The origin of the word “Christmas”
“Christmas” is the word for the season. The word is just a combination of two words: “Christ” and “mass”. The “Christes maesse” was just the Old English religious celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Over time, the two words of “Christes maesse” merged into “Christmas”.
The origin of Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas
Santa the person actually did exist. “Saint Nicholas of Myra” was born in Turkey in the city of Patara somewhere around 280 AD. From an early age he was a dedicated Christian, and some sources say he was a monk or a bishop. Though he gave away money and presents as an anonymous benefactor, word somehow got out, and people loved him for his overly generous nature.
The fourth-century Romans, for some reason, didn’t like this. They held him in contempt of the Empire, and Nicholas was jailed and tortured. Emperor Constantine later freed Nicholas. Nicholas then gave away all his wealth and traveled Europe, giving help to the needy.
Saint Nicholas’ feast day is also the day of his death, December 6.
In 1087 AD, a delegation of well-meaning Italian sailors broke in to Nicholas’ tomb and stole its contents. From this tomb they took relics and other goodies, and moved them to Bari, Italy. They are there today in a building called “Basilica di San Nicola”, or the “Basilica of Saint Nicholas”:
Yes, kids, how’s that for morbid: you can actually visit the reliquary and tomb of Santa Claus. Even today, it’s a very popular pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims think that the incense additive myrrh is magically secreted by Santa’s relics. Those who are anointed by this myrrh supposedly experience wondrous miracles of healing.
In 1822, Clement Moore published a poem called “A visit from Saint Nicholas”. The title was later changed to “A night before Christmas”, and the image of the modern-day Santa – chubby, bearded, and dressed in furs of red and white – was complete
Why does Santa Claus climb down the chimney?
Originally, Saint Nicholas didn’t climb down the chimney, but this is where he threw his gifts. The gifts were originally not fragile, hand-made toys, but were instead cold, hard cash. Money.
In the areas where Saint Nicholas was popular – primarily Northern Europe and North America – it’s cold in the winter. Ice and snow are everywhere, and it’s dangerous or at least very uncomfortable to leave doors and windows open. Chimneys in Northern Europe appeared around the 12th century, and these were different than the skinny chimneys we have today. They were larger, wider, and often had a maintenance entrance at the top. The logic follows: if Santa can’t easily get in the doors or windows, the chimneys of the Middle Ages were a realistic option.
Why do we hang stockings above the fireplace?
This is explained by one of the most popular legends about Saint Nicholas: there once was a poor Dutch man who was father to three daughters. The man was so poor he was about to sell his daughters, where they would become slaves or prostitutes. Saint Nicholas was passing by the house and knew of the father’s problem. Wanting to remain anonymous, Nicholas threw money down the chimney. Some versions of the story say he threw three coins. Other versions say he threw three bags filled with coins. The father used this money as a dowry, and his daughters were married. Some versions of the story have the money fall down the chimney and land in the daughters stockings, which were hung by the fireplace to dry. Today, we hang our stockings by the chimney, in the hopes that Santa will give us the same types of gifts. Though every time I’ve checked my stocking, I’ve never found a bag of money. Maybe I should see what happens if I prostitute myself just before the holidays.
What’s the origin of the Christmas tree?
You might think that the purpose of a house is so you don’t have to live outside of it. The Christmas tree flips that rule on its head, as every year we invite foliage into our homes. The Christmas tree tradition originated in Germany, around the 16th century. Trees have often been a symbol of good luck. In Germany it was considered good luck to nail an evergreen tree to the highest point on a house. Inevitably, the tree was brought inside, and decorated. This good-luck tradition continued as Germans immigrated to America, and the modern Christmas tree was born. The tradition also got a push from Queen Victoria: her husband, the German native Prince Albert, brought the tradition to England. In 1848, Victoria’s family was featured in a publication called “Illustrated News”. This showed an etching of the royal family with their Christmas tree in Windsor castle. In part from this, the Christmas tree became very popular in England.
What is eggnog? Why is eggnog? What possible reason do we have for eggnog?
Eggnog has experienced two major incarnations. One started in the 17th century with a special British ale called “nog”. It was made from beer and egg yolks, and was spiced with sugar, cinnamon and lemon rinds. The drink was perfected and named “eggnog” in 19th-century America, where Americans essentially took the same drink, but removed the beer and added stronger alcohol like rum and brandy.
I used to grow confused at the prevalence of eggnog around the holidays, as it seems to have no connection to any other tradition. But then I realized: alcohol is itself reason enough.
Mistletoe: the original pop-culture herbal remedy
Mistletoe has very ancient origins. It was thought to have magical healing properties, and could cure poisoning and infertility. Around 200 BC, Druid priests used mistletoe in celebrating the winter solstice. In addition to its magical properties, it was considered special because live mistletoe remains green through most of the winter season.
The kissing-under-the-mistletoe tradition probably came from Scandinavia’s Norse mythology. Mistletoe was associated with Frigg, the Norse goddess of love, the wife of Odin and the mother of Thor. As the tradition goes, a girl stands under the mistletoe. A boy would then walk up, pick a berry from the plant and give the girl a kiss. When the berries are all picked, the kissing stops. Those who performed the smooching were said to receive good luck over the following year.