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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Origins of Our Christmas Traditions

Understanding why people behave as they do is always a fascination. People go through the traditions of our holidays, go to church, spend money, do what is expected, celebrate however their family's have always celebrated, and rarely stop to question 'why?'

The origins of the the candy cane, the Christmas tree,  Christmas carols, Christmas cards and our beloved Rudolph tale are explained below.
And of course I had to include the letter from Virginia Wolf asking the editor of "The Sun" if there really was a Santa Claus. What a wonderful explanation which clears up doubts we all may have had. As Francis P. Church said, "The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see".

The history of the candy cane can be traced back to Germany. In 1670, the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral was said to have bent straight white candy canes into the now-familiar "J" shape to represent a shepherd's staff. He then gave them to children in the choir to keep them happy during long Christmas services. The custom soon spread throughout Europe.

Later, candy canes came to America. A German immigrant by the name of August Imgard was the first person to decorate his Christmas tree with candy canes, back in 1847. Prior to 1900, Christmas cards only showed all-white candy canes. Around that same time, it is said that candy makers started adding peppermint flavors to the candy canes.

This is one version of the Christian candy cane story:
A candymaker in Indiana wanted to make a candy for Christmas that incorporated symbols from the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.

He began with a stick of pure white candy to symbolize the virgin birth and the purity of Jesus. He then shaped it in the form of a "J" to represent the name of Jesus and the staff of the "Good Shepherd." Finally, he added red stripes to symbolize Jesus' blood and suffering on the cross.

The candymaker hoped that each time someone ate his creation they would be reminded of Jesus and the great love God gave us at Christmas.

The story of the Indiana candymaker has been widely circulated and retold, while other stories suggest the candy cane was created long ago as a secret symbol that would allow persecuted Christians to identify one another. Neither version fits the timeline of historical records. The German choirmaster who is credited with turning the usual straight candy sticks into staff-shaped sweets lived in the late 17th century, long after most of Europe had become Christian, and well before Indiana became a state or candy canes came to America. Also, historical records from various parts of the world show the canes were all-white until the early 1900s.

Our beloved Christmas tree traditions are part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. With the arrival of the winter solstice, people brought evergreens native to their area into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death. These included palm leaves, mistletoe, holly, and of course the evergreen tree branches of which we are familiar.

Our modern Christmas tree evolved from the Germans and Scandinavians during the Middle Ages. Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. Around 1500, it is said that being in awe of the beauty of snow dusted evergreens in the woods, he brought a little fir tree indoors, lit it with candles, and used the symbolism to tell the story of Christ's birth.

The arrival of the Christmas tree to the United States most likely began either with Hessian troops during the American Revolution or with German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Puritans didn't approve of the custom, therefore in New England the tradition spread very slowly.

An actual market for Christmas trees was born in 1851 with the brainstorm of a Mark Carr. He hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York City and ended up selling all of them. Within 50 years, one in five American families had a tree at Christmastime, and today the custom is nearly universal.

Interesting is the fact that farms dedicated solely to raising Christmas trees started during the Great Depression. People didn't have money to spend on landscaping, therefore nurserymen began to focus on the care of evergreens and prune them into the preferred symmetrical shape of the Christmas tree. Only six species make up the majority of the nation's Christmas tree trade. Scotch Pine ranks first, followed by the Douglas Fir, Balsam Fir, Spruces and White Pine.

Most of us know by heart at least a few Christmas songs, and have heard many others, both secular and religious. During the 12th century, St. Francis of Assisi wanted to teach people about the birth of Jesus Christ, and did so by adding religious lyrics to well-known tunes. Many carols were written in Germany during the 14th century.

One of the more well-known hymn today is "Silent Night" which was written in Austria in 1818. Supposedly, on Christmas Eve, Father Joseph Mohr, the pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, solved the dilemma of a broken organ by taking a poem and giving it a melody.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” comes from England and was written sometime in the 15th century. It was one of the most popular carols for centuries, finally published around 1833.

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first commercial Christmas cards in London. The cards were illustrated by John Callcott Horsley with a picture of a family drinking wine and sold for one penny each. Although his design choice was criticized for promoting the "moral corruption" of children, Cole's idea spawned the beginnings of one of the most important holiday traditions.

One interesting aspect of the early history of Christmas cards is that you seldom saw illustrations that depicted snow, Christmas trees, or winter themes. Instead, people preferred to send cards with pictures of flowers, fairies, and lighthearted landscapes that would remind the recipient that Spring would soon be approaching.

 In 1875, Louis Prang became the first printer to offer commercial Christmas cards in the United States. The cards were very successful and quickly spawned a number of cheap imitations that ultimately led to the demise of his business. You can see a sample of cards from this time period by browsing through the gallery on the Emotions Cards Web site.


A man named Bob May, depressed and broken-hearted, stared out his drafty apartment window into the chilling December night. His four-year-old daughter Barbara sat on his lap quietly sobbing.
Bobs wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer. Little Barbara couldn't understand why her mummy could never come home.

Barbara looked up into her dad's eyes and asked, "Why isn't Mummy just like everybody else's Mummy?" Bob's jaw tightened and his eyes welled with tears. Her question brought waves of grief, but also of anger.

It had been the story of Bob's life. Life always had to be different for Bob. Small when he was a kid, Bob was often bullied by other boys. He was too little at the time to compete in sports. He was often called names he'd rather not remember. From childhood, Bob was different and never seemed to fit in.

Bob did complete college, married his loving wife and was grateful to get his job as a copywriter at Montgomery Ward during the Great Depression. Then he was blessed with his little girl. But it was all short-lived. Evelyn's bout with cancer stripped them of all their savings and now Bob and his daughter were forced to live in a two-room apartment in the Chicago slums.

Evelyn died just days before Christmas in 1938. Bob struggled to give hope to his child, for whom he couldn't even afford to buy a Christmas gift. But if he couldn't buy a gift, he was determined to make one - a storybook!

Bob had created a character in his own mind and told the animal's story to little Barbara to give her comfort and hope. Again and again Bob told the story, embellishing it more with each telling.

The story Bob May created was his own autobiography in fable form. The character he created was a misfit outcast like he was. A little reindeer named Rudolph, with a big shiny nose.

Bob finished the book just in time to give it to his little girl on Christmas Day. But the story doesn't end there. The general manager of Montgomery Ward caught wind of the little storybook and offered Bob May a nominal fee to purchase the rights to print the book.

Wards went on to print, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and distribute it to children visiting Santa Claus in their stores. By 1946 Wards had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph. That same year, a major publisher wanted to purchase the rights from Wards to print an updated version of the book. In an unprecedented gesture of kindness, the CEO of Wards returned all rights back to Bob May. The book became a best seller.

Many toy and marketing deals followed and Bob May, now remarried with a growing family, became wealthy from the story he created to comfort his grieving daughter.
Bob's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, made a song adaptation to Rudolph.
Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of "White Christmas."

 Bob May learned the lesson, just like his dear friend Rudolph, that being different isn't so bad.
In fact, being different can be a blessing.


 Francis P. Church’s editorial, “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” was an immediate sensation, and went on to became one of the most famous editorials ever written. It first appeared in the The New York Sun in 1897, almost a hundred years ago, and was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.
Dear Editor—
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
"Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."