Christmas Tradition Tidbits
by Sharon Lathan
Decorating with Evergreen—
Placing boughs of evergreens into the house is a practice dating to ancient times and present in numerous cultures for various reasons signifying life, prosperity, good luck, and so on. Church records dating to the 7th century tie evergreen boughs and trees to religious symbolism. Martin Luther is commonly attributed with the tree as a specific part of Christmas. Legends say that on Christmas Eve about the year 1500 Luther was struck by the beauty of a grove of evergreen trees dusted with snow that sparkled in the moonlight. Immediately he set up a fir in his house and decorated with lit candles in honor of Christ’s birth, sharing the forest vision with his children. (leftt) Germans and Austrians spread the tradition, adding other decorations, and Queen Charlotte introduced the concept to George III shortly after her marriage to Britain’s king.
Sending specially decorated cards or letters to friends and family for the holiday is a practice older than the postal service. However, prior to 1843 these cards were hand made by the sender. John Calcott Horsley, a London illustrator, was commissioned by a wealthy businessman, Sir Henry Cole, to produce ready-made cards for the holiday since Sir Cole was too busy to do it himself. 1000 cards were printed on a single page of cardboard and sold in London shops for a shilling. 12 copies of Horsley’s card are in existence today, an image of one above.
The Christmas pie (mincemeat pie) originated with the Crusaders in the 11th Century. The spices brought back to England – cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg – were symbolic of the Magi gifts to the Christ child. The pies of sweetly spiced meats steeped in liquor were baked into small oblong shaped pastries indicative of a cradle. It was considered lucky to eat one on each of the 12 days of Christmas and was often called “wayfarer pies” because they were given to holiday travelers or as gifts while visiting. In 1657 the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, banned Christmas entirely as a “pagan holiday not sanctioned by the Bible and promoting gluttony and drunkenness.” Mincemeat pie was specifically banned due to the liquor used. Soldiers were ordered to roam the streets searching for any sign of Christmas and foods being cooked to celebrate were taken by force! Some references suspect that the odd shapes given to the pies evolved as a way to hide what they were. Fortunately King Charles II restored Christmas in 1660.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—
In 1939, Montgomery Ward tapped one of their own employees to create a children’s book for them rather than spend the money to purchase books or gifts to give out to customers as had been their practice for years. 34-year old copywriter Robert L. May wrote the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and 2.4 million copies were handed out that year! (original cover to left) Rollo and Reginald were considered as names, but May’s 4-year-old daughter served as tester of the story and Rudolph was preferred. May obtained the copyright in 1947 and in 1948 his brother-in-law wrote lyrics and melody to turn the story into a song. It was turned down numerous times until 1949 when Gene Autry, at the urging of his wife, agreed to record it.
Arguably the first carols were the songs the shepherds sang on the night Jesus was born. Credit, however, generally goes to St. Francis of Assisi in the early 1200s for replicating the nativity scene at Christmas and having children dance and sing songs written about the special birth. The word “carol” original referred to a type of dance, and then later a joyful hymn associated with the Nativity or other holy holiday. In 1487 a description of festivities on Twelfth Night included, “after the Kings furst course sange a caralle.” In 1521 Wynkyn de Worde published the oldest collection of Christmas carols, many of which are still sung today. Watchman of the city started the custom of serenading the public at Christmas time as they patrolled, using carol refrains to mark the passing hours rather than blowing horns as typical. The oldest songs we are most familiar with include Silent Night (1816), O Come All Ye Faithful (1744), While Shepherds Watched Their Flock (1652), O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868), The Twelve Days of Christmas (1780 published in Mirth and Mischief as a memory-and-forfeits game), Good King Wenceslas (1853), and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739 by Charles Wesley) – among others.