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America’s Christmas and winter holiday traditions come from around the world


Here is a bit of history and/or folklore explaining some of the great mysteries surrounding holiday traditions.

  • Santa Claus comes from Holland. Father Christmas is based on a real person, St. Nicholas, a Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century AD. He wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing it was from him, so, one day, he climbed on the roof of a house and dropped a purse full of money down the chimney. (Another legend says one such purse landed in a sock hung by the fireplace to dry, and so was born the Christmas stocking.) Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1862 as a small elf-like figure who supported the Union in the Civil War. Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years, putting him first in a tan coat and then changing it to red. Starting in 1931, Coca Cola magazine ads illustrated by Michigan native Haddon Sundblom showed Santa as a kind, jolly figure in a red suit – the Santa we still see today. Sundblom was inspired by Clement Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” according to www.coca-colacompany.com.
  • Christmas cards come from England, where the tradition started in 1840 when the first “penny post” public postal deliveries began. As printing methods improved, Christmas cards began being mass produced about 1860.
  • Christmas trees were first documented in Riga, Latvia in 1510. The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstice traditions. Live evergreen trees were brought into homes during harsh winters to remind inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Christmas trees weren’t popular in America because they were viewed as pagan. Then, in 1846, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing around a Christmas tree. That made them fashionable in England and America. Christmas ornaments began arriving in the U.S. from Germany in the 1890s.
  • Yule logs and mistletoe come from northern Europe where pagans celebrated the winter solstice with Yule or Yuletide festivals honoring the birth of the pagan sun god Mithras on the shortest day of the year. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras and the sun to reappear each year, and huge yule logs were burned in their honor. The world “yule” means wheel, which was a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual.
  • Wreaths date back to the Persian Empire where they were first used as symbols of importance and victory. The evergreen circle symbolized the recurring seasons and candles represented the coming light of spring. Holly berries, by the way, were thought by ancient pagans to be a food of the gods.
  • Candy canes come from Germany, where in 1670 the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral gave his young singers sugar sticks to keep them quiet during long ceremonies. He had the sticks bent in the shape of shepherds’ crooks to celebrate the Christmas season. White candy canes have been produced in the U.S. since 1847. Bob McCormack started McCormack’s Candy Co. in Albany, Georgia in 1919. His Starlight Mints are still produced today. McCormack’s brother-in-law, Father Gregory Harding Keller, helped make the manufacturing process easier in the 1950s when he invented machines to twist the candy dough into spirals and cut it and to put the cane shape into it.
  • Luminarias date back hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years and may have originated right here in New Mexico, which was then a part of Mexico. They began as bonfires built to guide the faithful to Christmas mass. U.S. settlers brought Chinese lanterns from overseas in the early 19th century to hang from their doorways instead of lighting bonfires, and then began making their own small lanterns using paper bags, sand and candles. The correct term for these little lanterns is actually farolito.
  • Reindeer come from northern Europe, but it took a poem (“A Visit from St. Nicholas”) written by Clement Clarke Moore in New York in 1923 to give Santa’s original eight reindeer their names. Robert L. May invented Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of a Montgomery Ward promotion in 1939. His brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote eponymous song, which was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949.
  • Elves were called Álfar or huldufólk, (“hidden folk”) in Norse mythology and may have first appeared in Louisa May Alcott’s 1850 unpublished manuscript “Christmas Elves.” They likely showed up for the first time in Santa’s workshop on the cover of Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book 1873 Christmas edition.
  • Holiday gift giving began with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia when people would exchange lucky fruit gifts as part of a winter feast. When the Christmas tree became popular, small toys were tied to its branches.
  • Snowmen date to the Middle Ages if not earlier, and the first documented American snowman was apparently built by a man and his 9-year-old daughter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on Jan. 7, 1809. The daughter’s name was Yetty, but there is no apparent connection between her and abominable snowmen (Yeti). “Frosty the Snowman” is a Christmas song written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson. It was first recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys in 1950.
  • Poinsettias are native to Central America. The name comes from Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), an amateur botanist, who is credited with introducing the plant to the U.S. while he was serving as the first U.S. minister to Mexico, 1825-29. The plant is called Flor de Nochebuena, Christmas Eve flower, or Catarina, in Mexico.