions that we practice. We take several customs that have existed for centuries, and follow them blindly. They have blended into the fabric of our routines, so we observe different rituals because they are customary, and disregard the deeper meanings behind them. This can clearly be seen around the Christmas season.
Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays in America, flooding almost every aspect of our daily lives between Thanksgiving and December 25th. From commercials on television to the multi-colored lights shining from the fronts of houses, Christmas engulfs our existence. The holiday seems to be celebrated by nearly everyone, many sport clothing that bares different images centered on Christmas, while others show their holiday spirit by doing charitable works for people.
The overall meaning behind Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. Though the meaning behind Christmas is widely known, the meanings behind several of the traditional aspects are a complete mystery to many of those who actively celebrate them. Many of us do things such as hanging stockings by the chimney, or placing Christmas trees in our homes, without understanding where these particular things originated from. We understand that they are totems of the Christmas spirit, but their origins have become lost in the fold of our here-and-now oriented lives.
The Christmas tree is a popular decoration that is placed in many homes throughout the Christmas season. Different trees, either real (usually spruce) or synthetic, are set up and decorated with lights and ornaments. Though the Christmas tree is such a common fixture during the Christmas season, most don’t actually understand where it’s history. It is well known in Christmas myth that Santa Claus places presents beneath the tree for good children, but the presence of the tree inside of a house isn’t quite clear.
Mystery surrounds the origins of the Christmas tree. There are many conflicting stories of origin, due to several countries around the world claiming that the Christmas tree began through them. A 1954 issue of The Science News-Letter gave several different possible origins to the Christmas tree. It states that the English believe that St. Boniface was the first person to designate the fur as a symbol of Christmas (Unknown, 378). The Vikings believed that Faith, Hope, and Charity all were responsible for making the fir a Christmas tree, because the branches look like they are crosses (378). The natural crosses were obviously associated with Christ, thus giving reason to why this specific tree would be considered a Christmas tree.
The Scandinavians’ claim that they originated the Christmas tree, because they erected poles covered in grains as a way to offer Christmas present to birds (378). Though mystery surrounds the origination of the Christmas tree as a custom, it is known that the first trees in America were brought over by German’s that were hired by the British to fight in the war for independence. Though the true meaning behind the Christmas tree may be forever shrouded in time, the custom carries on in popular fashion as one of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas.
Though the complete origin isn’t entirely grounded in fact, knowing possibilities of where the Christmas tree came from makes the tradition seem at least slightly more powerful. Understanding that it does have a rich history transforms the randomness of a tree inside of a house into a celebration of a custom that was created by people of the past. It gives it a greater sense of depth, and by knowing these possibilities we have a greater understanding of why the Christmas tree is often used.
A tradition that’s now customary during the Christmas season is the use of stockings. Though it’s materialized into normalcy for us, when actually examined, hanging footwear by a chimney so that it can be filled with presents is quite bazaar. The tradition itself comes from one of the most celebrated Christmas heroes, Santa Claus. Legend tells how the gift-giving Saint Nicholas went to a village and heard of a needy widower who could not afford to pay his daughter’s wedding dowries. Saint Nicholas knew that the man was too prideful to accept the money as a donation, so he dropped gold down his chimney, which landed in stockings that were hung by the fireplace in order to dry (Webley).
This story gives purpose to something that we do during Christmas time that seems somewhat absurd. Just hanging up footwear by a fireplace in modern-times makes no sense, but doing it with the understanding of history (or legend), makes the act much more worthwhile. Instead of feeling up stockings with different presents for no reason, we can appreciate the charitable tale, which correlates with the giving and selflessness that’s an overpowering theme of Christmas.
The poinsettia is a plant that is most commonly known for being used as decoration in association with Christmas. The plant can typically be seen within homes and offices around Christmas, flashing its vibrant red colors during December. It has imbedded itself within the holiday culture, and often times we just accept it as a norm without further questioning. The vibrant red of the poinsettia’s pedals, along with the glowing green leaves, are the customary colors of the holiday, so one may assume that since the plant matches the popular Christmas color scheme, it was automatically adopted as the plant of the holiday.
The story of the poinsettia’s popularity around Christmas is seemingly deeper than mere color-coordinated association; its popularity is rooted in Christmas legend. Apparently there was a town in Mexico that celebrated Christmas every year by placing flowers in a manger outside of a church on Christmas Eve to honor Jesus. A poor child couldn’t afford to honor Christ through purchasing flowers, so an angel appeared to him and told him to pick weeds to place in the manger. After following the instructions, the weeds apparently changed into the beautiful scarlet flowers known as poinsettias (Petro).
This story seems very farfetched, and from a scientific standpoint, is completely impossible. It’s very unlikely that there is any truth to it, but factual basis really doesn’t hold any merit in negating the value of tradition. The story itself is where the lasting power behind the plant exists, even if the story is false. It is a parable of hope for the troubled, showing that God is looking out for those who have good intention. The child who wanted to honor Jesus was able to properly, as a reward for his strong faith. Though the story of the Poinsettia may be a complete fabrication and hold no validity, the idea behind it adds greater meaning to the holiday-oriented plant.
It’s greater to understand why we do some of the things we do during the Christmas season, instead of absent-mindedly practicing customs rich in tradition, without understanding the tradition. The deeper meaning behind things associated with Christmas makes the holiday seem much more important through its rich history. Even if some of the stories behind our traditions are obviously stretched truths or impossibilities, they give reasoning to several of our holiday-oriented customs that would otherwise be pointless. By valuing the past, we experience a greater appreciation for our present. Several of our current practices are completely influenced through truths or legends of history, and it’s good to honor their original meanings, instead of forgetting them.
When we lose the meaning behind several of our practices, there is no real point in continuing the practices themselves. If stockings are hung by the fireplace and filled with candy and presents with no knowledge as to why, then the tradition is pointless. Meaning behind our customs is essential, because our actions are given a purpose. Instead of blindly taking part in different elements of the Christmas season, we can learn reasoning behind everything we do, and in turn we are able to have a greater appreciation for the holiday. Our wealth of Christmas spirit can expand, and we can start to actually learn to appreciate the rich meanings behind the customs instead of despising the holiday.
The idea of researching different traditions to have greater appreciation can also exist outside of Christmas. One can study different holidays that we celebrate in order to know where different customs originated, and receive greater appreciation for everything that’s typically overlooked. By learning to appreciate the past, we can also have a better appreciation for our present lives.