Look outside these days, and you’re likely to see at least a few classic symbols of the holidays, from twinkling trees to candy canes to a Santa stand-in at the local department store. But have you ever stopped and wondered how these things became seasonal staples, year after year? How did we come to decorate fir trees with ornaments and lights, and send friends and family fruitcakes from afar? Some holiday traditions have slightly uncertain roots, since they date back so far, but a few have rather fascinating stories of origin.
According to the book Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth, the association of peppermint with winter celebrations dates back to pagan times. But the book’s author, Dorothy Morrison, says it was an American candy maker who invented the candy cane we know today. She claims that the crooked design is meant to symbolize a J, for Jesus, and that the white and red stripes respectively represent the Immaculate Conception and the crucifixion. However, Snopes.com suggests that this common origins story is actually a myth, arguing that the candy cane showed up in Europe near the end of the seventeenth century and that its shape is meant to evoke a shepherd’s crook. The red color, Snopes says, was added sometime after 1900 and has no Christian meaning.
Department-Store Santa Claus
Thanks to the movie Miracle on 34th Street, the most famous in-store Santa is the one who holds court at New York City’s Macy’s each year. But the first man to don the red suit and beard had nothing to do with Macy’s. His name was James Edgar, and he owned his own store, Edgar’s Department Store, in Brockton, Massachusetts. He had a reputation as a hero to young kids in town because he would dress up in costumes and entertain them all year. But when he became Santa in 1890, he started a trend that lives on to this day.
There’s a sweet Mexican story about the use of poinsettias as holiday decorations (poinsettias grow naturally in Mexico). Legend has it that two young children, Maria and Pablo, wanted to bring a gift to the Christmas Eve church services in their town, but they had no money to buy one. On their way to church, an angel told them to gather weeds by the road and place them next to the manger. When they did that, the weeds became beautiful poinsettias. Beyond the legend, poinsettias were used more often in holiday celebrations in Mexico once Christianity spread to that country; the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico brought the plant over to the United States sometime later. It’s said that the red of the flowers symbolizes the crucifixion and that their star-like shapes are emblematic of the star of Bethlehem.
How did hanging a parasitic plant and kissing while standing underneath it become a holiday tradition? Well, there are many variations on the legend associated with mistletoe, but the story basically goes that a god named Baldur had a vision of his own death. He told his mom, Frigga, about it, and Frigga made all life on earth swear not to do Baldur any harm. But she neglected to get a promise from mistletoe. So Loki, a mischievous god, shot Baldur with mistletoe, and Baldur died. In some versions, he comes back to life and Frigga sheds grateful tears over the mistletoe, blessing it with good luck. In others, Frigga decides to hang the mistletoe and kiss everyone underneath it to show she has no ill will. In real life, mistletoe has been associated with magical properties, particularly when it comes to fertility, ever since the days of the Druids. The book Yule says that people used to hang it over doorways as protection from evil and lightning.
Fruitcake enjoyed a much more favorable reputation in ancient Rome, where it originated. It was a simpler recipe back then, involving only barley mash, pomegranate seeds, and nuts. By the Middle Ages, thanks to newly imported sugar, fruitcake was made with honey, preserved fruits, and various spices. The website What’s Cooking America says that fruitcakes were traditionally made at the end of a nut harvest and were eaten the following year in hopes of having another prosperous nut hall. Fruitcake became popular because it naturally preserves itself and supposedly gets better with time. That’s also why people will continue to send it to disappointed households around the world for holidays to come.
We can thank eighth-century Germans—specifically St. Boniface—for making the tree a part of holiday celebrations. It’s said that he, in an attempt to quell the people’s belief in gods, cut down Thor’s oak tree (the Oak at Geismar). He then discovered a fir tree growing in the roots of the fallen oak and declared it to be a new sacred symbol. Tree-trimming started around the 1500s; people used apples, nuts, cookies, and paper decorations.
It’s amazing to think that so many of our beloved traditions were enjoyed by revelers hundreds of years ago. Back then, people hung candy canes on fir tree branches and stood under the mistletoe at parties, just as we do today. It’s nice to think about the continuity of such traditions, and it’s comforting to know that future generations will experience the same magic. Except for the fruitcake, that is; let’s hope that they find a more delectable holiday dessert to rally around someday.