It's the most wonderful time of the year, but have you ever wondered where our most basic Christmas traditions come from? We decided to spend this week researching and learning about why we celebrate the way that we do so that we could share the magic of Christmas with you in a new way! Read on to learn about the mysterious and magical origins of our favorite holiday's pastimes.
The Yule Log has a long history in several regions of Northern Europe. The name Yule originates from a specific Solstice festival known as "Jol" or "Jule" (the J is pronounced as Y) which was the official Scandinavian feast for Odin, the god of drink, pleasure, and death. Because of the diverse range of Odin's attributes, feasting traditions varied in each region but a cornerstone of their celebrations were the roaring fires made in the large hearths of their dwellings. Great logs were felled and brought into the home to be set ablaze. The log was considered to be sacred because it represented the health and fruitfulness that would arrive soon after the Winter Solstice when spring and summer came.
The magic of the Yule Log was kept burning for at least twelve hours and often for as long as two weeks to ward off witchcraft. Once the fire died, a small piece of the charred wood was used to light the next year's log so that each new log was imbued with the powers of those that had been lit before. While Yule Logs are not the most common Christmas tradition in the 21st century, there was a time when it was one of the most prominent. It certainly harkens back to a time of mystery when the world was young and people more readily believed in what they could not see.
Surprisingly, the origin of the candy cane is pretty shrouded in mystery. There are several working theories, but not much proof for any of them. The first is that sometime during the 17th century, a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral requested that white sticks of candy be created in the shape of shepherds' staffs to be given to children during Christmastime ceremonies so that they would be kept quiet. According to this theory, the tradition of candy crooks quickly spread throughout Europe, however there is little factual evidence to back this up.
The second theory is that Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia made candy canes as treats for family, friends and local business owners. McCormack's brother-in-law happened to be a Catholic priest named Gregory Keller and he invented a contraption in the 1950s which automated the production of candy canes, especially the curving of their ends which was a laborious task, and made them widely available in the United States.
It is very likely that candy canes originated as straight white strips of sugar candy since Christmas cards before 1900 depicted them as such. Illustrations of the curved white and red striped canes did not appear until the 20th century. While there is no clear reason for this, it is widely accepted that they became curved to more easily be hung on Christmas trees and the stripes were added by the church to represent the scourging Jesus received on behalf of sinners and the blood that set captives free.
The truth about candy canes may never be known, but they are a universal sign of Christmas all over our country, not to mention a delicious treat!
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on the trunks of other trees, most commonly apple, as it has no roots of its own. It was thought to be sacred to ancient Europeans and druids used it in their sacrifices to the gods. It is rumored that in the Celtic language it means "all-heal' but it probably most derives from the German word mist which means dung, and tang which means branch... so, quite literally, dung branch. Not sure about you, but we're sticking with the Celts. Mistletoe was said to cure diseases, be an antidote to poisons, increase fertility, and protect from ghosts and witchcraft. No wonder anyone possessing it was held in high regard. On top of this, Norse mythology offers a myth to explain its healing and kissing powers:
It was said that the goddess of love, Frigg, was the mother of Balder who was the god of the sun. She loved him very much and became upset when he began to dream of his death. If Balder were to die so would the whole world! To prevent the death of her son, Frigg went to each and every element, plant, and animal and begged them to promise that no harm would come to her son. They did promise and so Frigg was placated because she believed that nothing would hurt her son now. But, Balder had an enemy that Frigg had overlooked.
Loki, the god of evil knew of one plant that the goddess of love had forgotten in her frantic quest: mistletoe. Loki created a weapon from a sprig of mistletoe and gave it to the blind god of winter and the twin brother of Balder, Hod, who shot his brother down. The earth became void of the sun and the creation cried out for their god of light. In one version of this tale, Frigg and the other gods bring Balder back to life and Frigg decrees that thereafter mistletoe should be a sign of love and life rather than death, and that those who pass under it are to embrace, or, kiss.
It is thought that the Christian religion borrowed from this tale of love and accepted mistletoe as a tradition of its own because of its parallels to the story of Christ and the powers attributed to mistletoe.
The story goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a kindhearted nobleman who lost his wife to a fatal illness. With himself and his daughters in utter despair, this man proceeded to lose all of his money in bad investments and the small family had to move into a servant's cottage. There, the young women proceeded to do their own housekeeping including washing and sewing.
Their father became even more sad and worried when it became time for his daughters to marry since he had no money to present as a dowry. No woman could marry without a dowry in those days as it was customary to present the new husband's family with money and gifts. But as the legend goes, one night, Saint Nicholas, who knew the great tragedy of this family, came by the nobleman's house. Upon looking in the window, he saw the girls' stockings hanging over the hearth to dry. Upon seeing these meager garments, Saint Nicholas took three bags of gold and placed one in each stocking by way of throwing them down the chimney. The father, who could not sleep due to worry about his daughters, witnessed the magical event and soon the tradition of stockings was born.
For thousands of years, evergreen plants have been attributed with great magic because of their ability to stay untouched by the harsh winter. In many ancient cultures, evergreen boughs were used for decoration during the Winter Solstice to represent the restoration of the natural world that would soon be coming after winter's chill. It is commonly thought that the Christmas tree as we know it is a shadow of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life represented in Norse mythology. Carried into homes and decorated with precious commodities such as fruit and nuts, evergreen trees were used as idols and the decorations were offerings to the gods.
Germany has the honor of starting the tradition of the Christmas tree as it is known in America today. They continued in the use of apples, nuts, and other fruit as well as marzipan cookies and candles to decorate their trees. Somewhere along the way the tradition was embraced by Christianity after much Puritan push-back, but whether it was a custom converts held on to from their pagan ancestors or was added to the faith and morphed to represent the wooden cross upon which Jesus died and the eternal life he gave to his children is difficult to determine.
Does your family have any unique holiday traditions to add to this list? If so, post a photo to Instagram and use #HandPtraditions2016 to receive 25% off your next accessories purchase!
We hope you enjoyed learning about these beautiful customs as much as we did. Merry Christmas!