Festive traditions such as sending cards, decorating a tree and exchanging gifts weren’t dreamed up by retailers to increase sales.
In fact, they have ancient legends attached to them that have been buried under the mountains of expensive wrapping paper along the way.
Here are the meanings behind them.
Santa’s name comes from the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ and is based on St Nicholas – a Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century AD.
He was very shy and wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing about it. It’s said that one day, he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney – it landed in a stocking a girl had hung by the fire to dry.
The white-bearded chap of generous proportions dressed in a red jacket and pompom-topped hat usually arrives the night before Christmas in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer. In 1925, newspapers revealed that Santa actually lives in Finnish Lapland as it would be impossible for reindeer to graze at the North Pole.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen have made a well-planned navigational route with Santa on Christmas Eve for years, and were popularised by Clement C Moore in his 1822 poem, A Visit from St Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas).
The ancient Druids believed that shiny-leaved holly stayed green to keep the earth beautiful when the sacred oak lost its leaves. They wore sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch their priests cut the sacred mistletoe.
Holly was also considered the plant of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, and was used at the Saturnalia festival to honour him. Romans gave each other holly wreaths, carried them about and decorated images of Saturn with it.
Centuries later, in December, while other Romans continued their pagan worship, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. To avoid persecution, they embellished their homes with Saturnalia holly.
Other legends tell that holly frightens off witches and protects a home from thunder and lightning. Placing springs of holly around a young girl’s bed on Christmas Eve was thought to keep away mischievous goblins.
Long ago, Druid priests used mistletoe in their sacrifices to the gods, while Celtics thought it possessed miraculous healing powers; it not only cured disease but could also render poisons harmless, keep people safe from witchcraft, provide protection from ghosts and even make ghosts speak. A sprig of mistletoe placed in a baby’s cradle was said to ward off fairies.
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is linked to pagan fertility rituals but may also be connected to the practice of hanging mistletoe over the doorway as a symbol of peace. Today, some of the superstitious among us believe that a young lady is standing under a ball of mistletoe should not refuse to be kissed, as a peck delivered in such circumstances could lead to a serious romance or lasting friendship and goodwill.
Christmas gifts are a reminder of the birth of Christ or God’s gift to humanity.
According to the Christian faith, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, three kings came to worship him in the manger and brought him treasured gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Even those without the kings’ wealth of riches gave whatever they could honour the baby; the shepherds offered him fruit and small toys they had made themselves.
Long before the tree became part of Christmas celebrations, it was a symbol of hope and joy. The early Egyptians held evergreens in high regard, and when the winter solstice arrived, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolise the triumph of life over death.
The ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the Saturnalia festival, for which trees were decorated with trinkets and candles. They decorated their houses with lights, and exchanged gifts, giving coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness and lamps to light the journey through life.
Yet another legend tells of a poor woodsman who was returning home on Christmas Eve when he found a child who was lost and hungry, and gave them food and shelter for the night. The next morning, he found a beautiful glittering tree outside his door: the hungry child was really the Christ child in disguise, and had created the tree to reward the good man for his charity.
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