This archived article was written by: Carlie Miller
The holidays are always shrouded in mystery. What is Boxing Day? Why do we celebrate New Years in the middle of winter? Why do we decorate evergreen trees? What exactly is eggnog? What is mistletoe and why kiss under it? And many more perplexing questions. Good news, this entire article is dedicated to the curious, for the rest, you can use this information to impress your friends.
Boxing Day has nothing to do with the sport. Originally it was a day to give gifts to the poor in the form of Christmas boxes. Later it became a bank holiday and a time for giving gifts to the working class such as servants, laborers, construction workers, postal workers and trade people. Boxing Day or Partition, St. Stephen’s Day, Proclamation Day, and so on, is traditionally celebrated on Dec. 26 but is moved to the next Monday if the 26th falls on a Saturday.
Celebrating the new year is an ancient practice but only recently renewed. The Babylonians celebrated the new year at the end of March, when spring begins and new crops planted. These ancient people also made New Year’s resolutions, not to go on a diet or quit smoking but, to return borrowed farm equipment.
The ancient Roman calendar eventually went out of synchronization with the moon, so Caesar declared one year to be 445 days long. The senate declared Jan. 1 to be the New Year, though none know why. The Romans celebrated the coming of the New Year but, the early Christian church condemned the holiday as being “too pagan” and continued to hold this stance throughout the Middle Ages. Thus, the Western nations did not celebrate New Years until about 400 years ago.
The use of a baby to signify the new year began in Greece around 600 B.C. The child was carried in a basket to represent the rebirth of the God of Fertility. The Germans were the ones to bring the image of a baby with a New Year’s banner to the United States, they had been using it since the 14th century.
It is unsure how the custom of decorating the Christmas tree came to be. The ancient Egyptians decorated their homes with green palm leaves on Dec. 21 to celebrate life’s triumph over death. The Romans used evergreens in their homes during the winter festival of Saturnalia, in honor of Saturnus, the God of Farming. Ancient Druids placed evergreen branches over doorways to keep evil spirits at bay.
Some think the Christmas tree originated in Germany during the 16th century. An evergreen was used as a prop in a play about Adam and Eve, it was used as a paradise tree and decorated with apples. Dec. 24 was the Feast of Adam and Eve, so people began to put evergreen trees in their houses on that day. They decorated the trees with apples and cookies.
It is thought that the Germans brought the Christmas tree custom to the U.S. during the War of Independence when German mercenaries were hired by the British to fight against the Colonists. Some historians say that the evergreen was instrumental in winning the Revolutionary War. When Washington was crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Eve, the Hessians (German mercenaries) left their posts to celebrate around a decorated evergreen. Washington was then able to surprise and defeat the British forces.
The origins of eggnog (made of milk and cream, sugar and eggs, and nutmeg and cinnamon) is unsure, but some think it may have evolved from a medieval European drink called “posset”, which is made with hot milk. The name itself is difficult to trace, but Icelandic food expert, Nanna Ragnvaldsdóttir says the “nog” in eggnog came from “noggin”, a small wooden mug used to serve alcohol. Another explanation is that eggnog came from a slurred Colonial term for rum, “egg-and-grog” later shortened to “egg-n-grog”, then “eggnog”.
Mistletoe is part parasite. It infects trees and grows on the branches, sucking all the nutrients out of the tree. It can also grow on its own.
The Anglo-Saxons once believed that mistletoe came from bird droppings because it appeared on branches covered in bird dung, it was called “dung on a twig” or mistletoe.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is hard to place. The ancient Romans associated it with peace and when opposing soldiers met under a tree covered in mistletoe, they would temporarily declare peace for the day. In Scandinavia and England, it was tradition to hand mistletoe over the doorway so anyone entering would enter in peace and be greeted warmly (maybe with a kiss). One Scandinavian legend tells of the death of Baldur, the God of Peace, by a mistletoe arrow and how the other gods asked for his life to be restored, and it was. In appreciation, Baldur’s mother hung mistletoe and promised to kiss all who passed under it. So mistletoe became a symbol of peace, forgiveness and love. The modern revival of kissing under the mistletoe came with the Victorian Era when it became stylish.
Some think that mistletoe is associated with the winter holidays because ancient Druids would gather it during the winter solstice and use it during their winter rituals.