CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS--1790s to Now
The holidays are over for another year. Since our modern Christmas traditions are an amalgam of customs from all over the world and many are recent additions, I wondered how Will Rees (main character in The Shaker Murders) and his family, as well as the Shakers, would have celebrated this holiday. Yes, the Shakers were Christians – a fact in dispute at this time – and would have observed this holiday.
The giving of presents, the decoration of the houses with evergreens, the suspension of enmity and the proclamation of peace were all features of the festival right from the beginning. (That is, with some interruptions. The Puritans thought the celebrations took away from the worship of God and banned all jollity.) Caroling, for example, has been a feature of the season since the middle ages. The evergreen wreaths also have had a long history. The Etruscans used wreaths, a tradition that continued into Ancient Greece and Rome. The different plants symbolized different virtues. Oak leaves meant wisdom. Laurel leaves were used to crown winners. Our evergreen wreaths are constructed of evergreens to represent everlasting life. The Advent wreath, with its white candles, was first used by Lutherans in Germany in the 16th century. And while the giving of presents has long been a feature of the holiday, it has not always been practiced on Christmas Day. During the time of Henry VIII, presents were exchanged on New Year’s Day.
Some our customs, ones that we think are essential to the holiday, are new additions. A visit to Colonial Williamsburg reveals a village decorated with candles and evergreen boughs. But where are the trees splendid with glittering ornaments? Where are the Christmas cards?
Well, the tree did not become a feature of the holiday until the Victorian age. Although known in England before Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, the fir achieved its popularity after the Queen adopted it. Like so many British customs, this one crossed the Atlantic. Our Christmas lights are descended from the candles used to decorate the tree in Christian homes in early modern Germany. And the first commercial Christmas cards were not created until 1843 by publisher Sir Henry Cole. The practice of sending cards did not cross the Atlantic until 1874
What about the hanging of stockings? Well, this tradition has a long history. According to some historians, this is a custom that stretches all the way back to Odin. Children put out their boots filled with food for Odin’s horse to eat and Odin would reward them with gifts or candy. Like so many pagan customs, the practice was adopted and Christianized. Hanging stockings became connected with Saint Nicholas.
So, let’s talk about Old Saint Nick, known in the US as Santa Claus. Because a central tenet of Christ’s teachings was alms to the poor, charity has long been a feature of the holiday. Even the Shakers who kept themselves separate from the World and celebrated simply, went out with baskets of provisions for the needy.
There are a lot of stories about the history of Santa Claus. He is at least partly based on St Nicholas of Myra who gave away his fortune to the poor. The German Christkind and the Dutch Sinterklaus are also pieces of our modern Claus. Christmas had been personified -made into a person – as early as the fifteenth century but the modern Santa Claus in his red suit is a nineteenth century creation that has been added onto over the years. Now even the reindeer have names, courtesy of the poem “The Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “A visit from Saint Nicholas) by Clement Clarke Moore. With the popularity of the ‘Elf on the Shelf’, the elves are now bringing gifts before the big day.
Alms to the poor has always been a feature of the celebration. Even the Shakers, who kept themselves apart from the World, brought baskets to the needy.
Bio: Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York.
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