History Behind the Holidays

Sofia Ventura, Staff Writer

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The holiday spirit is visible around the Reef these days. From the VPA wing to the barracuda in the courtyard, there’s Santa hats, mistletoe, and candy canes galore. But why do we decorate like this for the holidays? Many holiday traditions have long and often fascinating stories behind them.

Mistletoe

The tradition of kissing under mistletoe predates Christmas by several hundred years, and has its roots in an ancient Norse myth.

According to legend, the goddess Frigg had a son named Baldur, who had a dream foretelling his own death. Sir James George Frazer tells this story in his book The Golden Bough. “So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, from trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creeping things, that they would not hurt Baldur.” However, she did not take any oath from the mistletoe plant, which she thought was “too young to swear.” Loki, the trickster god, took advantage of this and gave Baldur’s blind brother a dart made of mistletoe to shoot him with. Frigg was devastated at Baldur’s death, and her tears became mistletoe berries. She declared that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and that she would instead plant a kiss under anyone who passed under it.

The tradition of hanging it in doorways during festivals was begun by the ancient Celtic tribes, and then adopted by the early Christians as a Christmas tradition (along with the date of Christmas). Now it is a widespread decoration, which you might have noticed in the VPA hallway.

Candy Canes

There are many stories behind the invention of candy canes. These include the ideas that they’re actually a J (for Jesus), invented in Indiana, invented in Georgia, invented in the 1800s, or invented in the 1500s.

The most common (and plausible) story behind the holiday treat is that in 1670, the choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany wanted the children in the long Christmas service to stop talking and making noise. He asked a local candy maker for some “sugar sticks” to distract them, and in order to justify giving candy to children during church, he asked the candy maker to curve the top of each stick, so that they would resemble shepherd’s staffs, a religious symbol.

Now, though, they’re one of the most common holiday candies. Over 1.76 billion are made each year, and over 90% of them are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to HowStuffWorks. Many plastic candy canes, such as the ones around Coral Reef, are made as decoration to avoid the complications of sugary candy canes.

Santa Claus (and his reindeer)

There are many versions of the Santa Claus story. The Santa we know today began with the Catholic Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who was probably born sometime in the 3rd century. Legend has it that he knew of a man who was going to sell his three daughters into slavery, since they did not have dowries to be married. The good-hearted bishop could not allow this to happen, so he threw bags of gold down their chimney. The gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which had been hung up to dry by the fireplace, giving us the tradition of hanging stockings.

Santa Claus wears red in homage to a bishop’s red robe and hat. Although this story is probably untrue, the figure of Saint Nicholas spread throughout Europe and eventually to America. Eventually the American name for him became Santa Claus, but he is known by many other names, such as Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, and Pere Noel.

In fact, there are variations of gift-bearing figures all over the world.  History.com writes:

“In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn’t find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven.”

The idea of Santa’s eight reindeer was popularized by the 1822 poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement Clarke Moore. It’s more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” and begins:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…

This poem is the first work to name Santa’s reindeer (although Rudolph would be added in the 20th century).

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There are similar stories surrounding holiday traditions of all kinds, many of which have evolved far beyond their original meanings. As we get ready for winter break, it’s great to know the meaning behind the festive colors around the Reef.

Happy Holidays!

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