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What Trees, Caroling, and Santa Claus Have to Do With Christmas

December 21, 2015

Besides that I'm going to over-complicate the Christmas dinner menu, it's an especially common concern of my mom's that our family is in need of some new traditions. What I think she means is more unusual traditions, a medley of semi-random, Christmas-related rituals that nobody else does but which we'll start doing on a yearly basis—traditions my niece and nephew will be able to think of as our family's alone.

But while the Christmas traditions we do have might feel commonplace to her—dragging in a big tree, hanging stockings, streaming a continuous playlist of carols through the home for a full month—to me they are very much our family's own: We take them into our home, shape them to fit with our lives and beliefs, and don't really give a hoot if anyone else is doing the same.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Plus, they're not traditions because of passing whims. All the Christmas traditions that have become popular and commercialized—and which are, therefore, so strangely unrelated to the Christian story of Christmas—started somewhere, with somebody, in stories with roots that run centuries deep. In many cases, the acts themselves have secular beginnings.

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To remind my mom why our traditions exist (and to assuage my own personal curiosity as I picked up thousands of tiny evergreen needles at the pop-up last weekend, wondering why, oh why, is greenery a thing), I'm sharing the history of three big Christmas traditions: Christmas trees and greenery, Caroling and carols, and Santa Claus.

Christmas Trees & Greenery

In its earliest incarnation, the bringing of evergreen branches indoors was almost definitely a pagan tradition: According to History.com, Romans did so to celebrate the winter solstice, since the rich color symbolized spring to come. Even further back, it's said that ancient cultures put evergreen on their door frames to ward off witches and evil spirits, and flowering branches were sometimes brought inside and potted so they'd bloom during winter—presumably, I can only imagine, to combat the doldrums.

In December of 1931, these demolition workers at Rockefeller Center pooled their funds to buy a 20-foot balsam fir Christmas Tree. Photo by via Rockefeller Center

The practice took a religious turn in the Middle Ages, when the raucous Christian theater productions called "Mystery Plays" (they were racy and religious) became popular; the Nativity scene was produced alongside the Creation Story, with a "Paradise Tree" playing a part in the Garden of Eden. When the plays were eventually banned, celebrants supposedly brought similar trees into their homes in quiet protest. But competing theories abound: Some believe that Martin Luther himself was the first inspired to bring an evergreen indoors, since the sight of stars through their branches reminded him of Jesus on earth.

The practice gained popularity in Europe, while early Americans Puritans—of course—saw holiday decorations as heretically joyful, even fining people for putting up greenery near December 25th. Were it not for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria bringing one into Windsor Castle in 1841 (and an illustration of their whole family beside the tree that ran in the London News a few years later), the practice might never have been popularized.

Christmas Caroling

As anyone who has ever bundled up with an open container of wassail and knocked on strangers' doors to sing to them knows—wait, you haven't?—going caroling or even thinking of going caroling is one of those activities that really makes you wonder why it's an activity at all. Why did people do it, and where did this particular breed of Christmas music come from?

The word wassail is actually the clue here—according to Time it comes from an Old Norse word that translates to "be well, and in good health," and which eventually came to imply the act of wishing good cheer on your neighbors. (Usually in hopes of getting a gift in return.)

Carols, on the other hand, were originally everyday liturgical songs sung in the Medieval period. In Victorian England, the act of singing them while walking around the neighborhood was considered a good way to celebrate most any holiday, and as Christmas gained popularity in the 19th century, the tradition (along with gift-giving, previously a New Years tradition, and tree-trimming) became associated with it. Around this time, most of the hymns we think of as Christmas carols were coined—that is, when old hymn words were put to new and improved tunes, as BBC reports.

Left: the illustration of Victoria & Albert by the tree that ran in the London News; right: an early book of carols.

Santa Claus

If you woke up in downtown Manhattan a few Saturdays ago, you might have thought it was the North Pole. For the city's annual Santacon tradition, otherwise capable people dress up in red velvet and white fur and get as drunk as possible, populating every bad bar below 14th Street. Even if you didn't have the pleasure of this uninvited company, your average mall Santa or cartoon Santa is likewise a bizarre reality. Where did this pale-skinned, tubby, speed-sleighing character come from?

Left: a religious icon depicting St. Nicholas. Right: Thomas Nast's famous 1881 cartoon of "Merry Old Santa." Photo by via National Geographic, via Public Domain Review

In a word, Greece. Santa Claus' alter ego is Saint Nicholas. The real Saint Nick, who was born 280 years after Christ, according to National Geographic, was a Greek bishop. He would have been olive-skinned, of course, and had a reputation for being both "fiery" and "wirey" according to the Nat Geo report.

A famed defender of persecuted Christians, after his death St. Nick became known as the patron saint of children and a gift-giver, based on all kinds of lore chronicling his protective nature and generosity. Since the day of his passing, one fateful December 6, was close to Christmas, eventually the two dates were aligned and he was celebrated as part of the holiday. As a saint, he fell in and out of favor over the centuries, but kids everywhere—and especially families from the Netherlands— refused to give him up; as the story goes, they were the ones who brought tales of a gift-giving "Sinterklaas" to the New World.

As for his fair-skinned visage, that was helped along by modern literature. Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History of New York, Clement Clarke Moore's The Night Before Christmas, and a cartoon depiction by Thomas Nast all helped craft the image of a plump, cuddly, pipe-smoking man with a sleigh led by reindeer in modern times.

In the case of all three of these traditions—the erecting of a small seasonal forest indoors, the gift of showing up uninvited at your neighbor's in song, the seeking out of a fat man in a red suit for a picture of your child crying—the commercialization of the Christmas holiday is what really made them popular practice. But I like the idea that all this sudden greenery has roots in ancient history; it makes the whole trimming process feel a little bit more reasonable (and the tradition a little bit more meaningful).

Though if I'm honest, I was happy just knowing that it would make the whole house smell good. Merry Christmas!

What are your favorite Christmas traditions? Let us know in the comments.

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Betsey December 21, 2015
By "caucasian", I am assuming you mean "fair-skinned"? Because Greeks are Caucasians.
Amanda S. December 23, 2015
Yes! Fixed.