Christmas Traditions

December 15, 2020

This week as I pondered on Christmas traditions passed down in my family, I remembered a joke about the new bride who was preparing a ham for the oven for their dinner. Before putting the small ham in a large pan, she sliced the ham in half. When her husband asked why, she replied, “Because that’s what Mom always did!”

Traditions are manifestations of our cultures. They give us a sense of who we are, what group we belong to. As a child in my family, we opened gifts on Christmas Eve after a meal of ham and lutefisk, lefse, mashed potatoes, white Nodland gravy, and bowls of vegetables from the garden. And pie. Often cherry because that was Mickey’s (the youngest child) favorite!

When my own children were young, both their dad and I brought our Christmas traditions into our new family. For example, his Irish mom always made oyster stew for Christmas Eve supper. Our two young children simply could not eat the oysters. So Irish Grandma Pearl lovingly wrapped a hot dog with my Norwegian lefse and then poured the Irish stew milk broth into their drinking cups! A new tradition was born!

Every tradition has a backstory. Here are some Christmas traditions and how they originally came to be:

Candy canes came from Germany in the late 1600s when a choirmaster at a cathedral handed out “sugar sticks” to the young singers to keep them quiet during a Christmas presentation/ceremony.

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in modern-day Turkey. Over many years, Nicholas’s popularity spread, and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His parents died when he was very young, and Nicholas used his inheritance to help those who were ill and/or dealt with poverty.

It was the Germans in the 1500s who began the Christmas tree tradition when Christians cut and brought live trees into their homes and decorated them.  Many believe that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree.

Kissing under mistletoe probably began with the Celtic Druids of the 1st century A.D. Mistletoe (from willow, apple, and oak trees) can blossom even during winter time, so it came to be a sacred symbol of vivacity. The Druids gave it to both humans and animals, believing it could restore fertility.  The Druids also believed it possessed mystical powers that bring good luck and keep away evil spirits. Someone then declared it a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it.

Poinsettia plants are native to Central America, and particularly an area in southern Mexico known as ‘Taxco del Alarcon’ where they flower during the winter. They are also found in wild indeciduous tropical forests at moderate elevations down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Guatemala. They are also found in Mexico’s interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests. The ancient Aztecs believed they were symbols of purity. Today they symbolize good cheer and success, thus bringing us wishes of joy and celebration.

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