In the past few months over at This Week in History, we’ve taken a look at the origins of several holidays that are now commonplace on the calendar. Since the winter holidays do not all fall during the same week, we’ve decided to feature a This Week in History spin-off where we can deep dive into the origins of the December holidays and their traditions that we forget were not so traditional long ago.
If you think about it, several holiday traditions are a little odd to anyone who did not grow up with them. Take Christmas for example: isn’t it a little weird that we cut down trees from the outside, bring them indoors and cover them with decorations; or how about waiting for an old man who’s been watching us all year to break into our homes just to leave presents for those he deems “nice.”
I love the holidays just as much as the next person, but you do have to wonder where these traditions come from. So let’s dive in!
The Christmas Tree
The staple decoration of the holiday season has roots much deeper in history than Christmas itself. Interestingly enough, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the event which Christians celebrate on Christmas most likely occurred in the springtime, scientists and historians believe. However, the Catholic Church chose December for the Christmas celebration because ancient Romans, Egyptians and Germanic groups all observed pagan holidays around the winter solstice, which typically occurs on Dec. 20 or 21. On this day, people would usually kill cattle so they did not need to be fed over the winter, resulting in a large chaotic feast similar to Mardi Gras festivals we’d see in New Orleans today.
Rather than completely banning the practice of non-Christian holidays, the Church placed Christian holidays on top of pagan holidays so the Church could control the celebration and bring more people into the faith.
That being said, evergreen trees and shrubs played a tremendous role in pagan holidays on all sides of the Mediterranean Sea, serving as a reminder that despite the cold of winter, spring would come again and bring green. Putting evergreen branches above doorways and archways was a common practice throughout much of the ancient world.
The tree, however, came out of Germany, with cookies and apples being hung on its branches as treats for the household members to enjoy on Christmas Day. German immigrants in the United States were the first Americans to decorate a Christmas tree, though they lived in isolated pockets of the Midwest, being largely ignored by the rest of American society. All changed when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German royal, who brought the tradition of the Christmas tree to Buckingham Palace.
All fashionable members of British society had to have a Christmas tree, and subsequently every family in the English-speaking world. Canadians, Australians and Americans (despite their break from the British Empire less than a century prior) soon adopted the Christmas tree as a holiday staple, with decorations evolving as technology did.
The Hanukkah Menorah and Dreidel
Many people have the misconception that Hanukkah is the “Jewish Christmas.” In reality, many of the traditions we’ve come to learn about Hanukkah actually came in response to the commercialization and popularization of Christmas. The menorah itself was actually an item previously used in Jewish customs and practices dating back to the time of Moses, however, having seven branches rather than the nine branches used on a Hanukkah menorah.
The dreidel as well, sometimes marketed as a toy young children used to learn Hebrew while living under foreign powers in ancient times, actually traces its roots to the English top. The English, who we know had close ties to the Germans shared this custom, and German and Eastern European Jews rewrote the letters in Hebrew and Yiddish so their children could understand and play along. Though not necessarily played at Hanukkah, the dreidel was tied to the holiday to appease Jewish children as Santa Claus was becoming popular for Christmas.
Champagne on New Year’s Eve
Another tradition made popular by the royal families of Europe, champagne was the drink of choice by aristocrats who could afford to drink it, particularly the French — where the drink originates. While the likes of King Louis XIV could drink the bubbly all day, winemakers did not know how to bottle the carbonation and had to do so on-site.
By the mid-19th century, wine sellers developed thicker bottles to withstand the pressure of the bubbles, with a stronger cork “popping” when the beverage was opened. Thus, the price of champagne plummeted. Anybody could drink like a king, and New Year’s Eve was the perfect time to do so to bring good omens of fortune and success in the new year.
While this brief list does not begin to cover every tradition of the holiday season (and every holiday), I hope it gives you a chance to take a second look at the many curious customs we embark on every holiday season. Happy holidays and cheers to 2022!