CHARLOTTE, N.C., Dec. 16, 2015 – In honor of the season, we continue exploring Christmas traditions that are familiar to us all — and perhaps some that are not.
1 – All about Christmas trees: It’s not certain when fir trees became the popular tradition for Christmas trees, but the idea probably began about a thousand years ago in Northern Europe. According to many historians, Christians regard the fir tree, or “tree of God,” as a symbol of everlasting life.
A popular trend, which has become a source of controversy in recent years, is hanging a Christmas tree upside down. The reason is that the first trees were displayed that way so people would know the tree was not merely a floral decoration but, rather, a religious representation of the Holy Trinity.
The first known documented use of a tree during the Christmas season took place in Latvia in 1510 in the town square of Riga.
Some historians claim the first person to bring a tree into the house as we know it today, may have been Martin Luther in the 16th century. The legend says that Luther saw the stars shining through the branches of the trees while walking in the forest. He returned home and told his children that it was so beautiful it reminded him of Jesus. Soon after, a tree was indoors as a reminder of the love of Christ.
Another story refers to St. Boniface, who left England to travel to Germany to convert German tribes to Christianity. According to legend, he encountered a group of pagans preparing to sacrifice a young boy while worshipping an oak tree. The saint became extremely angry and in a fit of rage cut down the oak tree.
When a fir tree miraculously grew out of the roots of the oak tree, St. Boniface took it as a sign of Christian faith. As a result, followers set about decorating the fir tree with candles, which allowed St. Boniface to preach to the pagans at night.
The earliest Christmas trees were decorated with edible things, especially apples that represented the apple in the Garden of Eden. One year however, due to a poor crop, an Italian glass blower created special small red ornaments to replace the apples.
By 1895, because lit candles were a fire hazard, Ralph Morris invented the first electric Christmas lights. Tinsel, on the other hand, came to us from Germany.
Thanks to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband, the first Christmas tree in Great Britain was put up in Windsor Castle in 1841. Drawings of the tree captured the imagination of the public, and soon the tradition was popular throughout Great Britain and the United States.
2 – St. Nicholas and Santa Claus: In the 4th century A.D. there was a bishop named St. Nicholas who lived in what is now the country of Turkey. Upon the death of his parents, St. Nicholas inherited a large amount of money.
Over time the bishop earned a reputation for his kindness by aiding the poor and downtrodden and giving anonymous gifts to people in need.
Thanks to his generosity, Nicholas was made the saint of children. He was later exiled from his home in Myra and put in prison by the Emperor Diocletian. Though the year of his death is not known, the date was Dec. 6, which is the reason that day is still celebrated as St. Nicholas Feast Day in Europe.
Upon the death of St. Nicholas, there was no one around to deliver presents during the Yuletide season, so “Father Christmas,” a character from early children’s stories, was given the honor in Great Britain. In Scotland, “Father Christmas” was known as “Santa.”
Other countries had other names for the jolly elf, but it was Dutch settlers living in the United States who changed the name of “Kris Kringle” into “Sinterklaas,” which later became Americanized into “Santa Claus.”
3 – Why Santa comes down the chimney: We yield to common sense for this tradition which began, as many Christmas customs do, in Northern Europe.
In the pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin usually entered through chimneys and smoke holes on the beginning of the solstice, which is marks the start of winter.
Over the centuries, as the customs spread to the United States, the harsh winter weather made it impossible to leave doors and windows open for Santa Claus to come in.
Since most of the houses in the early 19th century were heated by fireplaces, that became the logical place for old St. Nick to enter.
Wealthier families of the day had chimneys rather than smoke holes, but eventually chimneys were commonplace. And, since they were always “open,” that was the best place for Santa to arrive.
Ahhh, but times change, you see, and today fireplaces and chimneys are more decorative than necessary. Not to worry because Santa Claus is, if nothing else, adaptable. Today Santa can shrink himself so that he is able to come into the house through keyholes.
Who knows, by the year 2100, Santa may be teleporting presents from the North Pole instead of using reindeer.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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