Legends, Folklores, And Myths Behind Christmas Traditions

You decide what is fact or fiction or myth when the mysteries behind the Christams traditions unfold. Rudolph, Santa, and more all have a story to tell.

When you think of Christmas, do you wonder about the folklore behind the symbols of the season? Is the candy cane just a delicious treat, or is there a legend lying beneath the candy coated sweetness? What about the Twelve Days of Christmas and mistletoe -what myths could possibly live beneath the surface? Uncover the mysteries about the Christmas traditions, you have been celebrating for years.

Many of the stories being retold come from the middle ages, Egyptian, Roman, pagan and Christian backgrounds. Some of these legends are viewed, by some, as false claims. Depending upon your beliefs, you may see the truth in these stories or you may doubt their authenticity. There is one rumor, however, that can be dispelled, and that is the idea of the disrespectfulness of the word X-mas. This is a perfectly legitimate usage and does not at all mean that Christ was taken out of Christmas. Chi is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. In the modern Roman alphabet, Chi is represented by a symbol similar to "X". Therefore using the letter "X" and in place of Christ is not at all disrespectful, but simply another way (language, if you will) of saying the same thing.

Speaking of different languages, Santa Claus, perhaps the biggest secular symbol of the season, is known in many languages. Take a look at what he is called all over the world:

Sinter Klaas Dutch

Father Christmas England

Santa Claus United States & Canada

Pere Noel France

Papa Noel Brazil and Peru

Christindl (Christ Child) Germany

Babbo Natal or Belfano Italy

St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, is the cornerstone of the Santa Claus tradition. He was born in Patara, Asia Minor and was said to have traveled to Egypt and other places as well. He befriended children and visited their homes leaving gifts. He did this late at night, so he would remain anonymous. The feast of little Christmas is celebrated on December 6th and in some countries, that day is "Christmas Day." The legend of the Christmas stocking is also linked with St. Nicholas. The story goes as such: a poor man had no money to give his three daughters for their wedding. The girls left their stockings by the fire to dry and St. Nicholas dropped three bags of gold in their stockings. Children all over the world hang stockings by the fireplace, in hopes that St. Nicholas or Santa Claus might stop by.

Perhaps the second biggest phenomena of the holiday season is the Christmas tree. This tradition dates back to the days of the Egyptians, Romans, and Druids. On the shortest day of December, the Egyptians would bring green palms into their homes. This was to symbolize life's triumph over death. The Romans would also adorn their house with evergreens during Saturnalia. This was a festival in honor of their god of agriculture, Saturnus. The Druids decorated an oak tree with golden apples and during the middle ages, the paradise tree was a evergreen decorated with red apples. This was done on December 24th, which was the feast of Adam and Eve. Approaching more modern times, in the 16th Century, the first Christmas tree (as we know it) came into existence. In Strasbourg, Germany, the evergreen trees were decorated with colored paper, fruits, and sweets. It is during this time period that we attribute the first Christmas tree "lot," where trees were sold. It is said that older women would sell the trees that were harvested from the local forests. The tradition of the Christmas tree and "lot" were brought to America by the first German settlers and the Hessian mercenaries, paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. The first American Christmas tree "lot" was set up in New York. In 1851 trees were hauled from the Catskills and brought to the cities, where they were sold during the holiday season.

Fun Christmas Tree Facts:

Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States was the first president to bring the tradition of the Christmas tree to the White House.

Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree lighting in 1923.

"Oh by gosh by golly, it's time for mistletoe and holly...." Mistletoe, known to us today as the plant you get kissed under, has its roots dating back to the middle ages. During this time, it was hung in homes to ward off evil spirits. The Druids thought of mistletoe as sacred, having magical healing powers. During the Greek festival of Saturnalia, kissing under the mistletoe was thought to strengthen powers of fertility. It was also believed that mistletoe could help end animosity between enemies. The Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a 'peace' plant, in that it caused truces between foes and helped husbands and wives kiss and make up.

What would Santa be without his reindeer, especially the most famous reindeer of all? The story of Rudolph was written in 1939, by Robert May, an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward in Chicago. May was given the task of designing a promotional that would be distributed by Santa to customers. He wrote the story of Rudolph, in rhyming couplets, which he read to his daughter. He grappled with the name, thinking Reginald sounded too British and Rollo too comical. He decided on Rudolph, which was the preference of his four year old daughter. He got the idea of this reindeer being picked on by its herd from the story of the Ugly Duckling. An artist friend of May's, Denver Gillen, after observing reindeer at rest and at play at the local zoo, created the character we know and love today.

This story of Rudolph, which varies from the legendary song, was printed and 2.4 million copies were distributed to customers. In January of 1947, May gained the copyright to Rudolph, which was originally held by Montgomery Ward and it was printed commercially that year. In 1948, a nine minute cartoon was run in theaters. A year latter, May's brother in law and songwriter Johnny Marks developed the lyrics and melody for the hit song. Many singers declined the opportunity to record Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Finally, Gene Autry recorded the song in 1949. Two million copies sold, coming in second only to White Christmas, by Bing Crosby. This lead the way to the ever popular TV special narrated by Burl Ives in 1964, making Rudolph the world's most famous reindeer of all.

Variations of Song and Original Story of Rudolph

His nose was discovered by accident when Santa was making his delivery of presents to Rudolph's house.

He was not one of Santa's original reindeer, nor did he live at the North Pole.

He was not an offspring of one of Santa's reindeer.

Santa says to Rudolph in the book, "By YOU last night's journey was actually bossed. Without you, I'm certain we'd all have been lost."

Exiting the secular traditions of Christmas, the candy cane is said to have its roots in Christianity. Although these accounts have been disputed, the legend continues to be passed along and you can decide whether it is fact or fiction. In the late 18th century, Christians could no longer recognize each other because religious symbols had been banned from public display. In England, a Christian candy maker invented a way for members of the Christian community to recognize each other. He is said to have shaped the candy in the form of a shepherds staff. This is to symbolize that God in Heaven is the "Good Shepherd." He used white candy, which was chosen because it represents purity. On the staff, he than placed three small red stripes. These are said to represent the presence of the Trinity. A bold red stripe was placed throughout the candy representing the blood of Christ and its redeeming power. Another variation on the story is that the candy cane is in the shape of a "J" to represent the name of Jesus. Others say it was made as a treat to give to children for behaving during church services. The significance of these stories and whether it is believed to be true or false will lie in your personal beliefs.

Another legend linked to Christianity is the popular Christmas carol, "The Twelve Days Of Christmas." It is said that during the period from 1558 to about 1829, this carol was used as a way for Catholics in England to teach their faith to their children. Again, depending on your particular beliefs, there may be a variation to what you have learned. Here are the representations behind the symbols:

A Partridge = Christ.

Two Turtle Doves = Mary and Joseph at the birth of Jesus Or Old and New Testament.

Three French Hens = The Gifts of the Magi Or Faith, Hope, And Charity.

Four Calling Birds = Four Evangelists; Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John.

Five Golden Rings = The First Five Books Of The Old Testament.

Six Geese = Six Days Of Human Labor Or Six Days of Creation.

Seven Swans = Seven Gifts (sacraments) Of The Holy Spirit.

Eight Maids = Eight Beatitudes.

Nine Ladies = Fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Ten Lords = Ten Commandments.

Eleven Pipers = Eleven Faithful Apostles.

Twelve Drummers = Articles of the Apostles' Creed.

Dating back to the Victorian Days, we find the origin of the Christmas card. Sir Henry Cole and John Horsley invented a card that displayed three panels. On these panels, several pictures are drawn. On the middle panel there is a depiction of a family at a festive table scene. The side two panels show an act of Christmas charity, such as clothing the poor. At the bottom of the card was written "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year." Perhaps this origin dates back even a bit further with something known as "Christmas Pieces." Young British boys away from there family, while at school, wrote home to greet their parents, but more importantly to show them how their writing was progressing. Today, Christmas cards are sent as a token of holiday affection and greetings.

Depending upon how superstitious you are, the custom of lighting a yule log may seem more like a Halloween legend than a Christmas one. Traditionally, a yule log is brought home from either one's own yard or that of a neighbor: it is never bought at a store. It is placed in the hearth, where it is lit by the scrap of last year's yule log. This scrap will have been carefully preserved under the bed of the owner to keep the house safe from fire and lightning.

The lighting of the log must be achieved in the first attempt or it is a sign of misfortune coming to the family. It must never be done with dirty hands, as this is a sign of disrespect. The embers must be kept lit for twelve hours and cannot be tended to while eating Christmas Eve dinner. After the feast, the family sits around the fire telling ghost stories, while watching for shadows on the wall. If a headless shadow is seen, it is said to foretell the death of the person casting the shadow. This death will befall this person within one year. Today, people usually choose to use a fake yule log for decoration during the holiday season, although with the stigma attached to the legend of the yule log it is a practice that is waning.

There are many folk lores behind the traditions of Christmas. In today's hustle and bustle world and with the materialism of Christmas becoming more and more commonplace, it is nice to know the meanings behind the traditions we celebrate. Depending on your personal beliefs and religious background, each tradition may hold a different meaning for each individual. Whatever you choose to believe, have a "holly, jolly Christmas" at this most wonderful time of the year!

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