Every one of us has at least a basic understanding of the Nativity and the story behind Christmas, but what we associate with Christmas goes far beyond this. From Rudolph to Santa, Christmas trees to mistletoe, there are now many popular traditions surrounding the festive season. Here we take a closer look at some of the myths of Christmas and the legendary stories behind many of the iconic symbols that are popular today.
The Birth of Jesus
Everyone knows that 25th December is the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, it is highly unlikely that Jesus was actually born on this day; certain details from the Nativity story, such as the shepherds watching their flocks in the fields, could not possibly have happened in December. The 25th December as Christmas Day was probably first celebrated sometime in the fourth century, when Church officials decided to make it a holiday. It is likely that this day was chosen because it was a popular Pagan holiday, celebrating the birthday of the sun. The celebration of Christmas spread to England by the end of the sixth century.
Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas was a third century bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) who would travel the country helping people. He provided gifts of money and presents at night so that his identity would remain a secret. This tradition has lived on; as to this day, children are told that they must be asleep before Santa will come. Throughout the ages, Santa Claus has become more and more popularised. Today he is seen as a jolly man with a round belly and a white beard who wears a red suit. Coca-Cola credits itself with helping to shape this modern image of Santa, originating in its Christmas advertising campaigns from the 1930s. Using Clement C. Moore’s ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, illustrator Haddon Sundblom developed the image associated with Santa today and Coca-Cola continues to use this modern-day image of Santa in their Christmas advertising campaigns.
The origins of stockings are also attributed to St Nicholas. The story behind the Christmas stocking tells of a widowed man and his three daughters. With little money the man was unable to provide dowries for his daughters to marry. Knowing the man’s plight, St. Nicholas visited one night and saw the daughters’ stockings hanging over the fireplace to dry. He threw three bags of gold down the chimney which landed in the girls’ stockings, which provided the money for the three daughters to marry. To this day children continue to hang stockings from the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill.
“The most famous reindeer of all,” as the well-known song states, is Rudolph. Less well known are Santa’s eight other reindeer, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. These names seem to suggest that the majority of Santa’s reindeer are male, however, male reindeer generally shed their antlers before Christmas. The reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh therefore, are actually female. There is also some debate over the actual name of Santa’s seventh reindeer. The popular Johnny Marks song clearly names the reindeer as Donner, however, Clement Clark Moore’s 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ refers to the reindeer as Donder.
Today, decorating the tree is a highly anticipated part of Christmas celebration. There are a number of legends associated with the evergreen trees, the most well-known of which is the pine tree (Christmas tree). Nevertheless, all agree that the pine tree offered protection to an injured bird, or the Holy family freeing Herod’s soldiers. It is said that evergreens have been long used as a symbol of hope for better things to come. Some date the Christmas tree back to the eighth century when the German monk, St. Boniface used the evergreen to convert tribes of Germans. The Christmas tree as we generally know it today, though, tends to be associated with Germany in the sixteenth century, when it is said that devout Christians brought the tree into their homes.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a tradition that has its roots in Norse mythology. A god named Baldr was killed by an arrow made from Mistletoe. It is said that his mother Frigg revived him using mistletoe and that her tears became the little white berries that you can see on the plant. She then declared that mistletoe was to be a sign for peace and that anyone standing under it would not be harmed. In ancient times enemies would call a truce when they found themselves under the mistletoe and a hug and kiss became a sign of friendship and love. This tradition has carried on today, with people kissing underneath it during the festive season.
The Candy Cane
Candy canes are dated back to the seventeenth century when the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral, Germany, was unable to discipline and keep children quiet during the Nativity scene. He therefore commissioned a candy maker to make sweet, cane sticks in the shape of a shepherd’s staff, representing the life and death of Jesus, which were distributed to the children for good behaviour during the service. The tradition then spread throughout Europe.
The robin has become greatly associated with Christmas and this is due to its red breast. Again there are a number of legends attributed to how the robin got its red breast, however, Christian lore links it to Jesus’ death. It symbolised the blood of both Christ and the bird, that appeared during its attempt to pull the thorny crown from Christ’s head. Other tales attribute it to the robin attempting to keep a fire going, with the flames giving the robin its red breast. Of course, neither of these tales links the robin directly to Christmas and this association is often attributed to the red waistcoats of the postmen who delivered Christmas cards.
Featured Image Credit to tamburix