The Legend of the Christmas Stocking
The Legend of the Christmas Stocking The custom was founded by the most influential figure in the shaping of today's Santa Claus, St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century bishop who was known for his charity and wisdom. According to legend, a poor Italian father was faced with selling one of his three daughters into slavery in order to afford the dowries needed for others to marry. One night the daughters had washed out their stockings and hung them over the fireplace to dry. Having heard of the family's misfortune, the good saint decided to pay them a visit. Late that night, in the darkness riding his faithful white steed he stopped by their house and saw the stockings through the window. He secretly tossed three bags filled with gold coins down the chimney. The bags fell into the stockings that were hanging by the fire. His kindhearted gift made it possible for all three maidens to marry. A variation of the story is that he tossed the bags threw the window into the stockings.This idea may have accounted for the gifts being delivered to those without chimneys. Through his life, St. Nicholas tried to help others while inspiring them to do the same. Legends of his unselfish giving spread all over Northern Europe. Like so many other traditions in our country, the legends were introduced by immigrants who brought beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic.
The Legend of Santa Claus
Like the tale of the Christmas stocking, the story of Santa Claus originated in Europe during the fourth-century when a bishop named St. Nicholas of Myra spread goodwill and generosity throughout the land. He was known to go about on a white horse giving anonymous gifts by night. His traveling clothes were bishop red and he carried a staff. His unselfish acts of kindness spread throughout Europe and the children thought of him as a giver of all good things. When he died on December 6, his remains were taken to Italy and a church was erected in his honor. That day soon became a day of celebration, gift giving, and charity. In the sixteenth century, the celebration of catholic saints was banned and St. Nicholas Day became merged with Christmas celebrations. Although the gift-giving Saint took on a non-religious form, the generous spirit still remained. Eventually, the image of the Saint became a sort of mystical being, known for rewarding the good and punishing the bad. Like so many other traditions in our country, Santa Claus is a product of many different cultures. In Europe, he was depicted as a tall-dignified religious figure riding a white horse through the air. The Dutch immigrants presented Sinterklass (meaning St. Nicholas) to the colonies. Many English-speaking children pronounced this so quickly that it sounded like Santa Claus. The tradition of the Santa Claus or St. Nick in a red suit was brought to us by the Scandinavians. Black Peter, an elf who punished disobedient children, accompanied the German's St. Nick. As Christmas evolved in the United States, new customs were adopted and many old ones were reworked. In North America, Santa Claus eventually developed into a fat, old, kind, generous, man who was neither strict nor religious.
The Legend of the Christmas Candle
Throughout medieval Europe, a very large candle, called the Christmas candle was burned until the twelfth Night, in remembrance of the arrival of the Wise Men to Bethlehem. In Victorian times, candles represented good will for those less fortunate and were placed in windows December 25 to January 6 to indicate welcome to any passerby needing shelter and food. Certain beliefs were attached to candles. Some people believed the flames from the burning candles frightened away evil spirits during the darkest days of the year. The Norwegians believed that Christmas candles must not burn out on Christmas Eve or bad luck would plague the family. Legends tell us that candles in windows guide the Christ Child as he wanders from house to house on Christmas Eve looking for a place to stay. Thus, no traveler can be turned away on Christmas Eve in case the Christ Child might come by. The custom of lighting candles on trees indoors started in Germany. To them the candles represented the stars and is one custom that founded its way to America. Today, especially at Christmas, candles signify the message of the season. A candle burning in the window of some Christian homes symbolically lights the way of the holy family, as well as welcomed guests.
The Legend of the Mistletoe
Baldur was the god of light and spring, purity and beauty. He was the son of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and marriage. Baldur was often disturbed by dreams that his life was in danger. To protect her son, Frigga went about the land demanding promises from all the other gods and all the natural elements such as, fire, water, air and earth not to harm her son. But, in her haste, she forgot to speak to the mistletoe, which was considered too puny and insignificant to do him harm. Baldur had one enemy, Loki, a god known for causing evil toward his fellow gods. When he heard that the mistletoe was ignored, he ordered another god to hurl a mistletoe dart into Baldur's heart, killing him. Baldur's mother was heart-broken and cried many tears. Her bitter tears fell onto the mistletoe causing pearl-like berries. Because Frigga was liked by many gods, her plea for her son to come back to life was answered. She was so delighted that she went about the land kissing everyone under the white berries. She then declared that the mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon and said, "All who stand beneath the mistletoe must kiss in friendship and peace." It is said the myth of the mistletoe spread throughout the land, and whenever enemies met under it, they laid down their weapons and declared a truce. There were many beliefs associated with the mistletoe. In ancient times, it was believed to be sacred, to have come from heaven, possessing mystic powers because it grew without roots and never touched the ground. It was also considered as a giver of life and protector against disease and poison. The plant was believed to encourage romance, to bring happiness and good luck, and to promote peace. Despite all these positive beliefs, the English church banned the mistletoe around 1600 because of its pagan superstitions. Some Christians believed that the mistletoe was originally a tree whose wood was used to make the cross on which Christ was crucified. It then shrank from shame into a parasite bush. In the late eighteenth century, people in England began using the mistletoe in their home Christmas decorations. The pagan customs were forgotten and the plant was associated with happiness, peace, and good luck. It was hung in doorways where guests would walk under it providing an opportunity to kiss for no reason!
The Legend of the Poinsettia
In Mexico, it is an old custom to take flowers to church on Christmas Eve in honor of the Christ Child. According to legend, long ago in a small mountain village in Mexico, there lived a boy named Mario. Each year Mario watched the villagers walk to church Christmas Eve carrying bundles of fresh flowers. Mario could not afford to buy fresh flowers so, he would look in the fields for wildflowers that might have survived the cold winter up in the mountains. One Christmas Eve, as he was searching for wildflowers, a voice called out to him. "Mario, pick up the weeds that are growing where you kneel and take them to the Christ Child." Mario answered, "I cannot take these weeds to the Baby Jesus!" The voice gently replied, "the simplest gift, when given with love, will be the most beautiful to him." Mario listened to the voice and placed the green weeds around the manger, as the other children teased him. But to everyone's astonishment the weeds turned into a beautiful red flower with bright green leaves. Mario could not believe his eyes. It was the most beautiful flower he had ever seen. The other villagers who witnessed the miracle knelt before the manger. Mario understood what the angelic voice was trying to tell him. He knew that the most important gift for the Christ Child was the give of love. The plant was brought from Mexico to America in 1836 by Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first American minister to Mexico. It was introduced to him by Mexicans who called it the "Flower of the Holy Night." The plant was cultivated in the 1890s by Albert Ecke in California. The city of Ventura, California, is called the "Poinsettia City." Today, the Poinsettia plant is considered a Christmas symbol and brought into homes in early December. Their beauty remains throughout the holiday season.
The Legend of the Christmas Tree
There once was a poor woodcutter who lived with his family deep in the forest. On Christmas Eve they sat down for dinner when they heard a knock at the door. There stood a child in torn and ragged clothes, pale and hungry. The woodcutter invited the child in for food even though they did not have much to share and gave him a bed to rest. The woodcutter and his family prayed to God, thanking him for a warm and safe place to live. In the early morning they awoke to the most beautiful singing they had every heard. They went to the window and saw the orphaned child standing with a choir of angels singing a lovely Christmas carol. The child was no longer wearing the tattered clothing but dressed in a magnificent robe surrounded by a glowing light. When the child saw the woodcutter and his family he said, "I am the Christ Child, I have received your kindness and now this is my gift to you." He broke a branch from a small fir tree and planted it. He told them, "From this day forward, this tree shall bear fruit at Christmas and you shall have plenty even in the cold winter." As they stood listening, the branch grew into a beautify tree covered with fruit. The Christmas tree as we know it originated in Germany. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, people in Europe performed miracle or mystery plays in front of cathedrals during the advent season. This was a means to teach the Bible since few people could read the scriptures. The evergreen tree was often used as a prop. Its image lasted in the minds of those attending and influenced the German people to bring trees into their homes at Christmas. The fir tree in the plays represented the tree of life as well as sin, so people first decorated trees with little religious figures on the branches. The Christmas tree spread to America when Hessian soldiers practiced the custom while fighting in the Revolutionary War. Later, the German born Prince Albert and Queen Victoria popularized the custom when they erected the first Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. By the early 20th century, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was adopted by most Americans of European descent. The tradition of a Christmas tree in the White House started in 1856 with President Franklin Pierce. This cherished tradition of celebrating Christ's birth around a decorated tree is one of the most popular and beloved parts of our Christmas season.
Christmas Card Tradition
No one is sure where the tradition of sending Christmas cards first started. Some say it began in England, where school children away from home would write to their parents reminding them that the gift-giving time would soon be near. The first known artist to create a Christmas card was John Calcott Horsley, who designed a card for Sir Henry Cole, a London museum director. Sir Henry Cole decided that it would be easier to send pre-made cards than to labor over individual greetings, as he had done as a child. Sir Henry had 1000 cards printed and sold them for one shilling each. At first, only the wealthy could afford them, then later less-expensive printing soon became available. Queen Victoria loved the idea and soon it became quite fashionable. By the 1850s, Christmas cards were a well established tradition. Christmas cards did not become popular in America until the 1870s when Louis Prang, a German immigrant who owned a small Massachusetts print shop, designed and printed such beautiful cards that he became known as, "father of American Christmas cards." The cards were favorable, but impractical to produce. By the end of the nineteenth century, less expensive cards were taking over and Prang was forced out of business. Before WWI, many of the cards sold in America came from Germany. After the war, the Christmas card business flourished. Today, over two-and-a-half billion Christmas cards are exchanged every year!
Christmas Cookie Tradition
Christmas Cookies have been part of celebrations long before the first Christmas. After Pope Julius declared December 25 as Christmas in 350 A.D., Christians adopted cookie baking as part of the Christmas celebration. There are many traditions inherited and adopted by Americans and the Christmas cookie is another one. The Christmas cookie actually came from the Dutch word koekje, which means "small cake." It was the Pennsylvania Dutch who first introduced holiday cookies to America. The rest of the Europeans continued to bake when they came to the United States introducing many treats that we enjoy today. We can thank Sweden for the spritz cookies topped with sugar crystals, Scotland for their shortbread, Greece for their Baklava and the Russian for their powdered sugar tea cakes. The German cookies, lebkuchen and springerle are favorites. Many of the Christmas cookie recipes we enjoy today came from European countries; each carrying generations of folklore and legend.