Christmas Traditions and Legends
“When Christ was born in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night A barren bush outside the stable blossomed full and bright It bore a grim reminder of the crown he’d one day wear It’s prickly leaves foretold the thorns of sorrow he would bear Amidst the green there grew strange fruit – small berries scarlet red As crimson as the blood our savior was to shed In honor of the Prince of Peace A flower pure and white Blossomed sweetly when the Lord was born that holy Christmas night. ”
* Author unknown
Because of the symbolism described above Holly is truly a Christmas tradition. Holly is an evergreen with waxy leaves that resist water loss when the soil is frozen in Winter. This is why it does not wither when brought indoors as a Christmas decoration.
Christmas Trees are always evergreens, because the evergreen tree symbolizes “life”. It stays green all winter, and gave past cultures a feeling of hope. In ancient cultures greenery was brought into their homes to remind them during the long winter that life would soon blossom forth. Some evergreens, can even produce flowers and fruit during the Winter, which seemed magical to these people.
The first recorded reference to the Christmas tree dates back to the 16th century. In Strasbourg, Germany (now part of France), families both rich and poor decorated fir trees with colored paper, fruits, and sweets. The retail Christmas tree lot also dates back that far – in those times, older women would sell trees harvested from nearby forests. The tradition spread through Europe and was brought to the United States by German settlers and by Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. In 1804 U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their barracks at Christmas.
The popularity of the Christmas tree then proliferated. Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1842. In 1851, Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds loaded with trees from the Catskills to the streets of New York and opened the first retail lot in the United States. Scattered records from family diaries, journals, and letters indicate that early-day decorations included homemade cookies and “sugars”, corn husk dolls, and various food ornaments such as pomander balls (apples or oranges studded with whole cloves and dusted with cinnamon). Franklin Pierce, our 14th President, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.
While the enduring tree symbol, which is even older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion, remains a firmly established part of our holiday customs. Many of the modern decorations have direct roots to the Christian faith, such as the star which led the wise men to the saviors manger and the angles who proclaimed the glorious news of Gods promise being fulfilled among just a few. A beautiful live Christmas tree engages our senses of sight, touch, and smell, and evokes feelings of joy and faith in both young and old.
The symbol of the shepherd’s crook is an ancient one, representing the humble shepherds who were first to worship the newborn Christ. Its counterpart is our candy cane so old as a symbol that we have nearly forgotten its origin. Legend has it that in 1670, the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral handed out sugar sticks among his young singers to keep them quiet during the long Living Nativity ceremony. In honor of the occasion, he had the candies bent into shepherds’ crooks. In 1847, a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio, decorated a small blue spruce with paper ornaments and candy canes. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the red and white stripes and peppermint flavors became the norm.
Since then the candy has come to incorporate several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ.
White to symbolize the virgin birth and sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the solid rock, the foundation of the church and the firmness of God’s promises. The three small stripes represent the stripes Jesus received at the hands of the soldiers. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so we could have eternal life. The peppermint flavor of the candy cane is similar to hyssop, which is in the mint family and was used in Old Testament times for purification and sacrifice. Jesus is the pure Lamb of God who came to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
In the 1920s, Bob McCormack began making candy canes as a special Christmas treat for his children, friends and local shopkeepers in Albany, Georgia. It was a laborious process twisting, cutting and bending each candy cane by hand. It could only be done on a small, local scale. In the 1950s, Bob’s brother-in-law Gregory Keller, a Catholic priest, invented a machine to automate candy cane production. Packaging innovations by the younger McCormacks made it possible to transport the delicate canes on a scale that transformed Bobs Candies, Inc. into the largest producer of candy canes in the world. Although modern technology has made candy canes accessible and plentiful, they’ve not lost their purity and simplicity as a traditional holiday food and symbol of the humble roots of Christianity.