Christmas is coming! Anyone else here as excited as me? I love Christmas. The colours, the carols, the sparkly lights, the baking, the fun of finding just the right gift for the people I love. But have you ever wondered where all those Christmas traditions began? Who had the great idea of putting a Christmas tree inside? And why a fir tree? Why is it called Boxing Day?
It would take whole books to go into the history behind all of the Christmas traditions but here are some of my favourites.
The Christmas Tree
Evergreen trees have been used for centuries to celebrate festivals—pagan and Christian alike. They remind people of the promise of spring during the long winter months. But you can thank Martin Luther for indoor Christmas trees as we know them today. The story goes that, one winter night, he saw the stars through the branches of a fir tree and was awestruck by the beauty of it. Cutting down a small fir, he brought it into his house and decorated it with candles to share the beauty with his wife and children.
A few hundred years later, in 1848, German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, brought the tradition to England (although he decorated his tree with fruit, coloured paper and candy). From there, it spread to the rest of the world.
The truth is, no one really knows where these began. There is a sweet story about a choirmaster in Germany 250 years ago giving white candy sticks to his young choristers to keep them quiet during long church services, and shaping them like a shepherd’s crook to remind them of Jesus the Good Shepherd, but it’s likely just that—a story.
The first documented candy canes were in 1920 when an American named Bob McCormack began making them for his family. They became so popular that he started his own business, although it was slow going bending the candy by hand until his brother-in-law, George Kellar, invented a machine which bent them automatically. The machine became known as the Kellar Machine and is still used by the company today.
While the humble candy cane is just a piece of tasty candy, it’s also a great reminder of who Jesus is. The crook reminds us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd or, turn it upside down and it’s a J for Jesus. The white stripes remind us both of Jesus’ purity and the forgiveness he offers when he takes our sins. Red stripes remind us of the blood which was shed when he died on the cross for us. You can tell the gospel with a candy cane!
Advent comes from the Latin word meaning ‘coming’. It’s a countdown to Christmas reminding us firstly of Jesus coming into the world as a baby at Christmas, secondly of Jesus coming into our lives today and thirdly, that Jesus is coming again as King.
Advent calendars as most of us know them, with twenty-four boxes containing chocolate or gifts, are a relatively new concept. Traditionally, candles have been used to count down the month leading up to Christmas, with one candle lit the first Sunday, two the second, three the third and so on until Christmas. Different churches denote different meanings to each of the candles but they all agree that the lights remind us of Jesus, Light of the world.
Boxing Day is believed to have had its origins in UK during the Middle Ages when alms boxes—collection boxes for the poor—were opened and distributed. The boxes were usually kept in churches and delivered the day after Christmas.
Just like every song has a story behind it, every Christmas carol does too.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was actually written as a poem by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, back in 1739. That said, it was George Whitfield, John’s protégé, who edited it to the words we know today, cutting the poem down from ten verses to four and changing the language to everyday English. The upbeat tune we sing it to, written by Felix Mendelssohn a hundred years after the poem was published, would likely horrify poor Charles who requested the poem be put to ‘slow and solemn’ music.
Charles isn’t the only one who’d be surprised to hear how much the carol he wrote has changed over the centuries. Many of them have had their words modernised to keep up with the changing English language. The line, ‘sing we joyous all together’ in Deck the Halls, was originally written ‘laughing, quaffing all together’. Given I have no idea what ‘quaffing’ is, I’m kind of glad they changed it!
My favourite story, though, is about the beloved carol, Silent Night. A priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote the words for it in 1816 as something special to sing for a Christmas Eve service in Austria. His friend, Franz Gruber, wrote the music. Its popularity spread when Prince Albert, once again, brought it to England.
The story goes that, during WWI, fighting stopped on Christmas Eve when a soldier began singing the song. It turned out both sides knew the carol in their own languages, so they sung it together. Then, putting down their weapons and differences, they came out of the trenches and met in no-man’s land to play games and exchange gifts. It’s since become known as the Christmas Truce. There’s some conjecture over whether the song was Silent Night or another carol but what a beautiful image of what Christmas is truly about.
So there you have it, just a few ‘behind-the-scenes’ looks at some of the traditions we now know so well. I hope you enjoyed your little tour. Bring on Christmas!