By Nichole Roell
Dating back hundreds of years in many ancient cultures, evergreens have symbolized regrowth and everlasting life. Germans are credited with the tradition we are familiar with today. Bringing small, decorated evergreen trees into the home became popular in the 1500s. In America, however, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols, and the tradition didn’t catch on until the 1890s. Americans took the tradition to new heights (literally) by using trees that stretched from floor to ceiling.
The special nine-branched menorah is one of the most recognized symbols of Hanukkah, a celebration of the re-dedication of the temple after revolting from the Seleucid monarchy. The Jewish people could only find enough ritually pure olive oil to light the temple menorah for one day, but miraculously the supply lasted eight days. Eight branches symbolize the eight days of celebration. One branch has a special place above or below the rest. Referred to as the shamash (servant, helper), the ninth candle is used to light the rest.
Crackers and Crowns
English Christmas traditions are full of surprises, including the Christmas Cracker, often presented at meals. This brightly colored paper tube usually holds various small trinkets, a joke or poem and a paper crown, and when pulled apart, releases with a loud “pop!” Why the crown? Wearing a crown on a special holiday dates back to Rome’s Saturnalia celebration, which usually occurred around December 25 and celebrated the deity Saturn.
The term “carol” was first used to describe a dance in which people held hands in a circle while dancing and singing. A non-religious event, it was done at all times of the year. By the 1600s, the term carol described the song rather than the dance. Carols were sung primarily around Christmastime and often told the story of the birth of Christ. Christians related carols to the belief that angels sang when they appeared to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in Bethlehem.
A true mystery among Christmas traditions is the Christmas Pickle. Often said to be a German tradition, a glass pickle-shaped ornament is hidden far inside the Christmas tree. The first one to find the ornament on Christmas morning gets a special present, or a year of good luck. The only problem is, most folks in Germany don’t practice this tradition, and many haven’t even heard of it. Regardless of its origin, the Christmas Pickle has become a popular tradition in America.
Stockings on the Mantel
Legend has it that St. Nick was worried about three sisters living on the edge of poverty. On Christmas Eve, he dropped three gold coins down the chimney to help them. Instead of landing in the hearth, they were caught by stockings that had been hung to dry. With that in mind, stockings have become a holiday staple for those hoping to receive a Christmas Eve surprise.