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Researching Family History: What Christmas traditions did our ancestors celebrate?

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 21 2010 4:00 a.m. MST

We love our traditions at Christmas, whether they be picture-taking of loved ones, caroling or gift-giving.

The focus of Christmas traditions should be centered on the Christ child and his birth. This is the sentiment of many religious people, whether they belong to a church or not.

So, how did our ancestors celebrate Christmas?

Let’s begin with the Christmas tree. There is a question as to where the tradition of the Christmas tree began. It was first used in northern Europe — some say in Germany, others in Latvia.

The idea of lights on a Christmas tree is said to have begun with Martin Luther, who on occasion walked out into the forest and saw the stars in the background of a towering tree.

Christmas carols can be traced back to 129 A.D., when the Bishop of Rome stated that a song called “Angels’ Hymn” could be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Around 760 A.D., there were many Christmas songs written by various composers. They were later changed from Latin into other languages.

In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi started his nativity plays in Italy. The songs at the plays were called “canticles.”

“I Saw Three Ships” came around in the 1400s in England. It was the English who went from door to door singing Christmas carols, bringing joy to the community, particularly those who were home-bound.

Christmas presents remind us of the gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh given by the magi to the Baby Jesus. But more importantly, the greatest gift is the one Heavenly Father gave to us, and that is his Son, Jesus Christ.

Holly has prickly leaves and represents the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he was crucified. Ivy must have something to cling to, reminding us of our dependence on God to support us throughout our lives.

Kissing under the mistletoe is a custom that comes from England. Originally, a berry was picked from the mistletoe when a person was kissed under it. When all the berries were gone, there was no more kissing.

Candles were first used anciently during the winter solstice. More famous uses of candles came with the carolers who attended candlelight services at various churches. In Sweden, a crown of candles is placed on the head of children as a part of the St. Lucia’s Day celebration.

The custom of sending Christmas cards began in the United Kingdom with Sir Henry Cole in 1843.

Poinsettia plants are native to Central America. It was Joel Roberts Poinsett, first ambassador of the United States to Mexico, who introduced the plant to America, sending some back to South Carolina and his friends.

“Boxing Day” on Dec. 26 is celebrated in several countries. They have football games and horse racing. It began in the U.K. in about 1200 A.D., when the alms box was opened so that the contents were distributed among the poor.

Santa Clause is Sinter Klaas in Holland and areas of Germany. Dec. 6 is Christmas Day in some of those areas. Treats and goodies are left in the wooden shoes of the Dutch children. In America, he is known as Kris Kringle, and Christmas is celebrated on Dec. 25.

Many families brought their own family traditions when they immigrated to different countries. What traditions from different countries do you observe? What family traditions are you passing on at Christmas?

Merry Christmas and have a blessed New Year.

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