Christmas Traditions: Christmas Cards (1843)

The very first Christmas card. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is last in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. The source is the Time magazine article linked below.

The Victoria Era saw many inventions, but for Christmas traditions, one of the most impactful was likely the Penny Post, which allowed people in England to send correspondence anywhere in the country for only a penny. This led to an influx of letter writing, and since social mores dictated that all mail must be answered, letter writing took up an increasing amount of time. Faced with a mountain of correspondence, a man named Henry Cole had an artist friend design a picture that could be printed on cardboard, quickly personalized, and sent through the mail. Within a few years, others were copying his idea, and by 1875, Christmas cards were being created in America as well. Check out this Time magazine article for more.

Do you still send Christmas cards? What’s the most memorable one you ever received?

I have to admit I don’t, not for years now. I do display a few cards each year. My favorite is one my parents gave me when I was maybe 10 that was “from” our dachshund, Gretchen. It has a picture if a dachshund in a Santa hat on the front and says “Merry Christmas from one of Santa’s little yelpers” on the inside. My dad put her paw print on it and signed her name.

This is my last post before Christmas, so Merry whatever you celebrate and if I don’t blog before then, Happy New Year, too!

Christmas Traditions: Advent Calendars (1800s)

This is the advent calendar-type graphic we made to advertise Tangled Lights and Silent Nights.

This is eleventh in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

Believe it or not, Advent didn’t always exist in the Christian church.

It slowly evolved as the Church took shape and Christianity became legal. The earliest echoes are from fourth century Francem when the Church began to use the period before Epiphany as a time of preparation for Baptism. It was called “St. Martin’s Lent” for the 40 days that started on November 11, feast of St. Martin of Tours. Advent as we know it today began about 300 years later in Rome. Pope Gregory I composed many of the prayers, antiphons, and psalm responses.

Advent calendars began as a simple way to countdown to Christmas. In the 1800s, German Protestant families would count down the days until Christmas by making a mark with chalk each day in December on their front doors. In some locations, candles were used instead to mark the passage of time.

The first the use of chocolate as a gift each day of Advent seems to date to at least the 1880s when it was pinned on a board. The first printed calendar with doors that open dates to 1903 in Austria, but commercially available ones that combined chocolate and doors only date to the 1950s.

Do you have an advent calendar?

I haven’t for years. I tried to get the Aldi wine advent calendar this year, but they sold out in 10 minutes!  

Christmas Traditions: Christmas Tree (1600s-1800s)

My tree last year.

This is tenth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

As mentioned earlier, the Christmas tree has its origins in Germanic pagan tree worship. But the Christmas tree we think of today really dates back to German Lutherans in the 17th century and spread to Pennsylvania in the 1820s after they began to immigrate to the United States. When Germany’s Prince Albert came to England in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree with him. The royal family decorated it with small gifts, toys, candles, candies and fancy cakes, giving rise to the modern ornament. Eight years later, a photograph of the royal tree appeared in a London newspaper, and displaying a Christmas tree became the height of holiday fashion in Europe and America.

When do you put up your tree? Colored lights or white?

I put mine up the day after thanksgiving. As a kid, I liked the colored lights, but now I prefer white lights (preferably the ones that look like candles) and rustic decorations that look like cranberries or fruit or things in nature.

Christmas Traditions: Fruitcake (1500s)

Fruitcake. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is ninth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

Ah, the Christmas traditional everyone loves to hate. According to Time magazine, “fruitcake dates back to the 16th century, when it was discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in large solutions of sugar. Since sugar was cheap, it was an effective and affordable way for the colonies to ensure their native plums and cherries would make the journey to Europe without spoiling. By the 19th century people were combining all sorts of candied fruits — pineapples, plums, dates, pears, cherries, orange peels and cheap nuts — into a cake-like form. In 1913, two of the most famous American bakeries of the time — Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia — began to ship mail order fruitcakes.”

Do you like fruitcake? What’s your favorite holiday dessert?

I have never had it and I am fine with that. My favorites are either chocolate chip cookies or homemade fudge!

Christmas Traditions: The Nativity Creche (1223)

This is my cat nativity scene.

This is eighth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

Tradition has it that St. Francis of Assisi created the first living creche during a Christmas Eve Mass in Grecio, Italy, in 1223. The church was too small for the crowd, so he moved them to a nearby grotto, where he set up a manger with hay, and an ox and donkey. This was meant to symbolize the poverty baby Jesus experienced from birth. Since most people were illiterate at the time and Mass was held in Latin, which they didn’t understand, this was a powerful visual learning tool for them. Later on, as Passion Plays and other liturgical drama became popular, people were used to stand in for Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. After the Reformation, crèches became associated with southern Europe. The first ones using statues likely date to the 18th century.

 Do you display a nativity scene at Christmas? For those who aren’t Christian, what is your favorite winter decoration?

 I do. Mine is all made of cats because I’m a crazy cat lady. But my favorite Christmas item is one of the wise men my mom made when I was little and she was taking a ceramics class. She pained him with blond hair, but a black beard. Apparently he found some early bleach!


Christmas Traditions: Eggnog (1200s)

Eggnog. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is seventh in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

In the Middle Ages in Britain, a drink called a posset – a warm, thick, milky drink of eggs or milk, alcohol (wine, ale, or sherry) and spices – was very popular. It became the eggnog of holiday tradition in the early days of American history. Some say Captain John Smith’s Jamestown colony was the first in the U.S. to make eggnog in 1607. Supposedly (and among many other theories) colonists called their mixture “egg and grog,” the latter being a then-common term for any drink made with rum (which was way cheaper than sherry). The name was eventually shortened to “egg’n’grog” and later, eggnog. Today eggnog is still very similar to the original posset (with the addition of sugar) with ingredients such as milk, sugar, beaten eggs, some kind of liquor (brandy, rum or whiskey) and spices such as ground cinnamon and nutmeg.

What’s your favorite holiday drink?

I don’t like eggnog, but I love me some hot chocolate spiked with Bailey’s!

Christmas Traditions: Christmas Mass

This is the altar at the Church my great-grandfather helped build, and where my grandfather lectured and my dad serves as parish council president. We attend Mass here every Christmas.

This is sixth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. Source: The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England by M. Bradford Bedingfield. 

Originally, there were three different Christmas Masses that made up the celebration of Christmas, which is why you will see “Midnight Mass,” “Mass at Dawn” and “Christmas Day Mass” celebrated at different times at many Christian/Catholic churches. While today we only attend one of those Masses, early Christians attended all three. Midnight Mass served pretty much the same thematic purpose as Advent does today (Advent as we know it can about the year 700…more on that later) as a time of looking forward to the coming of the Messiah as the light out of darkness. Mass at Dawn celebrates Christ coming into the world and likens him to the Sun. It is also the delivery of the message of the angels to the shepherds and hence, all people. Because in the Holy Land this Mass ended with a procession from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, Masses in other places ended with a procession into the crypt of the church. In this way, the people could be seen as rising from the darkness of death into light when they emerged for Christmas Day Mass, which focused on the birth of Jesus. These themes are still present in the three Masses of Christmas today.

What are your holiday religious traditions? (If you have any.)

I always go to Christmas Eve Mass, which is special to me, with my parents and sometimes grandparents.

Christmas Traditions: Stockings (270-343 AD)

My mantle last year.

This is fifth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

Did you know that hanging your stockings by the chimney with care actually ties into the story of St. Nicholas? Legend says the original St. Nicholas, a bishop in Myra, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, was known for his generosity to the poor. One day, he found out about an impoverished widower who could not afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters, who likely would be forced into prostitution. Worried about the girls, but not wanting witnesses, he waited until dark and either tossed a bag of gold through the window for three nights (one for each daughter) or dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which landed in the girl’s stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry. That is why we fill ours with gifts.

Do you celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day and/or do stockings by the fire?

St. Nick’s day is my name day, and to this day my parents still give me a stocking on December 6. And I’m almost 40! I put up stockings but my family stopped filling them years ago.

Christmas Traditions: Yule Log

This is my advent wreath. It’s not exactly log shaped, but I feel like it has the spirit.

This is fourth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

Many people burn a Yule log (or at least watch one burning on TV while listening to Christmas music) without knowing its origins. It has its beginnings in Germanic paganism practiced in areas like Scandinavia and Germany. It ties in with the pagan origins of the Christmas tree, which we’ll discuss later. The tradition began using a whole tree, which was ritually cut and brought indoors with great ceremony. The end would be placed in the hearth fire with the rest of the tree in the room. The remnants of last year’s log would be used to light the tree and would be added to the fire each day.

Different kinds of wood are used in different countries. Pine is traditional in Germany, while the English like their oak (which is plentiful there and ties back to Druid belief that oak is sacred). In Scotland, they use birch and in France they use cherry wood sprinkled with wine before it is burned so that it smells good when it is lit.

In the 1600s, the Yule log even transformed into a type of rolled cake that was made popular by Parisian bakers in the 1800s. They may taste good, but take it from me, they are difficult to bake.

Yule log cake. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

Have you ever lit a Yule log? How about baked the eponymous cake?

I’m scared of fire (plus I have cats and cats like to try to light themselves on fire) so I have an advent wreath that kind of resembles a Yule log. I also try every few years to bake a Yule log cake, but always end up with a cake that falls apart rather than rolls.