What did St. Francis have to do with Nativity scenes? Who sent the first Christmas card? The important thing about these traditions isn’t the superficial aspects, but their inner meaning.
Christmas traditions aren’t only very beautiful, they also contribute to creating a festive atmosphere in families and communities, teaching aspects of the true meaning of Christmas.
1 THE CHRISTMAS TREE
Centuries ago, pagans used to display pine branches during the winter as a reminder that spring would come again. The Romans used them to adorn the temples of their god Saturn.
However, Christmas trees as such have a more recent origin. In the 12th century, performances (Paradiespiel) were held in church squares before Christmas, illustrating original sin and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. Given the winter date of these performances, evergreen trees were used as stand-ins for the tree of good and evil. Symbolic decorations were eventually added. The tree tradition moved indoors as the performances died out.
The particular version of the Christmas tree we know today comes from German tradition. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria of England asked her husband, Prince Albert (who was German), to set up a tree inside the palace. As the news spread, this custom became popular in England, the United States and the rest of the world.
2 SETTING UP THE NATIVITY SCENE OR CRECHE
We owe the tradition of Nativity scenes to St. Francis of Assisi and his disciples. Around the year 1223, they came up with the idea of making a living Nativity for people to see the humility with which Jesus came into the world.
They prepared a stable and invited the people of the town to make a living reenactment, with animals included. It was so popular that it began to be replicated throughout Italy. Later, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the first Nativity figures began to be made in Naples.
3 MIDNIGHT MASS
Pope Sixtus III introduced in Rome the custom of celebrating at Christmas a midnight vigil “mox ut gallus cantaverit” (immediately after the rooster crowed) to celebrate the arrival of Jesus into the world. In ancient times, the Romans considered the crowing of the rooster to be the beginning of the day, at midnight. For this reason, in some Latin languages the Christmas Eve midnight Mass is referred to as the “Rooster’s Mass”—“Misa del Gallo” in Spanish, for example.
4 ADVENT CALENDARS
As you may have noticed, commercial calendars usually don’t coincide with the actual season of Advent; they often start their countdown on the first day of December.
Gerhard Lang, of Germany, is considered the inventor of the first printed Advent calendar. He created it in the early 1900s, inspired by one his mother made for him with 24 colored illustrations glued on a sheet of cardboard. Lang modified it by adding small doors or windows, and it became a hit in Germany.
In that country, Protestants used to mark the days of Advent with chalk on the doors and each day they gave the children a pious picture or a Bible verse or poem to read.
5 PRINTED CHRISTMAS CARDS
This tradition originated in England, when Henry Cole, a prominent educator and patron of the arts, was hard-pressed in 1843 to answer all the letters that the elite he worked for sent him, thanks to the new postal system.
Not responding was very impolite, but doing one at a time by hand was too ambitious a task, so he asked his illustrator friend J.C. Horsley to render a design he had in mind: a family celebrating in the center and two scenes of helping the poor on the sides with the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” He then had the illustration reproduced at a print shop in London.
6 CHRISTMAS CAROLS
When Christians began to replace the pagan winter festivals with Christmas, bishops all over Europe requested that songs be composed for church services. However, although they were very beautiful, most were in Latin, so many couldn’t sing or understand them.
So, inspired by folk songs, which people sang about all kinds of subjects, in the 5th century carols began to be composed to bring the Good News to the villagers who couldn’t read, using relatable and simple language.
Perhaps the most famous, Silent Night (“Stille Nacht”), was composed by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr and his church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. It was first performed on December 24, 1818 in the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf (Austria).
7 CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS
Interestingly, St. Nicholas (the real saint) is at the origin of this tradition of putting stockings on the fireplace. Legend has it that St. Nicholas learned that a widower was very worried, because he believed that his daughters would never marry because they were poor and had no money for the dowry that was customary at the time.
One night, the girls hung their stockings in the fireplace to dry and, the next day, the found them full of gold coins, courtesy of the saint.
8 CANDY CANES
It’s said that a candy manufacturer in the United States wanted to make a candy in honor of Jesus in the early 20th century. He made it in the shape of a cane to represent Jesus as our shepherd; hard candy, to represent that He is our rock.
He also chose the colors deliberately: white for his purity and red for the blood he shed for us; and he even wanted to make them mint, recalling the taste of hyssop, a plant present in the Old Testament and used for purification.
9 ADVENT WREATH
Among the pre-Christian customs of the Germans was to make wreaths of green branches during the cold winter and to light fires as a sign of hope for the coming of spring.
But around the 16th century, German Catholics and Protestants adopted this custom, lighting candles in anticipation of the coming of Jesus Christ (Light of the World). In addition, the wreaths, because of their circular shape, perfectly represent eternal life and love, without beginning or end.
Although some people use white or red candles, the tradition is to use three purple candles and one rose one. However, the most important thing is the light.
10 LIGHTS ON THE CHRISTMAS TREE
It’s said that the idea of putting lights on the Christmas tree came from Luther. He was walking through a forest at night and was moved by the way the stars lit up the trees, so he wanted to recreate that in his home. He put a tree in his living room and some candles in its branches.
Much later, in 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson— a friend and business partner of Thomas Edison—came up with the idea of putting strips of light bulbs on the Christmas tree.
Panettone is a sweet bread that is a Christmas staple in Italy, and which has been brought to other countries by Italian immigrants and by globalization. According to one of the most popular legends in Italy, this treat was invented one Christmas Eve in the 15th century by a cook named Toni, who was serving the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (popularly called “Il Moro”).
As the story goes, the cook was busy with all the other dishes, and his Christmas pudding burned, so he rushed to find an alternative. He took the leavened dough he had saved for his Christmas bread and mixed it with flour, raisins, sugar, eggs and candied fruit. The duke loved the new dessert so much that he decided to call it “pan di Toni” (“Tony’s bread”).
However, this is just a legend, and the truth is that similar sugar, spice and raisin breads can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Originally, British aristocrats created a creamy, hot drink based on eggs and brandy. But since its ingredients were too expensive for most, many people substituted rum for brandy.
13 THE NUTCRACKER
Going to the theater to see this ballet is a Christmas must for many families. With original music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa, it was first performed in St. Petersburg (Russia) on December 18, 1892. The first time it was performed in another country was in England in 1934 and, 10 years later, in the United States.
Why are these flowers connected with Christmas? It’s not only because poinsettias are showy and red or only bloom in December. In their country of origin, which is Mexico, there’s a legend that says that a poor girl went to leave a bouquet of weeds to the Baby Jesus in a Nativity scene because it was the only thing she had to give, and miraculously, they turned into this beautiful flower.
The plant got its name from the fact that it was the botanist and American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, who took the plant to the United States in 1828.