Palpable Peace: The Institution of the Iconic Christmas Tree (Part 3)


Prof Hoosen Vawda – TRANSCEND Media Service

“Christmas Tree:  The Beginning”[1]

Prince Albert presents Queen Victoria with the traditional Christmas Tree. Painting by James Roberts circa 1850 [2]

This, Part 3, in the series, discusses the pagan origins and customs associated with the institution of the Christmas Tree, as observed in the 21st Century. Today, the very foundation of the iconic Christmas tree has been transformed from a real tree, grown in special Christmas tree farms, in different parts of the world, to consumers purchasing synthetic, plastic trees and exotic tree decorations, mass produced in Republic of China, as well as in little factories of private entrepreneurs in the East and exported to the west, to add to the spiritual essence of Christmas and the accompanying peace it symbolises.

However, the overarching ethos is one of business generation during the festive season, observed and celebrated by participants not only of the Christian faith, but other religions, as well.  Albeit, what is important is the profound inner feeling of peace, security, hope, serenity and calmness, which is observed as “palpable peace” during this Festive season, which is essentially and traditionally associated with the birth of Jesus, The Christ[3], as narrated in the Christian[4] and Islamic scriptures, including the Quran.[5],[6]  It come as a total surprise to some readers, while both these Abrahamic faiths not only firmly believe, but unequivocally accept the divine conception and birth of Jesus, in antiquity, in Bethlehem, Judea.[7]

It is also important to understand what the Holy Bible says about the Christmas Tree? There is some dispute on the issue of whether the Bible actually makes a reference to the trees now used in the celebration of Christmas. The specific mention comes from Jeremiah 10:3-4, stating “For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”  Initially, it might appear that these verses are referring to Christmas trees, made from the forest and adorned with gold and silver decorations. But a more thorough look at the whole chapter makes it evident that God is speaking about creating a carved image, or idol, from the trunk of a tree. This is made apparent in the explanation of verse 8, “But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; a wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.”  The Puritans will always associate the Christmas tree as a vestige of Paganism syncretized as an attraction in mainline Christianity.  It is the authors opinion that this is done purely for commercial reasons and to herald the arrival of the Festive Season, rather than anything to do with the birth of Jesus and Christmas itself.[8]

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from his illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes, which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.  Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon, farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.

In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder.

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens.  To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

The question often raised as to who introduced the Christmas Trees to America?  Most 19th century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.  It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims’ second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalising any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

A drawing from a December 1848 edition of the Illustrated London News, incorporated into a card, shows Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with the family surrounding a Christmas tree. This singular illustration in a reputable publication, subsequently led to the acceptance of the Christmas Tree and popularisation of the icon in America.

In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable, not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had finally arrived, in America, almost as if not by a Royal Decree, but commonly by Royal Practice and blessings of Queen Victoria, her elf, thanks to Prince Albert.  By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around America. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans, who traditionally like everything large and extravagant, preferred their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is located at Rockefeller Center, west of Fifth Avenue from 47th through 51st Streets in New York City. The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree dates back to the Depression era. The tallest tree displayed at Rockefeller Center arrived in 1948. It was a Norway Spruce that measured 100 feet tall and hailed from Killingworth, Connecticut. The first tree at Rockefeller Center was placed in 1931. It was a small unadorned tree placed by construction workers at the center of the construction site. Two years later, another tree was placed there, this time with lights. These days, the giant Rockefeller Center tree is laden with over 25,000 Christmas lights.

It is also relevant to examine the Christmas Trees, globally. The Christmas Trees in Canada were introduced by the German settlers who emigrated to Canada from the United States in the 1700s. They brought with them many of the things associated with Christmas we cherish today, such as the Advent calendars, gingerbread houses, cookies and the iconic Christmas trees. When Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, the Christmas tree immediately became a tradition throughout England, America and Canada.

In Mexico, in most homes the principal holiday adornment is el Nacimiento, the Nativity scene. However, a decorated Christmas tree may be incorporated in the Nacimiento or set up elsewhere in the home. As purchase of a natural pine represents a luxury commodity to most Mexican families, the typical arbolito, the little tree, is often an artificial one, a bare branch cut from a copal tree (Bursera microphylla) or some type of shrub collected from the countryside.

In Great Britain, the Norway spruce is the traditional species used to decorate homes in United Kingdom. The Norway spruce was a native species in the British Isles before the last Ice Age, and was reintroduced here before the 1500s.

The Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem [9]

In Greenland, Christmas trees are imported, as no trees live this far north. They are decorated with candles and bright ornaments.  Christmas Trees in Guatemala has joined the “Nacimiento”, The Nativity scene as a popular ornament because of the large German population in Guatemala. Gifts are left under the tree on Christmas morning for the children. Parents and adults do not exchange gifts until New Year’s Day.  Christmas Trees in Brazil, although Christmas falls during the summer in Brazil, sometimes pine trees are decorated with little pieces of cotton that represent falling snow.  Christmas Trees in Ireland are bought anytime in December and decorated with colored lights, tinsel, and baubles. Some people favour the angel on top of the tree, others the star. The house is decorated with garlands, candles, holly, and ivy. Wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door. Christmas Trees in Sweden are different as most people buy Christmas trees well before Christmas Eve, but it’s not common to take the tree inside and decorate it until just a few days before. Evergreen trees are decorated with stars, sunbursts, and snowflakes made from straw. Other decorations include colorful wooden animals and straw centerpieces. Christmas Trees in Norway, involve nowadaysm the Norwegians often taking a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree, a trip that their grandfathers probably did not make. The Christmas tree was not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the 19th century; to the country districts it came even later. When Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children wait with excitement outside. A Norwegian ritual known as “circling the Christmas tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and then walk around it singing carols. Afterwards, gifts are distributed.  Christmas Trees in Ukraine, where Christmas itself is celebrated on December 25th  by Catholics and on January 7th  by Orthodox Christians, Christmas is the most popular holiday in the Ukraine. During the Christmas season, which also includes New Year’s Day, people decorate fir trees and have parties.  However, in 2022, the war with Russia has resulted in this tradition not been followed, as it is a Russian custom.

A popular Christmas custom in Spain, in Catalonia, is a lucky strike game. A tree trunk is filled with goodies, is struck by the children at the trunk, trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffee, and other treats.  In Italy, the presepio, manger or crib, represents in miniature the Holy Family in the stable and is the center of Christmas for families. Guests kneel before it and musicians sing before it. The presepio figures are usually hand-carved and very detailed in features and dress. The scene is often set out in the shape of a triangle. It provides the base of a pyramid-like structure called the ceppo. This is a wooden frame arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Several tiers of thin shelves are supported by this frame. It is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pine cones, and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides. A star or small doll is hung at the apex of the triangular sides. The shelves above the manger scene have small gifts of fruit, candy, and presents. The ceppo is in the old Tree of Light tradition which became the Christmas tree in other countries. Some houses even have a ceppo for each child in the family.

Many Christmas traditions practiced around the world presently, originated in Germany.  It has long been thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. According to one legend, late one evening, Martin Luther was walking home through the woods and noticed how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He wanted to share the beauty with his wife, so he cut down a fir tree and took it home. Once inside, he placed small, lighted candles on the branches and said that it would be a symbol of the beautiful Christmas sky. The Christmas tree was born.   Another legend says that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries around the globe. The Paradise tree, a fir tree decorated with apples, represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light, a small, pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with glass balls, tinsel and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. Changing the tree’s apples to tinsel balls and cookies and combining this new tree with the light placed on top, the Germans created the tree that many of us know today.

Modern Tannenbaum (Christmas trees) are traditionally decorated in secret with lights, tinsel and ornaments by parents and then lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts and gifts under its branches. Christmas is a summer holiday in South Africa. Although Christmas trees are not common, windows are often draped with sparkling cotton wool and tinsel.  Christmas Trees and observance of Christmas, in Saudi Arabia is unique, as an Islamic country. Christian Americans, Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, and others living here have to celebrate Christmas privately in their homes. Christmas lights are generally not tolerated. Most families place their Christmas trees somewhere inconspicuous.  Christmas Trees in Philippines, fresh pine trees are too expensive for many Filipinos, so handmade trees in an array of colors and sizes are often used. Star lanterns, or parol, appear everywhere in December. They are made from bamboo sticks, covered with brightly colored rice paper or cellophane, and usually feature a tassel on each point. There is usually one in every window, each representing the Star of Bethlehem.

In China, of the small percentage of Chinese who do celebrate Christmas, most erect artificial trees decorated with spangles and paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Christmas trees are called “trees of light.”  Also in the East, in Japan, for most of the Japanese who celebrate Christmas, it’s purely a secular holiday devoted to the love of their children. Christmas trees are decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans and lanterns, and wind chimes. Miniature candles are also put among the tree branches. One of the most popular ornaments is the origami swan. Japanese children have exchanged thousands of folded paper “birds of peace” with young people all over the world as a pledge that war must not happen again.

Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850. In 1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lighted except for the top ornament. This was done in honor of the American hostages in Iran.  Between 1887-1933 a fishing schooner called the Christmas Ship would tie up at the Clark Street bridge and sell spruce trees from Michigan to Chicagoans.  The tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington.  The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition began in 1933. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House.  In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.  Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has presented a Christmas tree to the President and first family. Most Christmas trees are cut weeks before they get to a retail outlet.  In 1912, the first community Christmas tree in the United States was erected in New York City.  Christmas trees generally take six to eight years to mature.  Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska.  Ninety-eight percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms.  More than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees.  On average, over 2,000 Christmas trees are planted per acre.  As a precaution, the Christmas tree must never be burnt, in the fireplace, as it can contribute to creosote buildup.  Other types of trees such as cherry and hawthorns were used as Christmas trees in the past.  Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees.  In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until December 22nd because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy.  Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons.  In the first week, a tree in your home will consume as much as a quart of water per day.  Tinsel was once banned by the government. Tinsel contained lead at one time. Now it’s made of plastic.  The best-selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir and White Pine.[10]

The Bottom Line is, Christmas, from its Puritanical roots to complaints of rampant commercialism (“What is it you want?” Charlie Brown asks Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Real Estate.”), Christmas in America has been filled with traditions, old and new. Some date back to 16th century Germany or even ancient Greek times, while others have caught on in modern times. Americans have celebrated the Christmas season, from singing songs and reciting poems to decorating trees and swapping cookies, to drinking eggnog and wearing ugly sweaters.  It is also interesting to note that the tradition of decorating Christmas trees comes from Germany. Decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition. The first “Christmas trees” explicitly decorated and named after the Christian holiday appeared in Strasbourg (part of Alsace) in the beginning of the 17th century. After 1750, Christmas trees began showing up in other parts of Germany, and even more so after 1771, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Strasbourg and promptly included a Christmas tree is his novel, The Suffering of Young Werther.  Decorated trees date back to Germany in the Middle Ages, with German and other European settlers popularizing Christmas trees in America by the early 19th century. A New York woodsman named Mark Carr is credited with opening the first American Christmas tree lot in 1851. A 2019 survey by the American Christmas Tree Association, predicted that 77 percent of American. households displayed a Christmas tree in their home. Among the trees on display, an estimated 81 percent were artificial and 19 percent were real.  The Rockettes, practised since 1925, first known as the Missouri Rockets, this iconic dance troupe has been kicking up its heels, officially becoming the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in 1934. From performing at movie openings to entertaining troops to making TV appearances, they’re perhaps best-known for their annual Christmas Spectacular.

Other traditions include a A Charlie Brown Christmas. Decades later, it may be hard to imagine that this beloved TV special inspired by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip was first rejected by CBS executives. But when it finally aired on December 9, 1965, almost half of all U.S. TV sets were tuned to the broadcast, and the show went on to win an Emmy, a Peabody, an enduring following and even a trend of “Charlie Brown” Christmas trees. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” Linus says in the special. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Christmas Pickles, If there’s a pickle among your snowman, angel and reindeer ornaments, you’re likely taking part in the American tradition of hiding the green ornament on the tree, so that the first child to find it wins a gift, or gets to open the first present Christmas morning. The practice’s origins are a bit murky (or should that be briny?), but, it’s likely it grew from a Woolworths marketing gimmick from the late 1800s, when the retailer received imported German ornaments shaped like a pickle and needed a sales pitch.

Elf on the Shelf – Love it or loathe it, since 2005, moms and dads have either joyously or begrudgingly been hiding a toy elf each night from Thanksgiving to Christmas. More than 13 million elves have been “adopted” since 2005 when Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, published the book Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition that comes with the toy. Social media has even inspired some parents to set up elaborate scenarios for their elves—as in: He TP’d the tree! She filled the sink with marshmallows!

Yule Log – Norway: ‘Gledelig Jul!’  Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. “Yule” came from the Norse word hweol, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and then away from the earth. Ever wonder why the family fireplace is such a central part of the typical Christmas scene? This tradition dates back to the Norse Yule log. It is probably also responsible for the popularity of log-shaped cheese, cakes and desserts during the holidays.Yule logs were part of ancient winter solstice celebrations, but it was Americans who turned the wood burning into must-see TV. Back in 1966, WPIX-TV in New York City aired a continuous 17-second loop of a fireplace for three hours along with holiday music. That led to an eventual better production and nearly 20 years of annual viewing. Today, you can view the yule log on demand and on the web

Advent Calendars: Early versions of this tradition, started in Germany in 1903 by publisher Gerhard Land, offered a way for children to count down to Christmas by opening one “door” or “window” a day to reveal a Bible passage, poem or small gift. Since gaining mass popularity by 1920, the calendars have evolved to secular calendars that include daily gifts from mini bottles of wine to nail polish to chocolates to action figures.

Gingerbread Houses: Although Queen Elizabeth I gets credit for the early decorating of gingerbread cookies, once again, it’s the Germans who lay claim to starting the gingerbread house tradition. And when the German Brothers Grimm wrote “Hansel and Gretel” a new holiday tradition was born. Today, the edible decorations are available in a slew of pre-packed kits.

The Nutcracker: For many, the holiday season is not complete without a trip to watch this ballet. With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, the romantic tale of the young Clara’s Christmas Eve premiered Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was performed for the first time outside of Russia in 1934 in England, and made its way to the United States in 1944 when it was performed by the San Francisco Ballet. It became a must-see event in America in the 1960s, as performances spread across the nation.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters: One can blame the  neighbours to the north for this silly, ironic tradition that really gained steam in the 1980s. According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the sweaters became a party trend in Vancouver, Canada in 2001. And the trend is seemingly here to stay. According to Fox Business, the ugly sweater industry is a multi-million business, with websites such as Tipsy Elves, retailers including Macy’s, Kohl’s and Target, and even food chains jumping on the ugly bandwagon.

Cookies and Milk for Santa: While leaving treats for Santa and his reindeer dates back to ancient Norse mythology, Americans began to sweeten up to the tradition during the Great Depression in the 1930s, as a sign of showing gratitude during a time of struggle.

Candy Canes:  Whether devoured as a treat or hung on the tree as decoration, candy canes are the No. 1-selling non-chocolate candy during December, and date back to 1670 Germany. The red and white peppermint sticks arrived stateside in 1847, when a German-Swedish immigrant in Wooster, Ohio placed them on a tree. By the 1950s, an automated candy cane-making machine was invented, cementing their mass appeal.

Boozy Eggnog: Nothing makes the holidays happier more quickly than a glass of spiked eggnog. Although the yuletide cocktail stems from posset, a drink made with hot curdled milk and ale or wine from medieval England, American colonists get credit for making it popular and adding rum. Even George Washington had a special recipe.

Door Wreaths: Wreaths have been around since the ancient Greek and Roman times, but the evergreen Christmas wreath, often adorned with boughs of holly, eventually took on Christian meaning, with the circular shape representing eternal life and the holly leaves and berries symbolic of Christ’s crown of thorns and blood, according to the New York Times. Today’s wreaths, which come in all varieties, from flowers and fruit to glass balls and ribbon to artificial and themed, are most often seen as a secular winter tradition.

The inimitable Christmas Cards:

A German postcard reading “Gruss vom Krampus,” meaning “Greetings from Krampus.”[11] 
Advertising Archive/Everett

The first official Christmas card debuted in 1843 England with the simple message, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The idea of a mailed winter holiday greeting gradually caught on in both Britain and America, with the Kansas City-based Hall Brothers (now Hallmark) creating a folded card sold with an envelope in 1915. Nicholas Teams Up With the Devil:  An English legend popular during the Victorian era said that St. Nicholas recruited the Devil to help with his deliveries. Together, they determined which children had been naughty or nice. The Devil, who appeared under various guises, kidnapped the disobedient kids and beat them with a stick. Santa is the creepy antihero on a variety of Victorian-era holiday cards, where he can be seen peeking through windows and spying on children. The Devil is disguised as Krampus on some, making off on sleds and in automobiles with the children deemed naughty.

Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, more than 1.6 billion holiday cards are sold annually.

It’s a Wonderful Life:  Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film debuted in 1946, with Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey, a suicidal man who is shown what life would be like without him by an angel. But before becoming an annual TV-viewing tradition, the movie was a bit of a flop at the box office when it premiered, although it did receive five Oscar nominations (but no wins). A lapsed copyright in the 1970s allowed TV stations to air the movie for free. It has aired exclusively on NBC and USA since 1994.

Christmas Lights: Thomas Edison may be famous for the light bulb, but it was his partner and friend, Edward Hibberd Johnson, who had the bright idea of stringing bulbs around a Christmas tree in New York in 1882. By 1914, the lights were being mass produced and now some 150 million sets of lights are sold in the U.S. each year.

Department Store Santa:  Lining up at the mall to snap a photo of the kids on Santa’s lap may seem like a modern Christmas tradition, but it dates back to 1890, when James Edgar of Brockton, Massachusetts had a Santa suit made for him and dressed as the jolly fellow at his dry goods store. The gimmick caught on and a year later Santas could be found in many stores. While many point to Edgar as the original store Santa, Macy’s in New York claims it has been hosting Santa since 1862.

Making Fun of Christmas Fruitcake: A favorite of the British royalty, noting that both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served it at their respective weddings, fruitcake, that much-maligned mix of dried fruit, nuts and brandy—has been the subject of long-running American holiday jokes. Truman Capote wrote a short story about “fruitcake weather” in 1956, the small town of Manitou Springs, Colorado holds an annual Fruitcake Toss Day on January 3, and the dessert has become fodder for many a comedian. For example, in 1985 Johnny Carson cracked, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

Cookie Swaps: For more than 100 years, Americans have spent time baking up a storm to exchange cookies at one of these events where participants bring a dozen of their favorite cookies, then guests trade and head home with an array of goodies. In her book, The Cookie Party Cookbook, Robin Olson writes that she found references to “cookie parties” dating back to the late 1800s, and that they began to be called “cookie exchanges” by the 1930s, and “cookie swaps” in the ’50s. “Historically, cookie exchange parties have been a ladies-only event. Exchanges were hosted by friends, relatives, neighbors, social groups, clubs, office co-workers, teams, schools and churches,” she writes. Now, they often include children and men and are frequently used as fund-raisers.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas: Best known as The Night Before Christmas, the reading of this classic by poet Clement Moore is an American holiday tradition. Believed to have been written on Christmas Eve of 1822, the New Yorker is said to have been inspired by his sleigh ride home. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, Clement, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, was “embarrassed by the work, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823. Moore did not publish it under his name until 1844.”

Luminarias – Simple, folded brown bags filled with sand and lit by votive candles are particularly popular in the Southwest. Dating back more than 300 years, they line sidewalks and churches in places such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Phoenix, the annual Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden features more than 8,000 luminaria bags.

Twelve Days of Christmas: Even though most hear the song between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, the Christian 12 days of Christmas, which span the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi, actually take place December 25 to January 6. The earliest version of the poem-turned-song is thought to have been published in Mirth With-out Mischief, a children’s book from 1780, with the modern version credited to English composer Frederic Austin who set the poem to music. Each year the PNC Christmas Price Index totals up the total cost of the 12 gifts named in the song based on current markets. For 2019, everything from a partridge in a pear tree to 12 drummers drumming would run up a bill of $38,993.59.

Poinsettias: America’s Christmas flower, these plants native to Central America were brought to the United States (and given their name) by the country’s first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett, in the 1820s. Poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister to Mexico, who brought the red-and-green plant from Mexico to America in 1828.It was a California horticulturist named Paul Ecke who brought the traditionally red and green plants to the masses 100 years later. He donated the plants to TV shows, and, according to the Los Angeles Times, the poinsettia became the best-selling potted plant in the nation by 1986.

Salvation Army Bell-Ringers: Come December, bell-ringers span out to accept donations in their iconic red kettles. Collecting money for the needy since 1891, the tradition started with San Francisco Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee who wanted to raise money to offer a free Christmas dinner to 1,000 of the city’s most destitute. Inspired by a kettle he had seen in England in which people tossed in coins for the poor, he set up his own version, and the idea quickly spread across the country and the world. Today, the Salvation Army helps more than 4.5 million people during the holiday season and they don’t only accept cash—donations can be made via smart phones.

Mexico: ‘Feliz Navidad!’  In 1828, the American minister to Mexico, Joel R. Poinsett, brought a red-and-green plant from Mexico to America. As its coloring seemed perfect for the new holiday, the plants, which were called poinsettias after Poinsett, began appearing in greenhouses as early as 1830. In 1870, New York stores began to sell them at Christmas. By 1900, they were a universal symbol of the holiday.

In Mexico, papier-mâché sculptures called piñatas are filled with candy and coins and hung from the ceiling. Children then take turns hitting the piñata until it breaks, sending a shower of treats to the floor. Children race to gather as much of the loot as they can.

England: ‘Happy Christmas!’: Christmas cards can be traced back to England. An Englishman named John Calcott Horsley helped to popularise the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards when he began producing small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written holiday greeting in the late 1830s. Newly efficient post offices in England and the United States made the cards nearly overnight sensations. At about the same time, similar cards were being made by R.H. Pease, the first American card maker, in Albany, New York, and Louis Prang, a German who immigrated to America in 1850.[12]

Celtic and Teutonic peoples had long considered mistletoe to have magic powers. It was said to have the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility. Celts hung mistletoe in their homes in order to bring themselves good luck and ward off evil spirits. During holidays in the Victorian era, the English would hang sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways. If someone was found standing under the mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, behavior not usually demonstrated in Victorian society.

Christmas pudding, also known as “figgy pudding” or plum pudding, is an English dish dating back to the Middle Ages. Suet, flour, sugar, raisins, nuts and spices are tied loosely in cloth and boiled until the ingredients are “plum,” meaning they have enlarged enough to fill the cloth. It is then unwrapped, sliced like cake and topped with cream.  Caroling also began in England. Wandering musicians would travel from town to town visiting castles and homes of the rich. In return for their performance, the musicians hoped to receive a hot meal or money.

In the United States and England, children hang stockings on their bedpost or near a fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that it will be filled with treats while they sleep. In Scandinavia, similar-minded children leave their shoes on the hearth. This tradition can be traced to legends about Saint Nicholas. One legend tells of three poor sisters who could not marry because they had no money for a dowry. To save them from being sold by their father, St. Nick left each of the three sisters gifts of gold coins. One went down the chimney and landed in a pair of shoes that had been left on the hearth. Another went into a window and into a pair of stockings left hanging by the fire to dry.

France: ‘Joyeux Noël!’: In France, Christmas is called Noel. This comes from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news” and refers to the gospel.  In southern France, some people burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. This stems from an ancient tradition in which farmers would use part of the log to ensure good luck for the next year’s harvest.  Italy: ‘Buon Natale!’ Italians call Chrismas Il Natale, meaning “the birthday.”

In Australia, the holiday comes in the middle of summer and it’s not unusual for some parts of Australia to hit 100 degrees Farenheit on Christmas day.

During the warm and sunny Australian Christmas season, beach time and outdoor barbecues are common. Traditional Christmas day celebrations include family gatherings, exchanging gifts and either a hot meal with ham, turkey, pork or seafood or barbeques.

Ukraine: ‘Srozhdestvom Kristovym!’: Ukrainians prepare a traditional twelve-course meal. A family’s youngest child watches through the window for the evening star to appear, a signal that the feast can begin.

Canada:  Most Canadian Christmas traditions are very similar to those practiced in the United States. In the far north of the country, Indigenous Inuits celebrate a winter festival called Sinck Tuck, which features parties with dancing and the exchanging of gifts.

Greece: ‘Kala Christouyenna!’:In Greece, many people believe in kallikantzeri, goblins that appear to cause mischief during the 12 days of Christmas. Gifts are usually exchanged on January 1, St. Basil’s Day.

In Latin America, a manger scene is the primary decoration in most southern European, Central American and South American nations. St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity in 1224 to help explain the birth of Jesus to his followers.

Jamestown, Virginia:  According to reports by Captain John Smith, the first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in his 1607 Jamestown settlement. Nog comes from the word grog, which refers to any drink made with rum.

The current, American Christmas Tree in a highly evolved state of decorations
[13] creating an atmosphere of Peace and Warmth.


[1] Personal quote by the author, December 2022.


[3] Matthew 1:18-25 The Bible






[9] Photo Credit : Ko Hon Chiu Vincent






READ PART 1: The Peace at Saturnalia

READ PART 2: Peace at Gregorian Christmas: The Evolution of Christmas in the 21st Century

Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits) is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.

Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Jan 2023.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Palpable Peace: The Institution of the Iconic Christmas Tree (Part 3), is included. Thank you.

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