So leave a peppermint stick for old St. Nick hanging on the Christmas tree….
If you’re anything like me, you totally sang that in your head. Growing up, Andy Williams’s song “Happy Holidays” was more than just a song. Our family actually had candy canes (peppermint sticks) on our Christmas tree.
For most of my childhood, our tree was “edible” themed. The actually edible items included popcorn garland (which we strung), candy canes, and cookies (gingerbread men and star cookies with glitter). The rest were imitations of edible items such as apples, candy apples, tarts, ribbon candy, and much more. I would often run down the stairs for school and grab a candy cane off the tree on my way out the door.
I recently learned that the original candy canes were not striped, but a solid white. My childhood tree included solid white candy canes as well as the more familiar red and white striped version. The first documented example of the use of candy canes to celebrate Christmas occurred in 1847, when August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant, from Wooster, Ohio decorated the Christmas tree with paper ornaments and candy canes, which were all white at that time.
The first red and white striped candy canes were made at the turn of the 19th century. At the same time, the first striped candy canes appeared, and candy makers added the peppermint flavor which quickly became a traditional holiday flavor.
A look back…
Many of our traditional decorations throughout the winter season come from a variety of times, places and peoples. We draw many customs from ancient cultures such as Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, and Middle Easter. The poinsettia, however, actually comes from Mexico. The poinsettia was brought back to America by Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the first ambassador to Mexico in 1825. A winter blooming flower with traditional holiday colors this plant has solidified its place in our holiday décor.
Even tinsel has a long history – in 1610, when silver was a precious commodity, Germans in Nuremberg displayed strands of silver, which came to be known as tinsel, on their Christmas trees. Not only did the tinsel display their wealth, but it also helped reflect the light of candles that were placed on trees. Candles on trees were allegedly started by Martin Luther in the 16th century. Cheaper materials, including copper and tin, were swapped for silver to make the decor more accessible, but these materials became scarce during World War I, leading to their replacement with aluminum (which they learned was a fire hazard) and lead (which turned out to be poisonous). Today’s tinsel is mostly made of polyvinyl chloride.
A common décor theme in winter is any plant that grows or blooms in winter. These are a sign of life and hope through the darkest, coldest time of the year. Mistletoe is a well-known holiday item famous for the smooches that occur under it, but mistletoe has a long history of its own. The Greeks were known to use it as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, noted it could be used as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons. Its romantic symbolism most likely started with the Celtic Druids in the 1st century A.D. Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, the Druids came to view it as a sacred symbol of vitality and fertility. The kissing tradition appears to have first caught on among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes. As part of the early custom, men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe, and refusing was viewed as bad luck.
The stories of our holiday home décor are interesting and varied. Holly boughs, yule logs, gingerbread houses, Christmas trees, stockings hung by the fireplace, and so many more fill our homes with warmth and fond memories. It is incredible to think of the centuries of people before us, just like you and me, who have enjoyed those same items and found joy and comfort in them.
A look ahead…
We can’t give all the credit to our ancient ancestors! We, as a modern society, have come up with some pretty fun and festive traditions ourselves.
Everyone loves a good ugly sweater, whether worn on its own or to a party or contest. The first “ugly sweater” sighting is attributed to The Cosby Show in the 1980s with Chevy Chase adding a holiday twist in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It is said that the first ugly sweater party took place in 2000 in Vancouver, Canada. After making its way to America, the tradition is still going strong.
Elf on the Shelf – whether you love him or hate him, he has become a holiday staple in many households. A cause of many a panicked night for parents throughout December and just as much delight by children, Elf on the Shelf is less than twenty years old and has spun off other versions both real and humorous, such as Mensch on a Bench and doll in the hall (a scary version). It will be interesting to see if children who grew up with Elf on the Shelf continue the tradition with their children.
As with everything in our lives, the holiday season has also changed and evolved. Whether it is watching A Christmas Story marathon or tracking Santa’s journey on the NORAD website, we continue to develop new and fun ways to celebrate the season. No matter your faith or culture, there is something for everyone in December and the new ideas keep coming.
This holiday season, we wish you all of the comfort and joy of ages past and all of the fun and excitement of the 21st century. Have safe and happy holidays!