Why do we celebrate Christmas the way we do?

Hannah Swayze • Dec 17, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Many steps go into creating that magical feeling that comes along this time of year.

Those of us who celebrate Christmas all have our traditions without which the holiday doesn’t quite feel quite right.

But where do those traditions come from? Why do we decorate Christmas trees and light candles in the windows? The answer is actually simple.

The Christmas we celebrate today is, at its roots, very much a melting pot, much like the country itself. According to Chad Bogart, a historical interpreter at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, early settlers from across Europe all celebrated in American communities in their own ways.

“American tradition is kind of an amalgamation of the old world European traditions that came together,” said Bogart.

Over the years, the individual customs have melded together, giving us the traditional Christmas that we’ve come to know and love.

When the pioneers first settled, Christmas looked very different, and different immigrants celebrated the way they did back home.

Bogart said that unlike today, where everyone celebrates Christmas from an undesignated time in December until the 25th, the earliest settlers celebrated Christmastide.

Jan. 6 is Old Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 1750s that Protestant England finally caught with the Pope’s calendar, changing Christmas to Dec. 25 — thus, the 12 days of Christmas. For many, Dec. 25 was a solemn day, but the 12th day of Christmas was a celebration. And different cultures celebrated differently.

Hanging Stockings and Santa Claus

For Dutch settlers, Christmastide was a holiday that centered around children, unlike the English, whose version of the holiday was mostly for adults, according to Bogart. Dutch children would set out their wooden shoes overnight for Sinterklauss. The next morning there would be little trinket and toys for the children in them, which eventually translated to hanging stockings on the fireplace. Sinterklauss was a figure in Dutch tradition modeled after St. Nicholas, patron saint of children.

Christmas Tree

For the tradition of finding that perfect evergreen tree as the centerpiece of the home on Christmas, we have the German people to thank.

Bogart said the custom wasn’t popular until the 1850s and 1860s after Britain’s Queen Victoria married King Albert, who was German. He said we can assume that the Germans would have brought that tradition with them when they came to the colonies.

Lighting candles in the windows

Driving through any residential area during the holidays, you’ll see one custom with religious origins. Irish people in the colonies had a tradition during Christmastide of lighting candles in their windows to symbolize lighting the way for Mary and Joseph. Bogart said the candles also symbolized a welcoming home for travelers like Mary and Joseph, unlike the innkeeper who turn them away in the story of Jesus’s birth.

These traditions are only snippets of the origins of our modern day traditions. To learn more about how the earliest settlers celebrated Christmas and some of their traditions, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area will celebrate Old Christmas Jan. 5 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Jan. 6 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Each cabin will celebrate a different Christmas, and interpreters will be sharing customs from each culture.

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