We tend to take traditions for granted and never question how strange they must seem to people from another country, or even to those outside our families. Traditions become so ingrained over the years that we never question why we do them. Christmas traditions are some of the strongest we currently have, with people around our home countries all taking part in similar, if not exactly the same, practices in the run-up to this festive day. So how do these Christmas traditions begin and are there any forgotten ones we should reintroduce?
Oh, Christmas Tree . . .
The Christmas tree is a non-negotiable part of Christmas decoration, featuring a real or artificial fir tree, wrapped in lights and tinsel and hung with baubles and edible treats. This aspect of typical Christmas traditions began with German Lutherans in the 17th century. The German Prince Albert took a fir tree with him as a gift when meeting his future wife, Queen Victoria. The royal family decorated the tree and it was then adopted as tradition in homes across the nation.
As for the traditional Christmas topper, this came about as a result of Christian belief. According to Christian teachings, angels appeared over Bethlehem to announce the arrival of baby Jesus, while a star appeared in the sky to guide people to his birthplace. For this reason, either angel or stars are commonly placed on the top of Christmas trees.
Get your stockings out
Every year we hang a stocking out for every member of the family. Over the years this has developed from being a simple sock hung out over the fireplace, to a purpose-made stocking usually featuring a fluffy trim and designs associated with the festive season. Apparently, the reason why we do this is because St Nicholas, a Christian leader from the 4th century, once climbed onto a roof to deposit a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking of a woman who had hung them out to dry over the fireplace, thereby starting this age-old Christmas tradition.
Counting down the days
In the run-up to Christmas it’s customary to have an advent calendar. In some households this is a traditional candle that is burnt down each day, though now it’s much more common for everyone to have their own calendar which you open a door each day to reveal some chocolate. The advent itself is the countdown until the ‘advent’ of Christ, which occurred on Christmas day and the tradition of marking this came from German Protestants in the mid-19th century, who used candles or chalk marks to note the days.
Foodie Christmas traditions
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Christmas for us all is the food. But what’s the reason behind all this gluttony?
Well Christmas day is a day of celebration so it’s only natural that food and drink take centre stage on this day. A big joint of meat has often featured, with ham and turkey favoured. The joint of ham developed from the pagan tradition of eating a boar’s head to honour Freyr, the Norse god of harvest and fertility, whilst a preference for turkey came about after Edward VII set the trend.
Another food that is popular around this time of year is oranges, clementines and mandarins, which are often given as gifts or studded with cloves and hung as decorations. The reason for this is they were so hard to get hold of in the past that were considered luxury items and saved specially for Christmas. As far as drink is concerned, eggnog was popular for celebrations before being drank exclusively at Christmas, and now only tends to be imbibed during the festive season. Mulled wine however, developed in the UK from the more traditional wassail, or hot cider tipple, which was drunk to celebrate the fecundity of apple trees.
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Gifts for everyone
Finally, what would Christmas be without getting a heap of presents and giving your fair share, too? The tradition of gift-giving on Christmas day has clear roots in the Nativity story when Jesus was given three gifts by the Three Wise Men. However gift giving in winter has been popular in many different cultures, with the Romans giving gifts over Saturnalia and St Nicholas treating the needy to gifts every now and again.
It was in the 18th century that gift giving became one of, if not the, most important aspect of Christmas tradition. The celebration became less about religion and more about family around this time and thus giving gifts became a gesture of love and charity.
Christmas traditions that are fading
There are a few traditions we cling strongly to and others that have fallen by the wayside. Though some people still regularly gift citrus fruits this tradition isn’t as widely practiced as it used to be. Roasting chestnuts has also fallen out of favour and these are usually only seen in Christmas markets. Other traditions that aren’t as popular any more include playing parlour games with the family, carol singing, making paper chains as decorations, sending Christmas cards, dressing up for Christmas lunch and going for a family walk on Christmas day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take on these traditions yourself!
What Christmas traditions do you follow every year?