A Short History of Favourite Christmas Traditions
December 16, 2021

Ottawa Journal (December 21 – December 25, 2021)
David Tilson, M.P. (Dufferin-Caledon)

We all have our own favourite Christmas traditions, such as our favourite Christmas carol; hanging our stockings on the mantle; sending out Christmas cards to our loved ones; and decorating the Christmas tree. Although we cherish these traditions, we’re not always sure where these traditions came from or how they evolved over the years. It is quite amusing to learn the history behind these traditions, as it adds to the joy of this peaceful season.

One of the most recognizable traditions of Christmas is the Christmas tree. It dates back to 16th century Germany. During that time, trees were decorated both indoors and out with apples, roses, candies, and coloured paper. It has been said the Martin Luther was the first to use light on trees. Folklore says that after taking a walk through a forest of evergreens with shining stars overhead, Luther tried to describe the experience to his family by bringing a tree into their home and decorating it with candles.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in both Austria and Germany, the tops of evergreens were cut and hung upside down in a living room corner. They were decorated with apples, nuts, and strips of red paper.

The first record of Christmas trees in America was for children in the German Moravian Church’s settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1747. The actual trees weren’t decorated; however, wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches were decorated with candles.

In 1834, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle for the Royal Family. By 1850, the Christmas tree had become fashionable in the eastern part of the United States. Before this date, the tradition was considered a quaint foreign custom. The first retail Christmas tree lot opened on the streets of New York in 1851.

Another popular Christmas tradition is the stocking. It has been said that a kind nobleman was overcome with grief over the loss of his wife and had lost his fortune, which left his three daughters without dowries and facing lifelong spinsterhood. Fortunately, the kind and thoughtful St. Nicholas came forward to help after learning of the girls’ circumstances. He rode his white horse to the nobleman’s home and placed three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney where they incidentally fell into the stockings the girls had hung on the fireplace to dry.

Christmas cards also have interesting origins. The first form of Christmas card began, in England, when young boys were practicing their writing skills by preparing Christmas greetings for their parents. However, Sir Henry Cole, is credited with actually writing the first Christmas card in 1843. He was the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and as a result, found that he didn’t have time to prepare individual Christmas greetings for his friends. An artist prepared an illustration for Sir Henry and the card contained three panels with the centre panel displaying a family enjoying Christmas festivities. The card also included the inscription, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

We can all agree there is no other plant that better represents Christmas than the poinsettia. It is native to Mexico and was named after Joel R. Poinsett, who was an American ambassador to Mexico, who then brought the plant to the United States, in 1828. It is likely that poinsettias were used by Mexican Franciscans in their 17th century Christmas celebrations. One legend describes a young, Mexican boy who was traveling to visit the village Nativity scene when he realized he didn’t have a gift for the Baby Jesus. He then collected beautiful green branches and took them to the church. He was mocked by the other children for doing this; however, when he placed the branches, they formed a spectacular star-shaped flower on each branch.

Lastly, the candy cane is a favourite Christmas treat and decoration. The tradition of the candy cane emerged as the Europeans began decorating tress with special decorations. Food, such as cookies and candies that were straight white candy sticks were hung on the trees. There is a legend that says during the 17th century, craftsmen took the white sticks of candy and shaped them into shepherds’ crooks at the suggestion of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
The candy crooks were then handed out to children to pacify them during ceremonies at the living crèche or Nativity scene and the tradition of passing out the candy crooks spread all over Europe shortly thereafter. It is said that the candy cane made it’s way to the United States in 1847, when a German immigrant decorated a tree in Wooster, Ohio. Approximately 50 years later, Bob McCormack, is believed to have made candy cane treats for family, friends, and local shopkeepers.
The magic of Christmas is certainly enhanced by each of these traditions and helps to remind us of the true meaning of this special holiday – peace, love, and joy. I sincerely wish you and your loved ones a safe and very Merry Christmas!