“Christmas cel­e­bra­tions be­came a fam­ily event.”

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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.


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.


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...

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