Have you ever wondered why it became such a common tradition for Christians to bring a tree into their homes for Christmas? Or why certain plants like holly and mistletoe are often used as Christmas decorations? As it turns out, there is a rich history behind many of the Christmas traditions that seem so common to us now.
St. Boniface traveled to Germany from England in the eighth century to try and convert the pagans that lived there. He discovered that many of the people there were open to his message of Christ’s salvation, but still insisted on worshipping their pagan gods, including an oak tree that they considered to be sacred. Boniface was uncertain about how he could convince the people that the tree was not a god; finally, he decided to cut the tree down. The people were angered by this, so he gave them a young evergreen tree instead. Unlike the oak tree which lost its leaves each year, the evergreen tree kept its green needles all year around. Therefore, the evergreen tree is richly symbolic of the everlasting life that Christ offers us.
Holly, ivy, and mistletoe are often used as decorative ornaments for Christmas. So how did these traditions originate? Holly has been used for hundreds of years for making wreaths and for decorating tables and mantelpieces. The sharp, thorny edges of holly leaves are a reminder of the crown of thorns that was placed on Christ’s head, and the red berries symbolize drops of his blood. Ivy was once used by pagan religions to form crowns that were placed on the statues of pagan gods, but has since been adopted by Christians for use in wreaths and ornaments, with the white berries of some varieties of ivy representing purity and innocence. Before Christianity arrived in Ireland, mistletoe was once used by Celtic Druids (pagan priests) in their ceremonies. It was eventually adopted by Christians to decorate their homes and to act as a symbol of marriage. This is how the custom of kissing a person standing under the mistletoe began.
The earliest forms of Christmas cards date back to the fifteenth century, when sheets of paper were used to print the Christmas story on. The first Christmas cards to appear as we know them today were made by Henry Cole in England in 1843. The cards featured scenes of Christians doing acts of charity, and said “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to you.” In the U.S., Louis Prang of Boston was one of the first to produce Christmas cards in 1875, and they proved to be very successful. Today, over two billion Christmas cards are mailed in the U.S. each year.
The exact date of Christ’s birth was not known by the early church, but one of its earliest traditions is that the Annunciation of Mary (when the Archangel Gabriel appears to her with the news of her motherhood of God) happened on March 25th. It is believed that since December 25th is exactly nine months later, the church decided that this would be the appropriate date of Christ’s birth. Another possible reason why this date was chosen was that in Rome during this time, the pagans celebrated December 25th as the birth of the sun (the winter solstice) with a large feast. As a way to persuade the pagans to become Christian, the Christians decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th as well. This was also very appropriate since Christ was prophesied in Malachi 4:2 as the “sun of righteousness”: “But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall.”
The Christmas traditions that we often take for granted do indeed have a rich history grounded in the traditions of many different peoples and cultures. As the Lord of history and the Savior of all mankind, Christ has and continues to transcend, enrich, and fulfil our earthly traditions and lives with his salvific grace.
Sources: Celebrating Christmas by Rev. Jude Winkler, OFM Conv.; “Why is Christmas Day on the 25th December?”; “Christmas”