Yesterday I talked about Hanukkah, the first of the chief, three December holidays that are celebrated in the United States. While Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa are as wildly popular as they are, it’s surprising how little we actually know about them. Tune in each day this week to learn about the history of December holidays we celebrate in the United States.
Next up is Christmas.
Christmas, of course, is the Christian celebration that annually commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. Many of its traditions, however, have been adopted from a varied past. When you stop and think about it, what do our traditions have to do with the birth of Jesus? We bring trees into our homes, give gifts to one another, and kiss beneath the mistletoe—WHY? Let’s take a look.
Christmas trees (while they may be different now) are nothing new. People have been putting trees in their homes for thousands of years in recognition of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Without modern science to explain this phenomenon, people feared that the sun would grow farther and farther away until it disappeared completely, forever! Evergreens and palm trees, which never lose their healthy, green color, were kept inside homes almost as good luck charms.
Giving gifts is just as old a tradition as Christmas trees are. During the Saturnalia celebration—a Thanksgiving-esque holiday from thousands of years ago—masters of the house would give gifts to their servants and children and they would play silly role reversal games with them to help make the day feel joyful and light.
As for mistletoe—well, that’s been a traditional item for a long time too, maybe even longer than gift giving or keeping trees inside. It was the ancient Greeks who started smooching underneath this parasitic plant. In those times, mistletoe was associated with fertility. Even earlier than that, though, the Celtics used mistletoe in ceremonies. They didn’t kiss under it. They just thought it had strange abilities like healing illnesses, protecting against nightmares, and…predicting the future.
But no matter where these traditions came from, the important thing is that we keep the traditions alive in our celebrations today. Enjoy your festivities and, as always, thanks for reading.