Christmas is a time to rejoice, catch up with family, reconnect with our Christian faith, eat good food, open presents, and of course… decorate. But why do we decorate? How did this tradition start? And, what is the deal with the tree and all the other popular Christmas decorations?
This article will address all the above, and some stories may even surprise you.
Stories Behind Popular Christmas Decorations
One of the best parts about the Christmas season is all the decorations. The joyous and warming colors, the music, and the energy all come together in an inviting atmosphere that makes Christmas one of the happiest times of the year. Here is how the traditional Christmas decorations started.
1. The Christmas Tree
For thousands of years, the evergreen fir tree has been an iconic symbol of winter festivities, both in paganism and Christianity. Decorated branches reminded Pagans of the spring soon to come. In Christianity, the tree is a symbol of everlasting life with God.
Bringing the evergreen fir tree into festivities at the end of the year only makes sense, as spring is, in fact, just around the corner, and Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
As for decorating the tree, the Germans used to decorate their Christmas trees with edible things like gold-covered apples and gingerbread cakes. There is even rumor of the Christmas pickle tradition originating from Germany, though that story is up for discussion.
The Victorians would decorate trees with candles, and when lit, they would symbolize the stars.
So where did Christmas lights come from?
2. Christmas Lights
Interestingly enough, Christmas lights are tied to Thomas Edison. He put some electric light bulbs around his house, then two years later in 1992, his colleague Edward Johnson hand-strung 80 red, white, and blue bulbs which he put on his Christmas tree.
This was probably the first time Christmas tree lights were strung because in 1890, the Edison company advertised Christmas lighting services. A decade later, people could rent lighting systems for the Christmas holidays. These lights used to cost more than what is $2000 today.
There are lots of different stories as to how Christmas lights on trees became popularized. In 1895, President Cleveland decorated the Christmas tree with lights, much to the delight of his young daughters.
The electric string of lights became available in 1903 and were $12 for a string of 24 lights. Alternatively, you could rent them for $1.50.
So why do we decorate the Christmas tree with lights? Probably because it looks pretty. With the invention of the electric light bulb, people started to get creative and see how else they could use lights.
While candles are symbolic of the stars, electric lights on trees are probably just a tradition grounded in honoring the season with help from an incredible invention.
Holly decorations are often a choice around Christmas time because of the green leaves and red berries. The green represents eternal life and the red is representative of the blood of Christ.
Poinsettias are poisonous plants, so please do not eat them or place them where pets can get to them. Story has it that a young girl in the 16th century Mexico was too poor to bring a gift to baby Jesus. She found some weeds on the side of the road and brought a bouquet instead. The weeds bloomed gorgeous red flowers, and thereby became an important decoration amidst the Christmas celebrations.
Before the electric lights, people used to hang candles on their Christmas trees. It was a challenge to place them on the tree without causing a fire, and fires happened quite often. Sometimes people used candles to decorate the tree because other wood for decorations were scarce.
Many people believe that the 16th-century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was the first to add lit candles to the Christmas tree. The brilliance of the stars on a winter walk home inspired him to bring the twinkle to the evergreen branches.
6. Red and Green
You see red and green and you immediately think of Christmas, but why are these colors symbolic of that season? Green is symbolic of the continuation of life. During the winter time, most life rests in hibernation, or has a period of dormancy. Winter is a time to rest and recover, and to be a little more introspective. As mentioned above, green is also a symbol of the eternal life of Jesus Christ and red symbolizes the blood of Jesus. Hence, we have red and green decorations to celebrate eternal life and Jesus during Christmas.
There are two stories behind hanging mistletoe decorations: healing powers and love. Mistletoe’s healing powers were brought to center stage by the Druids in the 6th Century BCE. Hanging mistletoe was thought to ward off evil spirits, bring good luck, and release mystical healing powers.
The other reason is much more commonplace: if you are caught under the mistletoe, you could get a kiss; one kiss, in fact, for each berry. This is according to Norse mythology. And who does not want to get a kiss, especially on Christmas? So citizens in eighteenth century England began hanging up balls, trimmed with mistletoe.
It might seem like a strange tradition to hang stockings up by the fire, but then again, it is not that uncommon to dry wet and cold socks near the fireplace. The story has it that a Turkish bishop by the name of St. Nicholas heard of three daughters who had no dowry. Without a dowry, they could not get married. St. Nicholas knew the daughters hung their stockings in front of the fire, so he dropped gold coins down the chimney and the coins landed in their stockings.
If this story is true, maybe we should all hang our stockings by the fire!
While many decorating traditions are rooted in symbolism, honor, and the celebration of winter turn to spring, life eternal, and the life and blood of Jesus Christ, some decorations exist simply to bring honor to the special season. Others are around because of legends that are passed down from generation to generation. Then other traditions still come about when people get creative with their own inventions. People become inspired by nature, and thus, a new tradition to celebrate the season is born.
If you want to learn more about special Christmas decorations and traditions, here’s a post about Christingle.