During the past few weeks we here at Shoebacca have been talking about holiday traditions from pumpkin carving to turkey trots to fun family winter activities. Christmas is steeped in traditions possibly more than any other national holiday.
We put up lights and hang stockings by the fire. We make gingerbread houses and go caroling. Children write letters to Santa Claus and take pictures with him. But where do these activities come from? And what is Christmas like in other countries?
Here in the United States, Santa Claus is accompanied by elves and Mrs. Claus who work together to bring nice things to good children. Santa is not always accompanied by such nice companions in other parts of the world.
Krampus is the “Christmas Devil” in Alpine Folklore. He helps Santa punish bad children and takes them away to his lair for a good spanking (coal isn’t so bad anymore now is it?) The Yule Lads of Icelandic tradition come one by one each night (13 total) before Christmas and scare bad little children and generally cause mischief. In the French legend of Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas rescues 3 boys from a butcher who wanted to eat them. The butcher became Père Fouettard whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children.
Many countries around the world, such as Russia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, don’t even celebrate Christmas in December! They celebrate at the beginning of the year on January 7th. The Orthodox Church follows the old Julian calendar.
A lot of our traditions actually come from celebrations associated with St. Nicholas' Day. Which is fitting because our modern day Santa Claus is based loosely on St. Nicholas and his concern for children and gift-giving tendencies.
A great example of a borrowed tradition is stockings. In Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes by the chimney. The shoes are filled with carrots or hay for St. Nicholas' horse (because the original Saint presumably didn’t have flying reindeer) and the next day they find small presents in their shoes. This probably inspired our stockings hung by the chimney with care. In Brazil where Christmas is too hot to have a fire they hang socks out the window in hopes that Papai Noel will exchange it for a present. I now know what to do with my odd socks - the ones the dryer didn’t eat.
A traditional that seems to be pocketed in the US is the Christmas Pickle. It’s prevalent in certain nooks of the country, but doesn’t seem to be national! Anyway, a pickle-shaped ornament is hidden in the boughs of one’s Christmas tree. The person who finds the pickle will be destined to have good luck in the coming year! Others practice the tradition by giving the finder a prize. We always played on Christmas as part of the holiday revelries. Many people claimed this tradition came from Germany (which I always believed since my family is German), but it turns out it’s a purely American tradition!
Caroling is often referred to wassailing. We travel from door to door singing songs of joy sometimes getting hot chocolate or cider in return. But the original wassailing involved the less fortunate demanding food and drink from wealthier citizens in exchange for toasting their good health. A traditional carol that dates to the 1800s is A’soalin, illustrating the door-to-dor singing in exchange for food - this instance a soul cake. Listen to the cover by Peter, Paul, & Mary below. These proceeding would get rowdy and sometimes violent if the demands were denied.
In fact due to some extra rowdy wassailing the city of Boston actually banned Christmas celebrations from 1659 to 1681. Boston was able to ban Christmas festivities because Christmas was not a National Holiday until 1870, but only applied to federal employees in Washington DC. It wasn’t until a century later that it truly became a national Federal holiday.
Regardless of how you celebrate Christmas (or if you celebrate Christmas at all), this is the season to celebrate friends, family, and people of all creeds. Enjoy your holidays and explore their history. Discover new traditions and keep dear the ones you know. And remember - there’s no better excuse to buy a new pair of shoes.