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The Stories Behind Our Christmas Traditions

December 25, 2017

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Story at-a-glance

  • If you are in good health, enjoy healthy relationships and have a positive outlook on life, you very likely have cause for celebration, not only on Christmas Day, but also throughout the year
  • While TV commercials and print advertisements seek to influence your attitude and mindset about Christmas, you can make the day worth living simply by choosing meaningful activities and surrounding yourself with people you love
  • Wherever you are, whatever you are doing on Christmas Day, you might be interested in taking a closer look at the history behind five common Christmas traditions: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, gift giving, candy canes and eggnog

By Dr. Mercola

Christmas, just as every other day of the year, is an occasion for celebration simply because you are alive. If you are in good health, enjoy healthy relationships and have a positive outlook on life, you very likely have cause for celebration, not only on Christmas Day, but also every day throughout the year.

While TV commercials and print advertisements seek to influence your attitude and mindset about Christmas (and any number of other holidays), I believe it's more personal than that. It stands to reason that you can make the day worth savoring simply by choosing meaningful activities and surrounding yourself with people you love.

When approached that way, Christmas becomes less about the food, gifts, tree and the like. Instead, Christmas emanates as a deeper, more personal experience within your heart. That said, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you might be interested in taking a closer look at the history behind five common Christmas traditions: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, gift giving, candy canes and eggnog. Merry Christmas to you and yours from all of us at Mercola.com!

Interesting Facts About Christmas

No matter how many Christmases you've celebrated, you may not know how five of the most common Christmas traditions came about. Let's begin with a few interesting facts about Christmas from History.com:1

Christmas was declared a U.S. federal holiday on June 26, 1870

Every year, 30 to 35 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S., most of them cultivated by one of the nation's 21,000 Christmas tree growers

Poinsettias are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico, who brought the plant to America from Mexico in 1828

The Salvation Army has been collecting Christmas donations on the streets across the U.S. since the 1890s

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written in 1939 by copywriter Robert L. May as a marketing piece to attract customers to the Montgomery Ward department store2

Construction workers initiated the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition in New York City in 1931

The first eggnog made in the U.S. was consumed at the Jamestown settlement in 1607

The Legend of Santa Claus

The modern-day Santa Claus3,4 originated as St. Nicholas of Myra, a real-life, fourth century Byzantine monk known for handing out bags of money to the poor. Introduced to the U.S. in the early 1800s, American views of St. Nicholas began to morph based on the 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," which became more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." By the late 1800s, St. Nicholas was renamed "Santa Claus," a name based off the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas, "Sinterklaas."

Appearing in Harper's Weekly, images of our modern Santa were presented by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1880s. According to History.com, it was Clement Clarke Moore who "depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children."5 Furthermore, Nast is credited with giving Santa a wife, a bright red, fur-trimmed suit and a workshop at the North Pole replete with elves.

By 1890, children could visit with a live Santa at department stores. Beginning in the 1930s, Coca-Cola propelled "the right jolly old elf" further into the spotlight through its many Santa-focused advertisements, his red-and-white suit harmonizing perfectly with their brand colors. The effects of Coke's advertising with respect to Christmas were so profound that some mistakenly came to believe the company actually created Santa Claus.6

Today, Santa endures as a full-bellied grandpa-like icon with a twinkling eye and flowing white beard. About the common characteristics between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, the St. Nicholas Foundation says:7

"It's been a long journey from … St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity to those in need, to America's jolly Santa Claus, whose largesse often supplies luxuries to the affluent. However, if you peel back the accretions, he is still Nicholas, bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.

There is growing interest in reclaiming the original saint … to help restore a spiritual dimension to this festive time. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live …

... Families, churches and schools are embracing true St. Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas — the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to [the] increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons."

The Story Behind Christmas Trees

While stories behind the origin of the modern-day Christmas tree abound, most sources agree that decorated evergreen trees became customary in the mid-19th century. Prior to that time, according to CNN, similar trees were used by:8

One of the more notable legends, especially given the marking of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, suggests Protestant reformer Martin Luther may have been responsible for bringing Christmas trees into homes.

Legend has it Luther was inspired by a walk through the forest on Christmas Eve in 1510, when he saw stars shining through overhead tree branches. He apparently told his children the dazzling sight reminded him of Jesus, so much so that he brought an evergreen into their home for Christmas.

In the mid-19th century, England's Queen Victoria is credited with influencing the modern tradition of erecting Christmas trees in homes. She reportedly encouraged her husband Prince Albert to decorate a tree as a way to carry forward holiday tradition from his childhood in Bavaria. After a drawing of the royal family and their decorated Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1846, the desire to copy their tradition rapidly spread throughout the U.K. and U.S.9

In the late 1800s, artificial Christmas trees originated in Germany, at which time metal wire trees were covered with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers that had been dyed green to imitate pine needles. In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company used the same machinery that made their toilet brushes to manufacture artificial trees.10,11 The Addis "silver pine" tree, which had a revolving light source under it, was patented in 1950.

Why Do We Give Gifts on Christmas?

Prior to the establishment of Christmas, pagans in Europe and the Middle East had already adopted the custom of giving presents12 on the occasion of various winter festivals. One such lengthy Roman festival called Saturnalia, thrown in honor of the agriculture god Saturn, began on December 17. During the cold, dark days of winter, pagans lightened the mood by eating, drinking, merry making and exchanging gifts. Candles, fruit, nuts and pottery figurines were some of the gifts given.

With the spread of Christianity, early church leaders looked for ways to phase out pagan holidays without creating too much of a backlash. In the fourth century, Christian leaders created a rival festival centered on the celebration of Jesus' birth called Christmas.

While the actual date of his birth is unknown, but thought to be in the spring, church leaders set it as December 25 in hopes of overshadowing pagan holidays enjoyed around the same time. Due to its placement near Saturnalia and other well-established pagan holidays, many of the pagan rituals of revelry naturally attached themselves to Christmas.

As such, Christmas Day was initially characterized by church attendance followed by a raucous, drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. Although Christmas traditions took root in England in the sixth century and Scandinavia by the eighth century, it wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace the holiday with vigor.

According to History.com, in time, Americans reinvented Christmas, transforming it from a wild, carnival-like holiday into a nostalgic day focused on the peaceful gathering of family and friends:13

"As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards and gift giving.

Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation."

The Candy Cane: A Popular Christmas Icon

Given its role as an iconic symbol of Christmas for nearly 350 years, you may be surprised the original candy cane was a straight white stick flavored only with sugar. According to Candy History:14

"Legend has it that in 1670, the cane-shaped candy became historical when a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany bent the sugar-sticks into canes to appear as shepherd's hooks. The all-white candy canes were given out to children who attended the ceremonies. This became a popular tradition, and eventually the practice … spread all over Europe and America."

The first documented use of candy canes with respect to celebrating Christmas is believed to have occurred in the U.S. in 1847, when August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, placed candy canes and paper ornaments on a Christmas tree. Red-and-white striped candy canes made their debut at the turn of the 19th century, and the peppermint flavor followed shortly thereafter, quickly becoming a traditional flavor.

In 1919, Bob McCormack launched a candy business in Albany, Georgia, that eventually became Bobs Candy Company.15 Making candy canes by hand was quite labor intensive, until the 1950s when Gregory Keller, McCormack's brother-in-law, invented a machine designed to automate production. Bobs was the first company to mass-produce and distribute candy canes worldwide, as well as the first to wrap candy in cellophane.16

Although Bobs is no longer a family business, having been sold in 2005, you can learn more about how Bobs candy canes were made by viewing a Georgia Public Broadcasting video "The Candy Cane Factory."17 While candy canes are now available in many colors, flavors and sizes, the classic red-and-white peppermint cane remains the perennial favorite. Below are some interesting facts about candy canes:18

Eggnog: A Traditional Holiday Drink You Either Love or Hate

Eggnog — whether you love it or hate it — is firmly embedded in American winter holiday traditions, including Christmas. It is believed to have gotten its start in Europe, where medieval monks in Britain were known to drink posset, a warm ale punch made with eggs and figs as early as the 13th century.19,20

When the beverage was brought to the New World, colonists began pairing Caribbean rum with their ready supply of eggs and milk, creating a drink that became popular with people of all classes. At the time, thick drinks were known as "grogs." As such, eggnog was known as "egg and grog." By 1775, the term eggnog was coined.

Over the generations, this rich, spicy alcoholic drink has become a fixture during the holiday season in the U.S. and beyond. Eggnog recipes are frequently adapted to accommodate personal tastes. For instance, in the South, whiskey is often preferred over rum. In Mexico, cinnamon, milk and vanilla are added to rum or grain alcohol to make rompope. Puerto Ricans add coconut juice or milk and omit the eggs to make a drink called coquito. Peruvians make an eggnog-like cocktail using a local brandy called pisco.

If you've tried eggnog and did not find it to your taste, you may want to make your own. The quality of this beverage very much depends on the quality of its ingredients, especially since the basic recipe has not changed much over the years. If you can tolerate raw eggs, milk and spices, you may enjoy eggnog.

Due to the alcohol and high calorie content, I would caution you from overindulging on conventional eggnog. When consumed in excessive amounts, alcohol, even when blended into eggnog, can wreak havoc on your liver and your overall health. For the healthiest eggnog, I recommend you omit the alcohol and use organic pastured eggs, raw organic grass fed milk and a healthy sweetener such as honey or stevia. Check out this Healthy Holiday Eggnog Recipe.

Previous ArticleMerry Christmas to You and Yours From Dr. Mercola Next ArticleWeekly Health Quiz: Fast Food, Grief and Artichokes

Sources and References

  • 1, 13 History.com, History of Christmas
  • 2 History.com December 19, 2014
  • 3, 12 The Week December 20, 2014
  • 4, 7 St. Nicholas Center, Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus
  • 5 History.com, Santa Claus
  • 6, 8 CNN Health December 23, 2016
  • 9, 10 Mirror December 6, 2017
  • 11 ThoughtCo., The History of Christmas Stuff
  • 14 Candy History, The History of Candy Cane
  • 15 New Georgia Encyclopedia August 4, 2006
  • 16 Ferrara Candy Company, Bobs: King of Candymakers
  • 17 Georgia Public Broadcasting, Georgia Stories Video: The Candy Cane Factory
  • 18 GourmetGiftBaskets.com December 4, 2014
  • 19 The Spruce December 7, 2017
  • 20 Time December 21, 2011
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