“Christmas celebrations became a family event.”
Christmas is quickly approaching as 2017 comes to a close.
Decorating trees with ornaments and garlands, setting out stockings and wrapping presents are some of our favorite parts of the Christmas season. But where did these traditions originate? In The Little Book of Christmas, Dominique Foufelle explores the many traditions we celebrate during the holidays that came from all over the world. While many traditions come from medieval times and even back to the 1st century, a few time-tested traditions came straight from the Victorian Era.
Although people have been celebrating Christmas for ages, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became an official national holiday in England and the U.S. Charles Dickens’ popular book, A Christmas Carol, had a large impact on the Christmas season and its evolution. “The book had a big influence as well on the growing popularity of Christmas festivities that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, brought from his native Germany,” Foufelle writes. “Christmas Day soon became a holiday, in the form of a day off from work.” You have Charles Dickens to thank for the widespread Christmas break many people now enjoy.
DECORATING THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Originally, the Christmas tree was displayed in town squares, which inhabitants decorated with apples to represent the fall of man, and subsequently, the birth of Jesus Christ, in which God fulfills his promise to his people. As Christmas trees eventually moved to individual homes, their decorations also changed. “In 1858, the Vosges region of Alsace in northeastern France suffered a terrible drought, and the apple crop failed,” Foufelle writes. “A glassblower at the Goetzenbruck glassworks had the idea to make globes as a substitute, and a tradition that spread across continents was born.” Mass production of these globes began, and Christmas ornaments took the place of apples.
Not only did apples disappear as a standard Christmas accoutrement, but traditional candles as well. Candles were lit and placed on the tree to act as a reminder of the light that Jesus brought into the world. However, open flames often caused Christmas trees to burn up, as you might imagine. Fortunately in 1882, “Edison Electric Light Company Vice President Edward Hibbard Johnson invented electric Christmas tree lights,” Foufelle writes. It took some time for the sparkly lights we all know to make their way into every home, but this staple quickly spread as the availability of electricity grew in popularity.
“Father Christmas found that their silk worked quite well for hanging presents on the tree, but for a more decorative look, he turned the spider webs into threads of gold and silver.”
Garlands were not always a Christmas tradition either. Since the first time Father Christmas was mentioned in the 19th century, a legend has circulated about how garlands became a Christmas tradition. “A woman cleaned and decorated her home in preparation for the coming of Father Christmas,” Foufelle says. “As soon as she went to bed, spiders spun their webs over the Christmas tree. Father Christmas found that their silk worked quite well for hanging presents on the tree, but for a more decorative look, he turned the spider webs into threads of gold and silver.” While spider webs may be a clever decorative choice during Halloween, let’s be thankful it stayed there. Gold and silver garlands make for a fun and festive choice on any home tree.
TOYS AND CANDY
Gift giving during the Christmas season has been around for quite some time, due to the story of the three Magi bringing gifts to baby Jesus in his manger. But it wasn’t until the popularization of department stores in the 19th century that toys were all the rage, becoming the desire of every child for Christmas. It was during this time that “Christmas celebrations became a family event, and among the affluent it became common for presents to appear piled high under the Christmas tree after a visit from Santa,” Foufelle says. Stores began to produce catalogues specifically themed for Christmas, and the commercialized holiday took hold.
Santa Claus is a character that can be recognized under many names: Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Pelznickel and even Father Christmas. There are many traditions and versions of Santa Claus from all over the world. However, the Santa Claus we know and recognize—with a big belly and red suit—was popularized once he made his way to the United States in the early 1800s. As Foufelle says, “In 1823 the New York pastor Clement Clarke Moore laid the foundation for the future archetype of Santa in his poem ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas,’ also known as ‘The Night Before Christmas.’” Not only was the foundation for Santa Claus created in the 19th century, but “in the 1850s, the American illustrator Thomas Nast, who had already established his conception of the image of Santa Claus, described this friend of children as living at the North Pole,” Foufelle says. The Santa Claus we know today is a direct decendant of the festive Victorian period.
Above. Large crowds would gather to watch performances of the nativity scene during the Christmas season, as well as pagan celebrations. The church condemned acting out pagan traditions. opposite. Saint Nicholas didn’t always look as he does now. Brown robes were an original description, as well as green, before red became the most iconic choice.