All About Christmas: Why We Give Gifts, Decorate Trees, Fill Stockings, Kiss Under the Mistletoe, and More

Christmas Gifts, Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici,

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

Christmas Tree Image Courtesy of Feelart,

The modern Christmas celebration, which occurs on December 25, is associated with a number of customs, including decorating trees, exchanging gifts, attending church services, and having large festive meals with family and friends.

The origin of Christmas can be traced to various pagan midwinter celebrations. Ancient peoples throughout Europe celebrated the turning point of the year, after which the days grow longer and lighter. These celebrations included the German Yule; the Celtic Winter Solstice celebration; and the Roman Saturnalia, which was held in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture, time, wealth, and liberation. In all cases, the December holiday included feasting and drinking. In Rome,  schools and businesses were closed, and slaves became masters. People exchanged gifts such as candles, dolls, and caged birds, and there are accounts of the wealthy paying a month’s rent on behalf of those who were unable to afford it. Saturnalian entertainments, described by the Roman poet Statius, included female gladiator fights; the release of flamingos; and the crowd being showered with fruits, nuts, and sweets.

Some historians believe that December festivals arose because people needed cheering up in the darkest depths of winter. The harvest was done and they were bored, cold, and (in some cases) hungry. Having something to look forward to kept everyone from going mad.

Christians later adopted the midwinter celebration, but adapted it to their own religion, with Pope Julius I selecting December 25 for Christ’s birthday, despite evidence that Jesus was probably born in the spring. This was a smart move, as it would have been impossible to suppress the popular festival. The Roman Emperor Caligula had failed in his attempt to simply confine the festivities to five days, which indicates the degree to which people loved the midwinter holiday. While it could not be eliminated, it proved easy to co-opt.

The celebration was renamed Christ’s Mass in honour of Jesus (later shortened to Christmas), and it soon took hold among the Christian population. However, it continued to manifest as a blend of pagan and Christian traditions, with celebrants first attending church and then cutting loose at wild parties. Some of the old pagan role reversal customs persisted as well. For example, poor people would knock on the doors of the rich, demanding food and drink and committing acts of mischief against those who refused.

The Puritan Christians banned Christmas for a number of years during the 1600s because they objected to its pagan roots and wild partying. Although the ban was lifted before the end of the century, Christmas did not become an official holiday in North America until 1870, when it was recast as a peaceful family celebration rather than a time of raucous, bawdy partying more akin to a Mardi Gras festival.  Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol, also helped to re-establish Christmas as a time of charity.

Today, Christmas is both a Christian and a secular holiday, though many people who identify as pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice, which falls between December 20 and 23 each year (it varies from year to year, but always occurs on the shortest day of the year).

Why do we give gifts at Christmastime?

Christms Gifts
Christmas Gifts Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici,

Gifts were exchanged during the ancient pagan midwinter celebration, and the tradition persisted after the holiday was converted to a Christian celebration. However,  presents originally played a very small role in the festivities, and they tended to be little things such as baked goods, needlework, wooden toys, dolls, candles, fruit, or caged birds.

The tradition of gift-giving continued after the spread of Christianity, with gifts evoking the symbolism of the presents given to baby Jesus by the three wise men. However, the Puritans did not believe in giving gifts at all, so under their stern, cheerless authority, the tradition dwindled. It was revived in the 1800s, and over the past century, stores saw the potential to increase sales over the Christmas season. To capitalize on the holiday, they produced advertisements suggesting that people purchase manufactured gifts rather than making each other little inexpensive things. This strategy proved wildly successful, and soon nearly all Christmas gifts were mass-produced in factories and purchased from stores rather than handmade by individuals.

In recent years, many people have become disenchanted with the expense, commercialism, and materialism associated with modern Christmas celebrations, and a significant percentage are opting out of gift giving altogether, limiting the number of gifts exchanged or the cost of gifts purchased, or exchanging only handmade gifts. If you’re among those who enjoy giving gifts, but you detest the materialism and commercialism of modern Christmas celebrations, here are a number of suggestions for meaningful, environmentally friendly, and less materialistic presents.

Why do we decorate Christmas trees?

Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree Image Courtesy of Suat Eman,

The roots of Christmas tree decoration can be found in the Celtic practice of bringing greenery indoors during midwinter celebrations. However, the modern Christmas tree, which was originally decorated with apples, nuts, and strips of red paper, originated in Germany during the seventeenth century, and the practice likely arose as a way of brightening the gloomy midwinter days. The French added lit candles to Christmas trees during the 1700s, a precursor to the strings of electric lights used to decorate modern Christmas trees.

German immigrants brought the practice of Christmas tree decorating to North America in the 1800s, and during this era, additional ornaments were introduced, including glass balls, chains, figures, and toys.

In the 1900s, Christmas tree farms arose to supply the increasing demand while preventing the destruction of forests. Today, in the United States alone, up to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold annually, and the majority come from tree farms. Some people think that it is better for the environment to buy an artificial Christmas tree, but an environmental impact analysis found that real trees purchased from tree farms are actually the more eco-friendly choice.

Why do we fill stockings at Christmas?

Christmas Stocking
Christmas Stocking Image Courtesy of Iamnee,

The tradition of filling stockings with loot, which has been with us for centuries, is attributed to a legend of unknown origin. A widower despaired of his daughters’ marriage prospects because the family was poor. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but he knew that the father was too proud to accept charity, so he came down the family’s chimney, where he found the daughters’ stockings hanging to dry by the hearth and filled them with gold coins.

As for why badly behaved children are supposed to receive coal in their stockings, no one seems to know for sure. However, Matt Soniak (Why Does Santa Give Coal to Bad Kids, suggests a plausible explanation: Santa comes down the chimney, and in the olden days, people often had coal fires, so there would have been lumps of coal readily available to pop into the stockings of children deemed undeserving of toys and treats.

Why are holly and ivy associated with Christmas?

Christmas Holly
Holly, Pine Cone, and Christmas Nuts, Image Courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography,

Holly and ivy are evergreen plants, so they could be used for decoration even in the depths of winter, evoking the coming spring and hope for the new year. These plants were symbolic to both the ancient Celts and the Christians.

The Celts believed that holly protected their homes from harmful faeries or provided shelter for faeries so that they would not bother anyone in the household. Holly was also associated with mythical royalty, as the Holly King, who features prominently in Celtic lore, ruled from the summer to the winter solstice, when he was defeated by the Oak King, who then ruled until the summer solstice. The Holly King symbolism may have been the basis for the Green  Knight of Arthurian legend.

Holly was also important to the Nordic peoples, who associated it with Thor, god of thunder and lightning, and to various other ancient peoples who believed that it protected against lightning. Interestingly, the leaves of this plant can actually act as lightning conductors, allowing holly trees to better withstand a lightning strike. Holly was also powerfully symbolic to the Christians, who associated the plant’s prickly leaves with the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and its deep-red berries with the blood of Christ.

Ivy, Image Courtesy of Felixco, Inc.,

The Celts also believed that ivy protected against misfortune, and medieval Christians tied ivy to church exteriors to protect against lightning.

In addition to its protective symbolism, ivy was associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture and wine, who was modeled after the Greek god Dionysus. The Bacchus association likely increased ivy’s popularity as a symbol of the decadent midwinter Saturnalia celebration.

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmastime?

Mistletoe Image Courtesy of Iamnee,

Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant by many ancient cultures. The Celts and Teutonic peoples believed that mistletoe had magical properties, including the ability to bring luck, drive away evil spirits, heal wounds, and increase fertility.

Mistletoe’s associations with magic and protection likely stem from a Norse legend featuring Baldr (alternatively spelled Balder or Baldur), god of light, purity, innocence, beauty, joy, and reconciliation. Baldr (or his mother, the goddess Frigg, depending on which version of the tale you read) had dreamed of his impending death, so Frigg made every creature, force, and object in the world swear an oath not to harm him. Everything from diseases to snakes to metals to poisons to fire promised not to hurt her beloved son, but Frigg neglected to extract this promise from the mistletoe, considering it too small to be a threat. Loki, the trickster, was jealous of Baldr, and when he learned of Frigg’s oversight, he tricked Hod, Baldr’s blind twin brother, into shooting Baldr with a dart crafted from mistletoe. At this point, there are two different versions of the story’s ending. In one, Hel, goddess of death and the underworld, says Baldr may be revived only if all things in the world weep for him, but because Loki does not weep, Baldr cannot be revived. However, Baldr will be reborn after a great battle (ragnarok) when a new world emerges from the ashes of the old. In another version, Baldr’s grief-stricken mother revives him with her tears, which become the mistletoe’s white berries, and she proclaims mistletoe to be a symbol of love.

Mistletoe featured prominently in pagan winter solstice celebrations. Druids cut sprigs of it and gave it to members of the community, who would hang it over their doors to protect against evil spirits and thunder and lightning, increase fertility, heal wounds, and bring good luck. Tea made from mistletoe was used as a remedy for epileptic seizures and other neurological problems (consuming this plant does actually affect the nervous system; however, using it as an alternative medicine is not recommended because it is quite toxic).

Norse and Druid mythology held that when a couple stood under the mistletoe and kissed, they were promising to go much further. Unsurprisingly, the early Christians banned this plant from their religious celebrations.

Christians eventually adopted the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, though it was considered quite scandalous. The uptight Victorians embraced the tradition, perhaps because they had so few opportunities to do anything fun that the custom was appealing to them.

Why are the Christmas colours green, red, and gold?

Christmas Gift
Christmas Image Courtesy of Kdshutterman,

The practice of bringing greenery into the home for decoration dates back to various ancient pagan midwinter celebrations. It’s likely that people wanted to bring green plants indoors to remind them that the dark, cold winter would end and that spring was just around the corner.

As for red associations, Welsh mythology links the colour red to trees. A series of Welsh stories, recorded in the 1200s (but probably dating to Pre-Christian oral traditions) feature a hero who arrives at a tree that is half green and half red, signifying a critical boundary. Red and green are associated with Christmas plants as well, as they are the colours of winter holly berries and leaves.

There are also Christian religious associations with the green and red Christmas colours, as the bishop’s robes worn by the original St. Nicholas (who was the inspiration for Santa Claus) would have been red, and an alternating green-and-red colour scheme was often used in Medieval churches featuring images of saints. Also, during the middle ages in Europe, Bible plays were regularly performed on Christmas Eve, and these typically featured a pine tree decorated with red apples.

Gold, another colour that predominates in Christmas celebrations, represents the sun and the fire in the hearth, and therefore the warmth and light that people would have craved during the dark winter months. It was also one of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus by the three wise men, and the colour of the star they followed to find him.

Why are poinsettias associated with Christmas?

Poinsettia, Jjackowski, Flickr

Poinsettias, which are actually native to Central America, were brought to North America in the early 1800s by the first ambassador from the U.S. to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. They are linked to the Christmas holiday by a Mexican legend featuring a poor little girl named Pepita, who wanted to give a gift to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. She had no money to buy anything, but her brother assured her that Jesus would be pleased with even the smallest present, so she plucked a batch of weeds for him. When she presented this humble bouquet, it transformed into a collection of beautiful red flowers, the “Flowers of the Holy Night”.

The popularity of poinsettias as a North American Christmas flower can be traced to the efforts of Paul Ecke, Sr., a poinsettia grower who marketed the plants in southern California as landscape flowers and in Christmas specials as holiday flowers. These days, poinsettias are typically grown from cuttings in greenhouses, and more than 90% of them can be traced back to Ecke’s California ranch.

Poinsettias, with their bright Christmas-red petals and deep green leaves, bring some much needed colour into the home at Christmastime when few things bloom, so it is unsurprising that they have become popular Christmas decorations.


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