Why Do We Do That? The Origins of Familiar Holiday Customs

November 2011 Ariella McManus

"Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells..."

Oh, hey there!! So sorry about that; I guess I just got caught up in the pre-Holiday excitement. Just thinking about it makes me feel all warm and cozy inside. Okay, before I start waxing poetic about candy canes and mistletoe, let us get to the matter at hand. On second thought....

Why exactly would I think about candy canes and mistletoe when I think about Christmas (or Yuletide to us wizarding folk)? Interesting question..hmmm. Maybe it's time to head off to the good ol' library and do some research. Come on! What?!! You have a Quidditch match that you just can't possibly miss?! Likely excuse!! Well, being the nosy Ravenclaw that I am, I think that I'll just go and do the research myself.

Perfect!! It took some digging, but I managed to get the dish on some of those holiday customs we hold so dear..with no idea why we do it. I suppose it just goes to show how deeply ingrained customs can become to us. Either that, or we are all a bunch of mindless sheep..but we won't go there. Ready? Good..here goes:

Mistletoe: Wow! There are a lot of legends concerning this one. Seriously, I could write an entire book about just this one alone. I know..edit, edit, edit!! According to the ancient Celts, the mistletoe was believed to hold healing properties and helped to ward off evil magic from..gasp..witches! The Druids advocated this..humppff! At any rate, people starting hanging it up as a safeguard against evil and to promote health and fertility for those who stopped under it and kissed. Lore has it that if a couple in love kissed under the mistletoe they would get married within the year. Kinda cool, huh?

Back to the Druids...It seems they believed in the power of the mistletoe so much that they actually made a celebration out of it. In late December or early January, the priests would go out into the woods and cut mistle toe from the oak trees and then return to give it to the people to hang up in their houses. This practice dates back to 100 AD!

Let's not leave out our friends, the Vikings. A Viking legend from around 800 AD tells the story of Balder, who had the misfortune of being killed by a poison made from mistletoe. His mother, Frigga, thank Merlin, was able to reverse the effects of the poison three days later and her dear son was able to be brought back to life. Mommy Frigga was so happy to have her son back that she hung up some mistletoe and kissed anyone who walked underneath it.

Candy Canes: It seems that we can thank the Germans for this tasty holiday confection. History states that it was a German choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in 1670 who started handing candy canes out to the children during the long-winded services to keep them from getting too restless. The candy was all-white then and bent to resemble a sheperd's staff, tying in to the Christian belief that an angel was sent to sheperds to announce the birth of Jesus.

Something like this was just to delicious not to catch on and spread. I mean, who doesn't like candy?!! It spread through Europe and America; red rose confections sometimes added to 'pretty up' the white canes. The first recorded incident of a candy cane in America being used to decorate a tree goes back to 1847. A German immigrant by the name of August Imgard decorated his tree in Wooster, Ohio, by hanging them among the branches. Thank you, August!!!

So where's the stripes?!! Well dangit, it seems that no one knows!! Fifty years later, the candy manufacturers started cranking them out with the familiar red ribbons woven in, but why is still a mystery. Oh well, at least they had the sense to start adding wintergreen and peppermint extracts to the mixes in 1900, giving the candy a flavor boost which people crave even to this day.

Carols: We can thank Francis of Assissi for the use of carols, for the tradition dates back to him. Whether or not you believe he is a saint is irrelevant; facts are facts, folks. Francis loved music, and he introduced these religious songs during a Midnight Mass being held in a cave in Greccio, Umbria in the year 1223. All hail the Italians!!

Wandering minstrels and bards would go from village to village, (not forgetting the sometimes lucrative pit stop at the castles too) singing these songs during the Christmas holidays. Sometimes castles would have their own 'waits', a group of guardsmen who would patrol the streets singing out the hours, adding carols during the holidays to entertain the people and to stop themselves from dying of utter boredom.

I would be amiss not to mention that some of the earliest carols are non-Christian in origin. One of the earliest carols was written in 1521, called "The Boar's Head Carol". We can credit the English for this lovely melody, for they would sing it while the roasted boar was brought to the table during feasts. I guess they were decidely not vegetarians!

Christmas Trees: Wow! This one goes way back...all the way to ancient Egypt. It seems they actually worshipped evergeens and during the Winter Solstice they would carry green date palm leaves back to their houses to symbolize life's triumph over death. Okay, so not the whole tree..but it's a start!

You know the Druids couldn't be left out!! During the Winter Solstice rituals, they would hang evergreen branches up to ward off evil. You know, it makes me wonder..they sure were very anxious about evil spirits weren't they? Ah well, that's another story in and of itself; I might have to dig into that one day.

Okay, once again we owe the Germans a debt of gratitude. It was the Germans and Scandinavians who started bringing in the whole tree instead of just some flimsy branches and leaves. This practice started in the Late Middle Ages to show hope and gladness for the upcoming spring. Still not decorated..but one step at a time.

Martin Luther was the first (so legend says) to actually decorate the Christmas tree as we know it today. It was a winter night in 1500 that Luther decided to go for a nighttime stroll. He was so struck with the beauty of the ice laying on the branches of the fir trees that he cut one down and brought it home to show his children. He went one step further and decorated with candles in honor of the birth of Christ.

It should come as no surprise that it was in America that the Christmas tree market was born. In 1851, an enterprising man named Mark Carr hauled two sleds filled with trees to New York and sold them to people lacking the means (or the desire) to go and cut them down for themselves. Pretty smart there, Mark!

Just a few quick tidbits about the decorations pre-Luther. The custom actually started with the ancient Romans, who would decorate their trees with bits of metal and candles during the feast of Saturnalia. This was done in honor of Bacchus.

The ancient Germanic people would decorate their trees with candles and bits of fruit in honor of Woden. Trees were thought to symbolize eternal life. As we still use lights and fruit-shaped ornaments to decorate our trees, guess they were on to something.

Yule Log: Though this tradition has all but died out, it is one of my favorites. It can be traced back to ancient times, a part of the primeval worship of trees as sacred objects. When wandering tribes would settle in one place, they would clear away the trees as needed, but were always very careful to leave one tree standing..the 'mother tree', which was a symbol of life.

Dating back to the 12th century, our Scandinavian friends would burn wood and drink wine in honor of their god, Odin, during the Yule (Jul) festivities. Sounds like my kind of party!

The yule log that we are most familiar with hails directly from merry ol' England..God save the Queen! Originally a large log was brought in and placed in the fireplace, for good luck. Tradition has it that each family member had to take a turn sitting on it before it completely burnt out. Can we say...ouch?!! The yule log is thought to symbolize good fortune and to..you guessed it..ward away evil spirits. Traditionally, a piece of the old log is kept to relight the next year's log. It should be mentioned that the yule log is also an extremely yummy Christmas baked treat. if you want a recipe for one, send me an owl and I will be more than glad to share.

I hope that you've enjoyed the walk through history as much as I did. Now..off I go to that quidditch match you were so anxious to attend. GO RAVENCLAW!