Christmas Origins and Traditions
By Sara Teasdale / January - February 2012

During the Christmas holidays, kind deeds are in abundance. The gesture of gift giving fosters goodwill. And, for one week each year, most of us seem a bit friendlier and happier.

But what about knowledge of Christmas' roots? Do you have a clue as to why your family installs a tree in the living room in December? If you need a bit of cocktail party trivia this holiday season, read on.

The name Christmas is from the old English "Cristes Męsse" which means the "mass of Christ." While scholars believe Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth, there is no evidence it was in December. It is thought that the Catholic Church selected December to outshine the popular pagan winter solstice festivities.

Santa Claus arrived in the 4th century in Turkey and the holidays took a more universal turn. Turkish St. Nick was a jolly and generous old soul. He loved children and was rumored to have performed many miracles. Word of this caught the imagination of Italian sailors who spread the lore of St. Nick worldwide. Later, Russia made St. Nicholas its patron saint. In Greece, St. Nick is hailed as the patron saint of sailors, yet in France he's the patron of lawyers. In Belgium, St. Nick is the patron of children and travelers.
The first Christmas tree appeared in 16th century Germany. It was decorated with ribbons, paper ornaments, flowers and fruit. Prince Albert of Germany brought the notion of an indoor holiday tree to England when he married Queen Victoria. By the late 19th century, the Pennsylvania Germans introduced the tradition to the U.S. and it remains the centerpiece of the holidays.

What about sweet stuff? A German immigrant in Wooster, Ohio, according to the National Confectioners' Association, hanged the first candy cane on a tree in 1847. The first gingerbread man arrived in late 1500s at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who lavished important guests with gingerbread likenesses of themselves.

Where did we get the notion of naughty or nice? The answer might be found in Holland. The story goes that on December 5, a kindly man known as Sinterklaas arrives, garbed elegantly in a bishop's hat, red cape, bishop's ring and jeweled staff. He is accompanied by his sidekick, Black Pete, a wild-looking character, half-man, half-beast. Black Pete walks through the towns, rattling chains and carrying a big black bag to remove toys from naughty children. The good children wait for a late-night knock at the door when Sinterklaas tosses in a bag of goodies.

Christmas in our country is a hybrid of all these European traditions. While we're fairly universal in our rituals, there is one thing that we keep regional -- our taste for festive fare.

In Hawaii, Christmas dinner includes turkey teriyaki, marinated and cooked in an outdoor pit. New Englanders share a Lumberjack Pie, a mashed potato crust filled with meat, onion, and cinnamon. Louisiana stirs up vats of gumbo full of ham, veal, chicken, shrimp, oysters, and crabmeat. North Carolinians bake Moravian Love-Feast Buns, faintly sweet bread of flour and mashed potatoes. Hominy grits soufflé and whiskey cake, with a cup of 100-proof of the South's finest, are found on Southern tables at Christmas.

Whatever the tradition and however you celebrate, savor this special day and the season.

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