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Christmas Customs Explained

Green and red jumpers, hanging mistletoe, decorated trees, gift-giving, and Santa Claus… we look forward to these every Christmas; but how exactly did they get there?

Santa Claus. A lover of either milk and cookies or mince pies and whisky, Santa Claus, the bearer of gifts and good cheer, has his origins in Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Turkey, in the fourth century. The patron saint of merchants, bakers, children, and a few countries as well, he was known for secretly giving gifts, such as tucking coins into shoes.

The Christmas tree. In the 1300s, when December 24th wasn’t Christmas Eve but Adam and Eve’s Day, plays about their fall from grace were presented using pine trees instead of apple, (where were they to find apple trees in the dead of winter?), with apples tied on them, as props. This became prevalent in churches, and made its way to private homes.

Other stories have it, the worship of Thor, the god of thunder, involved human sacrifice. The victims would be tied to a tree called “Thor’s Oak.” Upon coming across one of these rituals, Saint Boniface, filled with the wrath of God, sent his axe flying into the tree. A fir tree grew from the trunk, its triangular shape reminiscent of the Christian Trinity, and thus tradition was born.

Red and green. Some say the colour combination came from the pine and apple arrangement, while some philosophise that red represents Christ’s blood, while green represents hope that springs from his sacrifices for mankind.

Mistletoe. According to Norse mythology, the deity of vegetation, Baldur, was killed by a spear made of the parasitic plant. When brought back to life, he declared that mistletoe be a symbol of love instead of death. Other versions say his mother, Frigga, was so happy her son was alive that she kissed everyone she met under the mistletoe!

We still don’t know who ordered the snogging, but imagine doing just that under shit-on-a-stick! This is exactly what mistletoe – “mistel” (dung) and “tan” (twig) – means in Old English!

Long held as a symbol of fertility, some say kissing under mistletoe guarantees a happy marriage. Spinsters had better start lining up, because tradition says they will remain unmarried another year if they don’t get kissed.

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