A sight we often see as we approach the holidays in Canada is the illustrious, highly decorated Christmas tree — have you ever wondered where its origins lie? The evergreen fir tree has been used in celebration during winter for a long time. Pagans used to decorate its branches during the winter to remind them that it won’t last forever — spring will eventually come — and Christians used it as a sign of their god’s everlasting life, as the tree refuses to be any less green and bushy throughout the winter months.
The present day tree has had many forms. Over a thousand years ago, in Northern Europe, the trees were hung upside down like chandeliers. Some others were put in pots and brought inside. If you couldn’t afford the real thing, there were also some “trees” that were basically piles of sticks and brush — very convincing.
In medieval Germany, the trees were referred to as “Paradise trees” and used to represent the Garden of Eden. The first tree to actually be used for Christmas and New Year celebrations dates back to Estonia’s Tallinn and Latvia’s Riga, in 1441 and 1510 respectively. The trees were placed in the centre of town to be danced around and then set on fire — can anyone say “Yule Log”?
The first steps towards modernizing the Christmas tree were allegedly took by the German preacher Martin Luther. In the 16th century, Luther brought a tree into his house because it was so beautiful to him — according to some, he wanted his house to look so beautiful that his god would come to him. Germany was also the first to start decorating them with popcorn and edible decorations in 1605.
The trees as they are known today allegedly appeared in Britain in 1830. Queen Victoria’s German husband had one set up in his place, so you can see how one thing led to another. In 1848, a drawing of the Queen in her sitting room, with the tree, was published and passed around — thus a trend was changed.
Germany is all about creating new Christmas traditions. Tinsel was also created there, originally made of thin strips of silver but quickly switching to plastic as soon as that was made available. Sounds pretty expensive before the switch, right? That’s where the Christmas Spider comes in.
All versions, whether from Germany, Ukraine, Finland, the USA or the UK, begin with a poor family who doesn’t have the cash to decorate their tree. With everyone asleep on Christmas Eve, a spider (probably named Charlotte) covers the tree in cobwebs. On Christmas morning, all of the webbing magically turns into silver and gold, solving both the decorating problem and probably the money problem in general for the family. Spider’s web Christmas decorations are popular today in the Ukraine — they’re called ‘pavuchky’, which means ‘little spider’, and are made of paper and silver wire.
Dreydl and Menorah:
Another sight during the holidays is Hanukkah’s dreydl game. Although it originated as a game for children, it continues to be played by all ages. People celebrate Hanukkah internationally, but often the custom of “gathering with friends, making delicious foods and special sweets, giving presents and lighting the menorah” stays the same throughout any celebration.
The Menorah, also known as “chanukiah” or “Hanukkah”, is a candle holder with nine branches. Over the period of eight days, each night of Hanukkah, a new branch is lit. The ninth holder, the shamash, is specifically for a candle to sit that lights all other candle over the celebration period. To be kosher, the shamash must be held either higher or lower than the main candles.
Kwanzaa celebrates African and African American culture, history and community, taking place from December 26 to January 1. According to the online blog Why Christmas? that’s dedicated to discussing religious celebrations, the name comes from the phrase ‘matunda ya Kwanzaa’, meaning ‘first fruits’ in the Swahili language — an Eastern African language spoken in many countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Many celebrations are held every year in the USA, as well, during which a special candle holder called a “Kinara” is used.
Holding seven candles, Kinara holds three red ones on its left and three green on its right, but its centre holds a black candle. Each night during Kwanzaa, a candle is lit, with the black candle lit first, then alternating each night between red and green.
Although the sight of the Kinara is reminiscent of Hanukkah’s Menorah, the seven days of Kwanzaa represent the seven principles of the celebration. The blog lists them as such:
Umoja: Unity — Unity of the family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia: Self-Determination — Being responsible for your own conduct and behaviour.
Ujima: Collective work and responsibility — Working to Help each other and in the community.
Ujamaa: Cooperative economics — Working to build shops and businesses.
Nia: Purpose — Remembering and restoring African and African American cultures, customs and history.
Kuumba: Creativity — Using creating and your imagination to make communities better.
Imani: Faith — Believing in people, families, leaders, teachers and the righteousness of the African American struggle.
Turning our focus to sound, where did the tradition of knocking on your neighbours doors after dark and singing at them come from? Carols were allegedly sung in Europe for thousands of years, but they were anything but Christmas carols. Their carols were pagan songs, sung to celebrate the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year. Then, the Christians decided to take over solstice celebrations in order to celebrate Christmas, and trampled over the pagan songs with their own. Despite their attempt, many lost interest in Christmas and Christmas carolling until around 1200.
Then, in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi started to sing the songs again in Italy. Sometimes the words were in Latin, but often he sang so those around him could understand, be they French, Spanish or German. Moving along to 1410, songs were sung in order to entertain during the holidays instead of praise their religious icons. This continued until Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in 1647, aggressively trying to stop the celebration of Christmas and the singing of its carols.
Some carols survived, but the songs truly became popular again in the Victorian period, when the English wanted Christmas songs to sing again. Carolling became popular again and is now practiced internationally.
In Greece, you can hear Christmas carols throughout the season, but there are three official carolling days: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany. During the twelve days of Christmas (December 25 — January 6) fires are kept lighted so that goblins cannot enter a house by the chimney and play tricks on people, according to the online blogger Daria’s site, Daria Music. She also notes that, in modern Greece, you will see Christmas trees and boats lit up with fancy lights because Saint Nicolas is the Protector of sailors. Daria goes on to describe “Theofania” — a Christmas celebration that occurs on January 6, where all the waters are blessed. A cross is thrown into the water and the first to bring it back is supposed to have a lucky year. Instead of sleigh bells, you often hear the musical triangle used in Greece’s holiday music.
Ever hear the chorus “Feliz Navidad” played over the radio? The popularized song is originally from Puerto Rican composer and singer Jose Feliciano, and now plays internationally in both Spanish and English. “Feliz Navidad” practically translates into “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” and is allegedly one of the most downloaded and aired Christmas songs in Canada, with a serious spike during the holiday season.
Speaking of international carols, “Jingle Bells” is heard in almost three dozen languages around the world, including Turkish, Swedish, Romanian and Hawaiian. The song has an interesting background, its original purpose is to celebrate American Thanksgiving. James Lord Pierpont, an American, wrote the song in 1850 about snow, sleigh rides and celebrating the season. Pierpont was a minister and presented it to his church in time for November’s celebration, but the people were so taken with it that he performed it again at Christmas. If you look through the original lyrics closely, you’ll notice absolutely no references to anything specifically about the December holiday.
The original lyrics (Copyrighted by Pierpont in 1957):
Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the hills we go
Laughing all the way.
Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
Oh what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight.
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way!
O what joy it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.
A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upsot
A day or two ago
The story I must tell
I went out on the snow
And on my back I fell
A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh
He laughed as there I sprawling lie
But quickly drove away
Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young
Take the girls tonight
And sing this sleighing song
Just get a bobtailed bay
Two forty is his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! You’ll take the lead.