Traditions old and new

Many of our favorite holiday traditions have Pagan as well as Christian origins and some are not nearly as old as we might think. For example, did you know that the original Puritan Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas at all when our nation was just starting? The settlers in the South were more liberal and celebrated Christmas in more festive ways, including adding greenery, mistletoe, and a variety of observances that went on without a letup from December 15 to January 6. Christmas itself was not December 25, but January 5, according to the old church calendar; it was not until about 1750 that the date was changed to the present one. Gift-giving did not gain popularity until the 1800’s.

Many traditions surrounding the gift giving and Santa Claus did not gain popularity in the U.S. until the late 1800’s and as the legend blossomed more elements were added and changed with the times.

A new tradition has recently caught on and is becoming quite popular with families with young children.

The Elf on the Shelf

The Elf on a Shelf started in 2005 when the mother daughter team of Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, self published a children’s book called, “Elf on the Shelf”. It quickly became a best seller and the products and book spread across the nation. Every day from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, each family’s scout elf watches over the children and then at night, once everyone goes to bed, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report back to Santa about what activities, good and bad, took place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the scout elf flies back from the North Pole and hides. By hiding in a new spot each morning around the house, the scout elf and the family play an on-going game of hide and seek. Although families aren’t supposed to touch their scout elf, they can talk to it and tell it all their Christmas wishes so it can report back to Santa accurately.

Some parents report that the ritual of moving the elf each day and anticipation from the children motivate good behavior and self policing by the children as well as another layer to the Christmas traditions.

Christmas Stockings

While there are no written records of the origin of the Christmas stocking, there are popular legends that attempt to tell the history of this Christmas tradition. One such legend has several variations, but the following is a good example: Very long ago, there lived a poor man and his three very beautiful daughters. He had no money to get his daughters married and he was worried about what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas was passing through when he heard the villagers talking about the girls. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but knew that the old man wouldn’t accept charity. He decided to help in secret. He waited until it was night and crept through the chimney. He had three bags of gold coins with him, one for each girl. As he was looking for a place to keep those three bags, he noticed stockings of the three girls that were hung over the mantelpiece for drying. He put one bag in each stocking and off he went. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they found the bags of gold coins and were of course, overjoyed. The girls were able to get married and live happily ever after. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Various gifts, candy, toys and other items became popular in Northern European countries and the traditions were brought to the United States as people emigrated. Today, stores carry a large variety of styles and sizes of Christmas stockings, and Christmas stockings are also a popular homemade craft. Many families create their own Christmas stockings with each family member’s name applied to the stocking so that Santa will know which stocking belongs to which family member.

In my family we had different stockings through the years and even one for our dog, Honey. She loved Christmas, especially when she would get a can of tennis balls and some beef jerky.

Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of my own families favorite traditions. According to my mother we began this tradition the year I was born. She had been told to stay in bed for the last few months while she was carrying me and so to stave off boredom she started making all 72 characters from the song in fabric and hand sculpted Christmas ornaments. By my first Christmas she had a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, six geese a laying, seven swans a swimming, eight maids a milking, nine ladies dancing, ten lords a leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming!! They filled a full sized tree top to bottom and we had to scramble to get them on the tree when each verse of the song came up.

Later we had big parties at the beginning of December and invited friends and family over to join in the tree trimming and singing this song. Last year my mom passed on those decorations to me so that I can start my own traditions.

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting Christmas day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas and lasts until the evening of the fifth of January, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.

Although the specific origins of the chant are not known, it possibly began as a “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who made a mistake having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a candy. In addition to written lyrics the music grew in popularity in France and England during the late 1700’s.

Some of my favorite Twelve Days of Christmas traditions are the comedy renditions of that chaotic song, especially the Muppets version. It would be a pretty bland Christmas without at least one Muppet show to embellish the traditions. The Holiday Season can include many traditions, Christian, Pagan, Jewish, or even Secular characters and traditions like Santa Clause and his reindeer. The most important elements in any tradition are to surround yourself with people you love and enjoy spending time with.

Holly Matthews, Life Writer alwayssunnyholly@gmail.com

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