One of the staple aesthetics of the holiday, the use of evergreen trees, wreaths and boughs, has a consistent place in human history, dating as far back as the Egyptians who brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death and the return of the sun god. The Romans celebrated the upcoming lengthening of daylight hours through a feast to the god of agriculture, Satumus, when they decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. The ancient Druids of Great Britain used Holly and Mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits. Late in the Middle Ages, German and Scandinavian peoples placed evergreen trees inside their homes to show their hope in the coming spring season. The evergreen wreath Americans use comes from these ancient traditions, incorporated with Christian beliefs and symbols. The circular shape of the wreath originally symbolized perfection and unity and later became a Christian symbol for Christ’s suffering and triumph over death with eternal life. The sharp leaves and red color of the Holly plant came to represent Jesus’ suffering and blood to early Christians, and now modern adaptations have incorporated decoration and self expression through fabric, vines, pine cones, berries, colored balls and bells that adorn doors today.
The Christmas tree is also derived from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter, although Christian legend attributes the tradition to Martin Luther. According to Protestant scholars, Luther sought to duplicate the brilliance of a starry night walk among evergreen trees for his family by decorating a tree with candles in honor of Christ’s birth. The Christmas tree then came to the United States with Hessian troops during the American Revolution and German immigrants to Pennsylvania, but was not widely accepted by Americans until 1846 when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree.
Even Santa Claus has distant roots in ancient traditions of the pagan beliefs in spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter. The modern legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a Christian monk named Nicholas, born near present day Turkey in the third century CE who traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Saint Nicholas later became known as the patron saint of children and his legend remained popular, especially in Holland, where Sinter Klaas is celebrated on his feast day December 6. “Santa Claus” made inroads in American culture through the emigration of Dutch colonists to New York in the 1600’s and, in 1809, Rip Van Winkle author, Washington Irving referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.
However, it is still St. Nicholas that many Christians point to as a true spirit of Christmas giving. The shift of gift giving from New Year’s Day to Christmas Day during the Victorian Era along with the newly industrial economy of the United States at the time seems to have ushered in what many decry as the commercialization of the holiday into its modern form of “black Friday” deals and “must have” items of the season. This emphasis on consumerism seems to many to be a contradiction of the true meaning of Jesus’ birth.
Upon this reflection, it may do a heart good to decorate with a few Poinsettia plants. Poinsettias were brought to America from Mexico over a hundred years ago by botanist and American ambassador, Joel Roberts Poinset with the legend of a girl named Maria and her little brother Pablo, two poor children picked some weeds growing along who the roadside and placed them in the manger scene as their gift to the baby Jesus. Miraculously, the green top leaves turned into bright red petals, and the manger became surrounded by the beautiful star-like flowers that we see today.
During this time of year, when new terminology may find its way into traditional greetings and old customs are adapted into new ones, it is helpful to remember that the holiday season has always been evolving. However you celebrate, may you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!