Christmas is among the most celebrated holidays in the world. Each and every year we engage in the same traditions our parents did, usually without questioning why we do it. But some of our traditions are a bit strange. Has anyone wondered why people hang mistletoe and kiss under it? After all, it means “dung twig” and is a parasitic plant with poisonous berries that sucks the water and nutrients from innocent trees (#11 on the list). Although there are many things that are common knowledge about December 25, such as the fact that we honor the birth of Jesus on that day, this article brings you 11 interesting things you never knew about Christmas.
1. The Origin of the Christmas Stocking
The most common story told about the origin of the Christmas stocking goes back to St. Nicholas of Turkey. In his village there was a family of three girls with a widowed father. He was so poor that he could not afford any dowry for the girls to marry, and he despaired over it. St. Nicholas heard about this family and wanted to help, but he knew the man was too proud to accept charity. The saint slid down the chimney one night and found the girls’ stockings hanging by the fire to dry. He filled them with gold coins, and when they awoke in the morning, of course, they were thrilled. The girls were able to marry, and their father never had to worry about them again.
2. Christmas Observance Was Banned in Massachusetts
The celebration of Christmas was banned by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1659. For the Puritan settlers, Christmas was a sacred event. They frowned upon Christmas trees and decorations, singing of Christmas carols, and anything other than going to church service. People could be fined for hanging decorations and any observance became a penal offense. Puritans were unaccepting of customs and beliefs that were not their own, and they did not tolerate pre-Christian Pagan traditions that were carried over throughout the years. Many of those same Pagan traditions were adopted into the Christmas that we celebrate today. In the 19th century, there was a wave of Irish and German immigrants to the U.S. They brought their customs with them, and the strict observance of Christmas ended.
3. Santa and His Flying Reindeer May be the Result of A Siberian Magic Mushroom Trip
There is uncertainty about where the image of Santa Claus, his sleigh and magic reindeer come from? However, one theory suggests that they may originate from Siberian Shamans who used plants and mushrooms to help them see their animal spirits. One of those mushrooms, the red and white Amanita muscaria, is a powerful hallucinogen.
John Rush, an anthropologist in California, says that until a few hundred years ago, the Siberian Shamans collected the Magic Mushroom before winter. In December, they went from tent to tent giving out the fungi as Winter Solstice gifts. This may be where our storybook tradition of Santa going from house to house delivering brightly-wrapped gifts came from. Additionally, the Siberians have an interesting custom of dressing up like the mushroom in red suits or dresses with white spots.
How the flying reindeer fell into the story is unclear, however, they are common in Siberia. One theory is that someone high on mushrooms may have imagined that reindeer were flying. The sleigh probably came from Norse mythology, in which Thor flies through the sky in a chariot pulled by two goats. In the 1823 poem credited to Clement C. Moore, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the author exchanged the chariot for a sleigh and the goats for reindeer.
4. The Star of Bethlehem Was a Nova Preceded by Auspicious Astrological Events
Ancient Chinese documents indicate that in 5 BCE they observed some kind of celestial event regarding a star that lasted more than 70 days. Koreans recorded the same thing. Many astronomers believe this event was a very bright nova. However, this nova was preceded by other auspicious celestial events that, for Greek astrologers and the Magi, portended of very momentous things to come.
Ancient astronomers were also astrologers during these times, and they looked toward the stars to foretell the future. Three events consisting of conjunctions and pairings of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and the Moon from 7 BCE to 5 (or 4) BCE took place in the constellation of Pisces. Saturn was considered the evil planet, Jupiter was a planet of royalty, Mars was a sign of conquest, and Pisces was connected with the Jews.
The events may have told of royalty (a new king) who would rise up from Judea and challenge an evil ruler of that time. Then in 5 BCE the wise Magi, who had been watching the heavens for signs, saw the nova in the east, which told them to begin their journey to find this new king. Over the months it would have taken the Magi to travel to Bethlehem, the nova would have continued to move until it appeared to hang over the southern sky (over Bethlehem). For more information see Bruce Gerig’s, “Have Astronomers Found the Star of Bethlehem?”
5. Saint Nicholas was Turkish and Krampus had Nothing to do With Christmas
Santa Claus is distantly connected to St. Nicholas, who was actually a Turkish monk. Legend has it that St. Nicholas was born around 270 CE. He lost his extremely wealthy parents at a young age, and he used his inheritance to help the poor. His kindness and charitable nature earned him sainthood.
Krampus is a mythological creature that has roots in proto-Germanic people of Europe. He is a pre-Christian concept. In Norse mythology, he is the son of Hel, the goddess of the underworld. Now Krampus is a Christmas figure and, according to some traditions, works with Santa. However, he behaves more like Santa’s evil alter-ego who likes to scare children into being good. He is a hoofed goat-like demonic creature who carries chains and birch sticks to beat naughty children. If he finds those naughty youngsters, he will drag them to his underworld lair where they will spend a year with him.
6. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” Used Real Children as Actors
The beloved Charles M. Schultz Christmas classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was created in 1965 on a low budget. Most film industry experts thought it would be a complete flop, however, it instantly became an all-time favorite of children across the world. Year after year Charlie Brown would remind everyone about the true meaning of Christmas. Most people don’t know that The Coca Cola Company commissioned and sponsored the TV program, and that real child actors played the voices of the characters. It has won Emmy and Peabody awards, and has aired every year since its debut.
7. Wreath Hanging is a Pre-Christian (Pagan) Tradition
Interestingly, a number of those Christmas traditions have pre-Christian Pagan roots. Wreath-hanging is one of them. Trees and the color green symbolized life in ancient cultures, such as the Celts, Norse, and Romans. Thus, evergreen trees held special meanings for these people, because they retained their color and lives throughout the harsh winter. Each year during the Winter Solstice celebrations around December 21, these people decorated their homes with greenery. For the Norse and proto-Germanic groups, winter meant a time of darkness and malicious entities.
“During the winter, to shore their homes from malevolent winter spirits, Pagan Germanic peoples would hang wreaths and bushels of evergreens over their doors and windows, believing their spirit was enough to ward off winter evils (Jordan Dickie, “History of the Christmas Tree” DeLongFarms.com).” Romans celebrated solstice with Saturnalia, during which time they would gather with loved ones, decorate their homes with wreaths and garlands, exchange gifts and eat special foods.
8. The Origin of the Candycane
Ever wonder where the little red and white striped Christmas candy came from? There isn’t any reliable historical documentation, however, there is a “sweet” folktale that may hold some truth.
In Cologne, Germany, in 1670 a local church was holding its annual Nativity event on Christmas Eve. The choirmaster devised an ingenious way to keep the children quiet and occupied during the event by asking a local candy maker to make little sweet sticks for them to lick. He asked the candymaker to make it look like the staff of a shepherd to give them a Nativity theme. This made the candy-licking more acceptable to the rest of the congregation. The color white represented the purity and sinlessness of Jesus. The candy at the Nativity event was a big success. Hence, the tradition spread around the world as a Christmas favorite.
9. Elves Come From the Mythology of Ancient Europeans
Elves were a prominent part of proto-Germanic and Norse mythology. The ancients considered elves to be “demigod-like beings” who were close to the gods. “Light elves” were more beautiful than the sun, and followers worshipped them well after Christianity spread. These cultures believed elves could be beneficent or malicious, heal you or make you sick, play tricks on you or protect you. The best way to appease them was to provide offerings or sacrifices for them. One of the ways families would do this was to leave a bowl of porridge outside on their doorsteps. We happen to also leave treats for Santa. Interestingly, the 1823 Christmas poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” referred to Santa as an elf. “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…”
As with many other ancient European traditions, elves traveled across the Atlantic and made their way into our Christmas tradition by the mid 1800s. Besides Santa possibly being the head elf, little elves became Santa’s helpers.
10. Why We Celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December
Nobody knows when Jesus was born and, based on clues in the Bible, he may not have been born in the month of December at all. There are different theories about why December 25th was chosen. Pre-Christian Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice between December 17-23 with their Saturnalia festival in honor of the agricultural god, Saturn. One goal of the early Roman Christians was to replace Pagan holidays and festivals with Christian ones. This was easier than banning their longstanding traditions, which would lead to discontent. Therefore, Christmas festivities that culminated on December 25th replaced Saturnalia. Another theory suggests that the day Mary was notified (the Annunciation) that she would bear a special child was March 25. Then 9 months later she had Jesus on December 25.
11. Reasons for Hanging Mistletoe and Kissing Under It
Mistletoe has no relationship with toes or mists. Mist is German for “dung” and tang (toe) means “branch.” Birds spread this parasitic plant from tree to tree through their feces. It is poisonous to humans, however, it’s an important food sources for birds and other animals.
In Norse mythology the mistletoe is a symbol of life, love, fertility and friendship. Additionally, a Norse legend explains why people honor the mistletoe. As the story goes, the beloved son of Odin, Baldur, died when his brother Hoor shot him with a mistletoe spear during a game. Thus, his mother, Frigg, cried tears that fell on the spear. They turned into white berries that she put onto Baldur’s wounds, and he came back to life. Frigg was so elated that she gave the mistletoe plant her blessings, and she said she would kiss anyone who walked beneath it.
Other sources indicate that kissing under the mistletoe started in England. Before the kisser gave the kiss, he had to pluck a berry, and when all the berries disappeared, there was no more kissing. Decorations of mistletoe within houses were common during the Middle Ages to ward of evil and the devil.
Wikipedia, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
Live Science, “Magic Mushrooms May Explain Santa & His ‘Flying’ Reindeer”
Wikipedia, “Candy Cane”
Norse Mythology for Smart People
Lifeway, “Christmas Traditions Rooted in Ancient Culture”
Smithsonian, “The Legend of the Christmas Stocking”
Smithsonian, “The Origin of Krampus, Europe’s Evil Twist on Santa”
History, “History of Christmas Trees”
WhyChristmas.com, “The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas”
Evening Standard, “Why do People Kiss Under the Mistletoe“