Discovering the origins of some of our favorite Christmas traditions
EUROPE — Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and since it comes late this year, the Christmas season is shorter. Christmas traditions set the holiday apart from others. But few of us know of their origins with Germany and France being among the greatest contributors to our yuletide rituals?
According to legend, a monk traveled to Thuringia, Germany in the 7th century to teach the word of God. Situated in the central part of the country, Thuringia was well known for its dense forests.
With its abundance of timber, the monk began using fir trees as a means of explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity to local peasants. Over the centuries the fir became known as “God’s Tree.”
By the 12th century, firs were being brought indoors during Christmas and being hung upside-down as a symbol of Christianity. The triangular shape represented the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. By hanging a tree from the ceiling people knew it had greater significance than mere decoration.
Over time, the idea of inverting a tree became lost, yielding to an upright position with candles as decoration.
The earliest accounts of trees being decorated date to 1521 in Germany, but they were more than mere ornamentation.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica,
“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
During medieval times, December 24 was commemorated in cathedrals in many countries with mystery plays based upon Biblical texts. Beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, trees were placed indoors and decorated with apples in reference to the forbidden fruit.
Wafers symbolized the Eucharist and redemption.
One year a poor apple harvest in Europe diminished the supply of the red fruit to place on the trees. As an alternative, a glassblower from Lauscha, Germany created red glass baubles as replacements. Voila, the Christmas ball was invented, and the rest is history.
Though we generally don’t think of pretzels as a Christmas tradition, the popular doughy snack does have religious significance associated with both Christmas and, especially, Easter. Since the 12th century, the pretzel has been used as an emblem for bakers in the Alsace region of Europe.
The religious aspects of the pretzel have to do with the ingredients as well as shape. During Lent when Catholics were forbidden to eat eggs, lard or other dairy products, pretzels became popular because they only consisted of flour and water.
The pretzel’s shape was established because the strips of dough were said to represent the folded arms of someone who was praying in the manner typical of the period. In addition, the three holes represented the Holy Trinity.
In the Middle Ages, pretzels were given to children as a reward for learning their prayers.
So popular were pretzels in Germany at Easter that they probably became the forerunner of modern-day Easter egg hunts.
Pretzels were hidden around the farms for children to find on Good Friday. When the search was over, two hard-boiled eggs were placed in each of the large holes in the pretzel to represent rebirth and everlasting life.
Because of their “infinite” design, pretzels were later introduced at wedding ceremonies resulting in the familiar phrase of “tying the knot.” The couple would make a wish, break the pretzel-like wishbone and then eat it to signify their union.
During Christmas, some cultures give each other slightly sweetened yeast pretzels on January 1 for good luck in the coming year.
Germany claims the invention of the candy cane
In 1670 when the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral purchased “sweet sticks” from a local candy maker to quiet the children during the Christmas Eve service. Needing some justification for handing out candy during the service, the maestro asked that a “hook” be added to remind the children of the shepherds who tended baby Jesus.
The light of the Savior shines in the darkness of winter
Christmas has been celebrated during the time of the winter solstice since the 4th century when Pope Julius I chose to emphasize the light of the Savior during the darkest time of the year.
In Scandinavia, a huge log was burned on or about Christmas Eve until a couple of weeks after the holiday. Mistakes and faults were forgiven and burned away in the fire so that everyone could begin the new year with a clean slate.
The Yule log was never allowed to extinguish entirely, however. As a symbol of good luck, a small portion was always saved to start the fire the following year.
Often it helps to know the story behind a story to make it come alive and provide greater insights about the traditions we celebrate each year. Who knows, maybe that’s why whenever we visit another country, the first thing we do is pass through “Customs.”
Reprinted and updated from December 21, 2014
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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