Sunday, December 26, 2010

The origins of some of our Christmas traditions

Usually I provide direct links to all of the stories on the blog, but today, because it's the magical time of Christmas and I am starting up the blog again; you can find the links. Merry Christ-mas!!!!


a) The Christmas Tree; from Wikipedia

In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced in the time of the personal union with Hanover, by George III's Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in early 19th century, but the custom hadn't yet spread much beyond the royal family. Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with the custom. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, "After dinner...we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room...There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees..". After her marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, by 1841 the custom became even more widespread throughout Britain. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: "I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be".

A woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, initially published in the Illustrated London News December 1848, was copied in the United States at Christmas 1850, in Godey's Lady's Book (illustration, left). Godey's copied it exactly, except for the removal of the Queen's tiara and Prince Albert's mustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene. The republished Godey's image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America. Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, shorn of their royal trappings, "the first influential American Christmas tree". Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, "In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850-60 than Godey's Lady's Book". The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America.

Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country's first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the "First Christmas Tree in America" is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816 and In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is the first to popularise the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes. In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments and candy canes. The National Confectioners' Association officially recognises Imgard as the first ever to put candy canes on a Christmas tree; the canes were all-white, with no red stripes. Imgard is buried in the Wooster Cemetery, and every year, a large pine tree above his grave is lit with Christmas lights. German immigrant Charles Minnegerode accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, thereby becoming another of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time


b) The Yule log

From Jamestown.com

The yule log happens to be one of the oldest Christmas traditions. In fact, it was created long before the act of Christmas came into existence. It originated in Scandinavia to celebrate the winter solstice and the beginning of longer days. This celebration meant that the darkest days were over and the rebirth of the sun has begun.

The burning of the yule log not only took place in the Scandinavian countries but also as far west as Ireland to the south in Greece to as far north as Siberia. The flames represented the light of the sun, but in later years, when it was incorporated into the Christmas holiday it represented the light of the Savior.

Many of us have heard about the burning of the yule log during Christmas, but few of us are aware of the reason for this ritual. Originally the burning of the yule log began during the winter solstice and lasted for a period of three days. As long as the log burned, people did not have to work. If that were the case today, I would be burning one continuously and long after the winter solstice ended. But today it is more symbolic than it is an actual ritual.

People chose their yule log based on many ideas and beliefs. Different types of tree wood represented different things to the people that burned them. Some chose the wood of the aspen for spiritual understanding. Others chose the wood of the mighty oak as it represented strength, wisdom and healing. The wood of the pine urged a coming year of prosperity and growth. And for those wishing for a family, opted for the wood of the birch representing fertility along with new beginnings. The ash, the most common, invoked protection.

Each year a new log is brought into the home and lit for the yule festival. It is a time of celebration, feast and family. In those days, fireplaces were quite large and could host the trunk that was brought in for burning. Usually they would soak this log in water for days or choose a very green log to ensure a long and consistent burn. The yule log is never allowed to completely burn as a piece is saved to start the new one the following year. Not only did this bring good luck, is also represented continuity and the eternal light of heaven.

The remaining piece of unburnt yule log was left in the house through the year to protect it from fire, lightning or hail. The ashes were sprinkled in wells to keep the water safe. Some ashes were also placed at the roots of fruit trees and vines to help them bear a good harvest the following year.

In some cultures, these logs were also used to predict bad luck. If the fire was ever allowed to go out before the night was over, it meant tragedy would strike the home in the coming year. If the flames cast someone’s shadow without a head, it supposedly meant that person would die within a year.

It was a ritual of the past that many held true to tradition and belief. In today’s world, fireplaces are no longer large enough to host a tree trunk to be used during the festival period. Many places do not even have a fireplace anymore, thus comes the creation of the symbolic yule log many of us have today.


c) Egg Nog

From cocktails.about.com

The word itself does not have much appeal, the guttural sound and the thought of drinking egg doesn’t sound very appetizing to most. There are differing opinions as to the origin of the name for this famous drink. One version says that nog derives from an Old English word for strong beer, hence “noggin”. Another version attributes the name to Colonial America where colonists referred to thick drinks as “grog” and eggnog as “egg-and-grog”. Either way, we know it today as Eggnog.
Europe:
It is believed that the eggnog tradition began in Europe as an adaptation of the various milk and wine punches often served at social gatherings. In the 17th century, eggnog was used as a toast to one’s health and was consumed by the well-to-do of society as milk and eggs were scarce commodities in Europe.

When the brew was brought to the “New World,” colonists added a new twist, rum. The rum Americans could get from the Caribbean was considerably less expensive than the other liquors shipped from England. And so, along with the readily available supply of milk and eggs in the colonies, the rum version quickly became a popular drink for people of all classes. As a rich, spicy and (oh yes) alcoholic drink, eggnog soon became a familiar item during the holiday season across the growing nation. Each region would adapt the drink to their personal tastes. Even George Washington devised his own version of the brew which only the most courageous would partake using rye whiskey, rum and sherry.
In the south, Southern taste replaced rum with bourbon. And when the brew reached Latin America even more adaptations were made; in Puerto Rico coconut juice or milk was added, in Mexico eggnog became a harder liqueur to be sipped with the addition of Mexican cinnamon and rum or grain alcohol, and in Peru it was made with the Peruvian pomace brandy called pisco.

d) Christmas Lights

From inventors.about.com

The tradition of using small candles to light up the Christmas tree dates back to at least the middle of the XVIIth century. However, it took two centuries for the tradition to become widely established first in Germany and soon spreading to Eastern Europe.

Candles for the tree were glued with melted wax to a tree branch or attached by pins. Around 1890, candleholders were first used for Christmas candles. Between 1902 and 1914, small lanterns and glass balls to hold the candles started to be used.Albert Sadacca was fifteen in 1917, when he first got the idea to make safety Christmas lights for Christmas trees. A tragic fire in New York City involving Christmas tree candles inspired Albert to invent electric Christmas lights. The Sadacca family sold ornamental novelty items including novelty lights. Albert adapted some of the products into safe electric lights for Christmas trees. The first year only one hundred strings of white lights sold. The second year Sadacca used brightly colored bulbs and a multi-million dollar business took-off. Later, a company started by Albert Sadacca (and his two brothers Henri and Leon) called NOMA Electric Company became the largest Christmas lighting company in the world.

e) Apple Cider

From drinkfocus.com

Historians largely agree that apple trees existed along the Nile River Delta as early as 1300 BC, but it is unclear whether cider was ever produced from the fruit.

When the Romans arrived in England in 55 BC, they were reported to have found the local Kentish villagers drinking a delicious cider-like beverage made from apples. According to ancient records, the Romans and their leader, Julius Caesar, embraced the pleasant pursuit with enthusiasm. How long the locals had been making this apple drink prior to the arrival of the Romans is anybody's guess.

By the beginning of the ninth century, cider drinking was well established in Europe and a reference made by Charlemagne clearly confirms its popularity.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, cider consumption became widespread in England and orchards were established specifically to produce cider apples. During medieval times, cider making was an important industry. Monasteries sold vast quantities of their strong, spiced cider to the public. Farm laborers received a cider allowance as part of their wages, and the quantity increased during haymaking. English cider making probably peaked around the mid seventeenth century, when almost every farm had its own cider orchard and press. The industry later went into decline, due to major agricultural changes. Cider regained its popularity during the twentieth century, but demand was largely for the mass-produced variety. Only in recent years has traditional cider making finally triumphed.

American history tells a different tale. Early English settlers introduced cider to America by bringing with them seeds for cultivating cider apples. During the colonial period, grains did not thrive well and were costly to import. On the other hand, apple orchards were plentiful, making apples cheap and easily obtainable. As a result, hard cider quickly became one of America's most popular beverages. Consumption of cider increased steadily during the eighteenth century, due in part to the efforts of the legendary Johnny Appleseed, who planted many apple trees in the Midwest.

However, a series of events led to cider's fall in popularity. The introduction of German beer with its faster fermentation process quickly made beer popular because German immigrants were able to set up large breweries for producing great quantities of beer. The production of apple cider was still limited to small farms. The religiously based Temperance movement then caused many church-going farmers to give up cider. Some even went as far as to chop down their apple trees. Then Prohibition became the law and pretty much destroyed the market for apple cider.

Today, with the growing popularity of microbreweries, the tide has turned. Traditional cider making is experiencing a major resurgence in both America and Europe

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