Friday, December 6, 2019

The Origin and importance of Holiday Traditions. Subtitle: How Not to Ruin Christmas

There is a time we refer to as The Year We Ruined Christmas. Nobody meant to ruin Christmas, but we learned that payback from side-stepping family tradition can be severe.

It was the failure to find our outdoor Christmas lights that started us sliding down the wrong path. My husband and I spent weeks searching every corner of what is a rather small house to no avail. The only conclusion we came to was that one of us, in a rare deep-cleaning fit, had thrown the lights away. So off to the store we went to buy new strings to light up the eaves and porch. After what seemed like hours of indecision, wandering up and down aisles, considering colored lights, cascading stars, plain white points of light, glacial icicles, strands of blue lights, and whatever else was on offer, we finally picked out two sets we thought looked nice together.

We headed home, but not before making what would turn out to be the second error of the day: picking up a tree while we were out. In my mind we were sparing our kids the trip to the tree lot. I love decorating the tree but I’ve always dreaded walking through rows of trees in the cold while folks compare trees. Just pick one out. Any one. I don’t care. Get that thing in the house and cover it with our collection of ornaments, and I guarantee it will look like any other Christmas tree we’ve ever had. (One of my worst memories involved go up to a tree farm in Wisconsin to cut down our own tree. Crossing a state line to pick out a tree is a bridge too far in my opinion.)

Anyway, remember I said our second mistake, alluding to the fact there was a first mistake? With a tree tied to the roof of our car and boxes of lights in the back seat, we pulled up in front of our house where simultaneously our sights strayed to the same spot. We noticed for the first time in nearly 365 days that we never took down last year’s lights. That’s where they’d been hiding out!

Christmas lights had been decorating our house through Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and every minor holiday and birthday in between. To top it off we’d spent all that time agonizing over new lights only to find they were exactly the same as the ones we already owned, and so we’d presumably gone through the exact same process to the same conclusion years earlier, like the lab rats we are.

That was bad enough but we were unprepared for the outrage from our two kids when we walked in with a tree. Apparently, the kids LIKE the whole tree lot ordeal and look forward to it every year. Screaming “You ruined Christmas!” they stormed off. Later they returned with their own tree which they set up in one of their bedrooms, which was quite a feat because they didn’t have what it takes to easily procure a tree, such as a paying job or a car. I never could figure out how they managed any of that, and whenever in later years I asked, I’d get “It’s too soon to talk about it.” This year—ten years later—I learned for the first time that they enlisted the help of a willing aunt, who also holds her holiday traditions dear and her tongue silent.

Whichever holidays your family celebrates there are likely traditions that have made their way through the generations. But where did these traditions come from in the first place?

Christmas Trees
Why do we bring a pine tree in our house once a year? Probably for the same reason our ancestors in cold climates did: bringing in a bit of greenery in the dead of winter is cheering. And the cat likes it. In Germany this custom merged with Christianity where on December 24 the “Paradise Tree” was decorated with apples on Adam and Eve’s name day. It evolved from there.
Give a nod to Queen Victoria and her German born husband, Prince Albert, for popularizing the Christmas tree outside of Germany.

Cookies and Milk
Do your kids enjoy putting out a treat for Santa? Thank the Norsemen. Though you’d be hard pressed to recognize Santa and his reindeer from their inspiration, Odin and his eight-legged horse, Slepnir. Odin and his flying horse would take to the sky and drop off treats to random kids. Children would leave out treats hoping Odin would favor them.
Did you catch how in time an eight-legged horse became eight reindeer? A jolly old man sitting in a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer is definitely less terrifying than an eight-legged horse thundering through the night sky with a Viking on its back. 

Odin and Slepnir

This Christmas Eve ritual of leaving treats out for Santa gained traction during the Great Depression as a way to teach children a lesson in gratitude. Incidentally in Ireland, France, and other European countries the children leave Santa something a wee bit stronger than milk. Note to American children: try being more continental this year.

Hanging Stockings
On the eve of St. Nicholas Day Feast Day, December 5, it was customary for children to fill their shoes with straw and leave them out for the donkeys. Overnight the straw would miraculously be replaced by coins. 
Eventually plain stockings hung on the mantel replaced straw-filled shoes, which was a step in the right decoration.
Still, who decorates their house with their children’s socks? (not intentionally anyway).
Thankfully, in 1883 someone came up with the idea of making decorative stockings meant specifically to adorn the mantelpiece. To quote an early New York Times piece heralding the new Christmas decorations, “No one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object.” 

This tradition I find especially interesting. For the ancient Druids and Celts, mistletoe was associated with fertility. It was considered unlucky to refuse a kiss under the mistletoe.
Cut to the era of big houses staffed by servants. The servants, many of them from far corners of the British Isles, brought this tradition with them. 
Stealing a kiss under the mistletoe moved Upstairs from Downstairs.

Christmas Lights
In my family we’ve pared down this tradition. On December 1 someone yells, “plug ‘em in,” and we’re done with it. We just leave those lights up year round now, unplugging them sometime in January. The lights are cheerful on long winter nights, right? But where did all this start?
Back in earlier times Christians would set lit candles in their windows to signal that visitors were welcome to celebrate with them. Also, lit candles represented the Christmas Star that led the Three Wise Men to the manger. The fireman’s daughter and granddaughter in me is silently screaming at the thought of so many lit candles. Especially lit candles on trees!
Lucky for us near the end of the 19th century, an associate of Thomas Edison made the first string of lights, consisting of 80 bulbs. Not long after, strings of lights were mass produced and sold in department stores. Over time they became safer, cheaper, and available to all, so now we can compete with our neighbors to see who can have the best displays. I don’t know the origin story of inflatable yard displays.
Whatever holiday you celebrate and wherever the customs that are associated come from, do enjoy yourself this season, and do remember that one person’s least favorite tradition might be another’s most treasured so let’s respect each other. Also remember that as fun as it is to decorate at the start of the season, another great tradition is putting away your decorations at the end of the holiday.

Speaking of enjoying the holidays, nobody enjoys them like Melody, one of the main characters in my story Counting Down to Christmas.

About Counting Down to Christmas:
Melody Evans grew up an only child of a single mother, never putting down roots. Instead, they carried family traditions from home to home, none more precious than those surrounding Christmas. Romance? Melody has put a wall around her wounded heart and turned a cynical eye to the concept of happily ever after, despite making a living as a wedding planner.

Veterinarian Leland Jennings IV has roots long and deep at his family’s ranch in South Dakota. What he lacks, according to his meddlesome sister, is someone to settle down with. But he holds on to the unwavering belief that there is only one woman out there for him. Christmas? It’s a holiday for children, not a bachelor living alone.

Once Melody and Leland get over their initial animosity, they come together like two pieces of a puzzle, sparking emotions and nostalgic memories that bring magic to the holiday season. But when tragedy strikes, will their budding romance become a case of the right person at the wrong time, or will they forge a new path together?

You can get my holiday story plus other contemporary western romances by Hebby Roman, Hildie McQueen, Andrea Downing, Carra Copelin, Kristy McCaffrey, and Devin McKay in one set, on sale this month for $0.99!


Kristy McCaffrey said...

What a great post! Kids love to let us know how we've ruined their lives haha. Happy Holidays, Patti. Glad to have you back at the blog.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

The kids really do let us know! Glad to know it's not just mine....But then they've turned into such thoughtful adults. Glad to be back Kristy!

Andrea Downing said...

You've come back with a winner Patti. I'm still laughing. And yes, in England we always left Santa port and a mince pie. I had to wonder if American Santa was teetotal. What if he's lactose intolerant? Milk and cookies? Really? One Christmas we found hoof prints in the snow on our lawn. I doubt you'd get that calling card just for milk!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Yes, I bet American Santa during the Great Depression was a teetotal! That would explain a lot of things. I bet Santa would like a box of wine. I do remember one Christmas there were reindeer hoofs prints in the snow on the porch roof. I wonder how Dad pulled that off? Or did he? Magic! Thanks for stopping by.

Julie Lence said...

OM Gosh! That is tooo funny about the lights. Sounds like something I would do... then again, I'm more apt to throw out something and not remember.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

We've now had our plug 'em in system for years, LOL! But this year my husband has decided we need new lights. I'm really curious to see what we pick out. I'm going to take a picture of our existing lights and bring it with so we DON'T PICK OUT THE SAME LIGHTS again! I guess we know what we like.