12 traditions of Christmas explained

Last updated 10:55 23/12/2013
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For a significant number of New Zealanders, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. For others, the holiday has lost its religious meaning, and is all about visiting family and friends and exchanging gifts.

But it has remained a festival associated with vaguely superstitious customs, relics of long ago, maintained out of respect, or perhaps jest.

How did these traditions come about? Why does Christmas involve faux trees invented in a toilet brush factory, and kisses underneath "poo-sticks"? Did you know the large red stripe on a candy cane represents the blood of Christ?

Here is your chance to be the one who knows a disturbing amount about Christmas ...


If you're thinking of luring a lover beneath a cutting of mistletoe for a lucky Christmas smooch, think again. Mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words, "mistel", meaning dung, and "tan", meaning twig or stick. Full translation, therefore - "poo on a stick". Not all that romantic.

Celtic legend says mistletoe can bring good luck, heal wounds, increase fertility and ward off evil spirits.

In ancient midwinter festivals, people draped holly, ivy and evergreen boughs around their houses, believing it would bring back the sun. Mistletoe was particularly special because of its clusters of little orb-like berries.

In fact, mistletoe leaves are toxic, and eating the berries is less likely to induce love than a laxative effect.

The tradition of kissing underneath mistletoe began in the Victorian era and was once believed to lead to marriage and promote fertility.

Native Americans used the muscle-contracting medicinal properties of the plant to induce abortions instead.

All considered, the mistletoe pucker-up is a tradition best avoided.


Does anybody actually like fruitcake? The sloppy marzipan, gritty currents and indiscernible bitter bits.

Television host Johnny Carson famously joked: "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other."

Recipes date to the 16th century, when it was discovered 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.


The origin of the fireside footwear owes more to myth than fact. We know, thanks to Twas the Night Before Christmas, that hanging stockings by the chimney dates back at least to the poem's 1823 publication.

According to legend, the original Saint Nicholas, who travelled around bringing gifts and cheer, came upon a small village one year and heard of a family in need. An impoverished widower could not afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters. Saint Nick knew the man was too proud to accept money, so he simply dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which landed in the daughters' stockings, hanging by the fireplace to dry.

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From this, it is said the modern tradition was born.


The early history of Christmas remains uncertain. We know that Christmas has been celebrated in either December or January since about 350 years after Christ was born.

Midwinter celebrations fitted in with ancient winter festivals in North Africa and Europe, when ceremonies were held to bring luck for the upcoming harvest season. Bonfires and candles were lit to coax back the sun.

Before Christ was born, December 25 was known as the birthday of the Persian god, Mithra, so it is possible the two festivals were combined.

Christmas made good use of the idea that the birthday of the Saviour had replaced the birthday of the sun.


The 12 days of Christmas are from Christmas night – December 25 – to the morning of January 6, the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. According to the Bible on this day the three wise men came to give gifts to baby Jesus.

In the Western Church, the Twelfth Day marks the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of the Epiphany season, when merriment would cease.

The 12 days were first mentioned by one of the Fathers of the Early Eastern Orthodox Church, in the 300s, as the Festal Tide.

In 567 the Council of Tours confirmed the Twelve Days, from Christmas to Epiphany, a festal of the church, and it was ordained to be a time of peace and concord among Christian men, when all strife must cease.


Undoubtedly the most popular symbol of Christmas in the Western world, but did you know artificial trees were invented in a toilet-brush factory?

An evergreen tree such as a spruce, fir or pine symbolises eternal life, and its Christmas connections date back to the Middle Ages.

Roman Catholic countries celebrated the Feast Day of Adam and Eve on December 24. Germans would host a procession carrying "paradise trees" with apples representing the forbidden fruit. It was German evangelist Martin Luther who apparently first decorated a fir tree in 1510.

The tradition was introduced to England during the Victorian era about 1840, after Queen Victoria married Prince Albert (a German) who introduced the tradition of Christmas trees into their palaces.

In the 1930s Addis Company used spare machines in its toilet-brush factory to manufacture artificial trees.


Also known as Saint Nicholas, or Kris Kringle, or Father Christmas, Santa Claus has been crafted by folklore (and commerce) into a toy distributor and assessor of child behaviour, but he is actually based on a real person.

Saint Nicholas was born around the year 270 in Turkey. He dedicated his life to serving God, giving all he had to the poor. He became the bishop of a town called Myra, and was known for his generosity and love for children.

Stories tell of how he did many kind deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as the patron saint of children and the anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, Saint Nicholas Day, December 6.

In his satiric 1809 book A History of New York, Washington Irving created the jolly characterisation of Santa Claus as a portly, bearded man who smokes a pipe. Irving's story also included the first mention of Santa sliding down a chimney.

Drinks giant Coca-Cola is often said to have been behind the colouring of Santa; the image of his red suit, illustrated by artist Haddon Sundblom, was widely circulated in 1931 as part of an advertising campaign, and has since become mainstream. Others argue his red colouring pre-dated the fizzy pop link.


Clement Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, now more commonly referred to as "Twas the Night Before Christmas", introduced and popularised many of Santa's defining characteristics – notably, that he drove a sleigh guided by "eight tiny reindeer" identified by name:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below, When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN! On, COMET! on CUPID! on, DONDER and BLITZEN! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"


The red-nosed Rudolph, everybody's favourite reindeer, came along more than a century after his eight Christmas counterparts.

The original 1939 book "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written when Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store asked one of its copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to create a Christmas story shoppers.

The retail store had been buying and giving away colouring book at Christmas Time every year, but decided creating its own book would cut costs. In the first year of publication, 2.4 million copies of Rudolph's story were distributed.

It is said that the story is reminiscent of May's own childhood experiences of being bullied for being frail and scrawny.

May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, decided to adapt the story of Rudolph into song. Marks' musical version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It went on to become the second biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, after Bing Crosby's "White Christmas".


Another German tradition. Invented in the 17th century, they made their way to America in the mid-1800s.

The holiday treat was made to symbolise the Christian roots of Christmas – the white stripes standing for the purity of Jesus Christ, the three red stripes standing for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the larger red stripe representing the blood Jesus Christ shed for our sins.

Naturally, the shape symbolises a shepherd's crook. The peppermint flavour has been said to signify the hyssop plant that was used for purifying in the Bible.


Tom Smith, a London sweet shop owner, is said to have invented the Christmas cracker. In 1847, after spotting French bon bons, or sweets, wrapped in paper with a twist at each end, he sold similar sweets with a "love motto" inside.

He soon improved his product by adding a trinket – such as jewellery and miniature dolls – and put them up for sale in time for Christmas. It could be said that this was the birth of the original cracker, although at this point it still lacked the bang we associate with Christmas crackers today.

Two years later, supposedly inspired after he kicked a burning log which sparked and crackled, Smith created what he called "Bangs of Expectation".

The crackers became known as "Cosaques" because the noise they made when opened reminded people of the cracking of the Cossack's whips as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian wars.

By 1900, Smiths' factory was producing some 13 million crackers a year.


Although Kiwis seem to prefer salmon and ham, turkey is widely considered the traditional dish of Christmas.

The turkey was introduced into Europe from the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries and, because it was inexpensive and quick to fatten, it soon rose in popularity as a Christmas feast food.

Before turkey took over, the popular Christmas dishes were goose and cockerel or, in wealthy households, peacock and swan.

- Stuff


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