Christmas Traditions, Origins and Meanings
Christmas has become one of the biggest and most widely celebrated holidays of the year. And while its original intention was to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has equal significance as one of the most important feast days of the calendar year for believers and non-believers alike. What marks it out as the holiday of holidays is the number and variety of traditions that have grown up alongside it, giving everyone who celebrates it the chance to indulge in a collection of activities that would seem out of place at any other time.
The Colours of Christmas
These days homes and trees are decorated in just about all the colours of the rainbow, including clear and white lights. But in the beginning only two colours were associated with Christmas. These had their origins both in pagan beliefs and the beliefs of Christianity:
- Green - the colour of the tree and the holly branch, green was used to remind people that new life would return to the world once the cold, dreary winter months had passed.
- Red - the colour of cranberries, holly berries, Santa's suit and the robin's breast, red is believed to symbolise the blood that Jesus shed during the crucifixion.
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Christmas and Santa Claus
Is there really a Santa Claus? Why, of course there is. His first appearance was in the form of St. Nicholas, a 4th century Turkish bishop with a reputation for kindness and generosity. His magnanimous nature must have been something of an oddity at the time, so much so that before long all sorts of rumours about the miracles he performed were whispered amongst the townsfolk.
The Dutch variant of St. Nicholas is Sinterklaas, and it's easy to see how this was transformed into the familiar Santa Claus legend when Dutch settlers colonised America.
The giving of gifts at Christmas is believed to date back to the time of Christ's birth. It was then that the three wise men known as the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the stable where Jesus lay, according to the legend. But what exactly is frankincense, or myrrh?
The nature of frankincense may be slightly easier to understand thanks to the latter half of its name, i.e. incense. Both it and myrrh are resins from the sap of trees found largely in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where they've been used for centuries. Their sweet aromas were the air fresheners of the day, and they were also used for personal and medicinal purposes, from beefing up eye shadow to healing wounds.
So if you're wondering what to buy this year for that special person in your life or someone who has everything ...
Create Your Own Christmas Traditions
Taking a walk
Baking special treats
"Putting up the tree" party
Watching a favourite movie
Visiting friends and neighbours
Bringing an evergreen tree into the house reminds us that spring will soon be here. The green branches hint at new growth in a few months, when the weather warms up and the days get longer.
This is a long-standing German tradition, first introduced into the United Kingdom when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria. These days Christmas trees can be artificial, big or small, decorated however we see fit. Yet they still serve to remind us that winter won't last forever.
For people who celebrate Christmas with any enthusiasm, a tree is essential. Getting it out of the attic, or in from the field, forms part of many a family's traditional Christmas preparations.
The sending and receiving of Christmas cards may be becoming something of a lost art, a victim of the electronic messaging that's so universally practiced these days. Now it's easier to send an e-card, many of which are free, than to try to keep track of all those postal addresses. But even e-cards can trace their origins back to the early 19th century.
It was then that the Englishman Sir Henry Cole first came up with the idea of creating cards to simplify sending out greetings at this festive time of year. Cole is thought to have printed off about 10,000 cards, each one carrying seasonal messages that could be sent to friends and family, either to wish them well or to catch up with those not seen in a long time. The tradition is still alive and well, of course, as it's common for couples to send each other a physical card.
Legend has it that the concept of hanging up Christmas stockings originated with the precursor of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas. He is rumoured to have been moved by a poor family whose daughters had no wedding dowries. So, one day, he snuck up to their house and threw bags of gold through a window. Another bag he dropped down the chimney and, as luck would have it, it landed in one of the girls' stockings that was hanging to dry by the fireplace.
Initially Christmas music took the form of carols and songs for celebration. As the centuries rolled by it became ever more appropriate to create new songs to celebrate the festive season. Christmas music now exists in just about every genre, from classical to pop and rock and everything in between. Famous examples include Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and too many more to mention.
As Christmas also happens to be the time of year when more music is bought, it has now become a target for artists and their record labels to get a song into the charts in the run-up to Christmas. This doesn't have to be Christmas music, of course, and in most cases it's simply the latest track of an established performer or a new release by a lesser-known artist.
Surprisingly, even though there is a lot of competition for music at this time of year, it's still possible to hear anything from The Carol of the Bells to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And whether you're a fan of Christmas music or not, it's nice to know that new works are adding to the mix, rather than replacing what came before.