Christmas traditions 101

December 18, 2007|By DYLAN THACKSTON / Pulse Correspondent

From its amazing excuse to eat tons of horribly bad for you food, to seeing your family, and the lights, Christmas offers a lot to those who choose to celebrate it. However, it seems to me that in the hustle and bustle between ordering your presents, cooking the holiday meal, and sending out those hundreds of Christmas cards people tend to not think about where Christmas came from - with all of its strange habits such as having the Christmas tree, eating lots of sweets, and deciding which day to celebrate on.

Back in the day in the ancient Teutonic regions in Northern Europe, the big holiday in early winter was called Yule. Christ had not come around yet.

After learning that Yule came from the areas around modern Germany, I decided to go down to the Hager House in Hagerstown. Hager House has a tour of the house highlighting early German traditions of Christmas and related holidays.


I spoke with John Bryan, the historic sites facilitator. He told me a great many things about German winter holiday traditions. For instance, before Germany was one nation, it was divided into many kingdoms, empires and countries. These separate states celebrated different religions.

The Christmas tree

One of the stranger and more interesting bits of information he told me is that the Yule tree (remember, no Christmas yet) was originally put inside the house during winter in order to ward off evil that lived in the long nights. The tree was always placed on a table, but sometimes it was flipped upside-down and hung from the ceiling. As Christianity replaced paganism in the Middle Ages, the tree tradition carried over to the celebration of Christmas.

In America, the idea of putting a tree in your house as part of a celebration of winter first began before the Revolutionary war, when European immigrants were moving to the American colonies.

Christmas cookies and sweet treats

Way back in time the Celts - a pagan tribe living in what is now Britain and Western Europe - used to make loads of sweet treats when winter came. We make and eat sweet treats because they taste good.

But the Celts believed that to eat something sweet created at the end of the year was to "... partake of the body of the Grain God/Goddess," according to Pauline Campanelli, writer of "Wheel of the Year." The Celtic people did not have sugar to use as a sweetener. They used honey for all their sweet-tooth needs.

Midwinter bonfires

Norsemen, who lived in Scandinavian countries far north, celebrated the return of the sun even as days got freezing cold and dark. That far north, there were days when the sun never rose. Scouts went to high mountains to watch the sky. The scouts would wait until the disk of the sun shined on the horizon before returning to rest. The scouts lit bonfires to signal the event and midwinter celebrations began.

Looking back at some of the winter holiday traditions of older cultures is cool. It can add to our own Christmas traditions. It can be interesting to see what our own ancestors did to celebrate this time of year.

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