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The Origins of Some Christmas Traditions

John Miller

Christmas is a time of year many people love and enjoy. Christmas lights cover the trees and decorations stung on the windows and shelves inside the house. Many thousands of people flock to the stores to get gifts for family members, and shopping for those last minute deals.

Most Americans know why we celebrate Christmas (Weihnachten), but do we know where the traditions came from? Several of the traditions and songs come from the Dutch specking world around Germany. German and Austrian Christmas traditions have spread throughout the world wherever Christmas is celebrated. As time passed by millions of people around the world have adopted many traditions that began in the German-speaking world.

The Christmas tree (Tannenbaum pronounced in German) believed to have begun in Germany around the mid 700’s. The tree represented the life of Jesus Christ and how he lives on today. The ever greens which represent his life was decorated with candles and then brought inside. The German trees are silver fir and balsam with their branches spaced far apart and grown in such a way that the candles can be placed on them without the danger of a fire. These trees were called "Christ Tree" until the holiday was renamed Christmas then the Christmas tree was born.

The Christmas tree tradition began by Martin Luther who lived in Germany. He was a monk and church reformer who was born in 1483 and died in 1546. How this tradition began according to legend, Luther was returning home on a winter’s night when he saw the stars twinkling in the sky through the branches of the trees. He was so amazed by the sight he saw. When he arrived home, he was eager to tell his family about what he saw. To help them understand and to better visualize what he had seen, Luther went to the woods and cut down a small fir tree. He then brought the tree inside and decorated it with candles, which represented the stars he had seen. This custom spread throughout Germany, and all over the world. This tradition grew into America and now people light their Christmas trees with much more than candles, but with lights, garland, and other decorations.

The first Christmas tree came to England, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, who was a German. In 1841, Albert sat up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle near London to remind him of his home in Germany. He had servants trim the tree with candies, sugared fruits and tiny wrapped gifts. This began the Victorians love of Christmas decorating. Immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States from England as well as many German immigrants who came in the 1800's.

Why do we celebrate Christmas Eve and how the colors red and Green associate with Christmas? In Germany, traditions would teach the Christmas story of the Bible, by acting out what Germans called "miracle plays". These were plays to teach children about the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. The tradition took place yearly on December 24. They would decorate evergreens with red apples to represent the forbidden fruit.

Most traditional Christmas songs you hear today and known as a child came from Germany and Austria. Songs such as "Silent Night" ("Stille Nacht"), "Oh Christmas Tree" ("O Tannenbaum") and the famous song known as the "Twelve Days to Christmas". In the German-speaking countries the Christmas tree was part of the pre-Christian tradition of the "12 Rauhnächte". This song tells the story of 12 harsh or crazy nights, and eventually became the "Twelve Nights of Christmas." The Christmas tree was decorated on December 24 and taken down after New Years or on January 6, known as "Twelfth Night." The part of the tradition of taking down the Christmas tree was known as the "Plündern," raiding the tree of cookies and sugar plums, an event, awaited by children. January 6 is also known as "Three Kings." On that evening carolers, three of them dressed as the three kings or Magi, stroll from house to house. In some areas the old trees will be brought to a public place and burnt in a big bon-fire.

Where does story of Santa Claus come from? The Dutch settlers from New Amsterdam brought the story of Santa to American. The stories about Santa climbing down the chimney and the tradition of if you're naughty, he'll leave a switch (coal) instead of toys come from the Dutch. Santa brings gifts on the night of Christmas Eve to all of the good children. Our version of Santa Claus came from the European traditions regarding St. Nicholas. In the 4th century, Nicholas, a bishop in Turkey came to be known as St. Nicholas for his kind deeds to the needy and enslaved. The term of Saint Nick and the legend that followed was born. His bright red suit trimmed with white fur originated from the cape of St. Nichols. During the 19th century Santa begin to be quite popular and made appearances in the stories of Washington Irving.

In 1809 Irving wrote a story that resulted in changing the traditional Dutch custom. Their tradition was on December 14, or St. Nicholas Eve as they called it; the Dutch would leave shoes out for St. Nicholas. In Irving's story he wrote about the children leaving stockings hanging out instead or shoes. At that time children believed Santa traveled by wagon with the assistance of a magic white horse. Up until 1821, Irving's book, "The Children's Friend" had Santa traveling by sleigh pulled by reindeer that eventually flew in the air.

In 1822 Clement Moore wrote "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" inspiring Thomas Nast to draw the famous cartoon of Santa published in Harper's Weekly. Several famous painting of Santa Claus that we can still see was drawn in Germany. The legend of Santa Claus by this time had traveled all around the world. The English knew Santa as Father Christmas and the Germans knew him as Kris Kringle. America would know every name for Santa Claus by hearing and sharing these traditional stories. Even watching the old Rudolph stories on T.V. you can see the German influence by listening to the names of "Burger Mister" and looking at the soldiers’ uniforms. They are wearing a Waffenfrock that is a military tunic from the pre World War One period along with a spiked helmet known as the Pickelhauben.

The idea of gift giving goes back to the birth Christ, when Three Wise Men entered the stable and laid gifts before the child. Down through the ages mankind has enjoyed giving at Christmas, whether it is a personal gift or spiritual.

Christmas has a special meaning to us all. It even stopped World War One in 1914 with the Christmas truce. On December 24, 1914, the British soldiers heard the sounds of music coming from the German trenches. During the night both sides were singing the same carol in different languages. The next day a lone German soldier came out of the trench holding a branch of Pine with candles lit. The British were stunned at what they saw. Most of the British soldiers had never seen a Christmas tree before.

The truce started to spread over the lines in other places. That day most of the two armies talked and played games of soccer. Some soldiers of each side even tried to get a close glimpse of the lay out of their opponents’ trench to mark where the gun emplacements were. However the British authorities of the high command thought that this was outrageous and demanded that action should be taken to punish their soldiers for fraternizing with the enemy. Both Germans and the British saw for the first time that there living conditions were in deed the same and that they were all men. However the fighting did occur that day in other places along the trenches. The sprit of Christmas managed to stop some of the bloodshed and to ease each other while they were away from home.

Today, those who are wrapped up in the holiday cheer may forget the origins and the meaning of Christmas. Most people have forgotten the origins and how Christmas became known. So when you go to the store and see leftover Christmas items, you’ll know where they came from and how your family began this holiday celebration. It is truly the time of year for us to forget our problems and help the other person. If the Germans could stop the bloody onslaught of World War One for a day or two by celebrating this time of year with its enemy, we can do the same thing and help our neighbor. 

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Have your own memories of the old Emmitsburg traditions?  
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net