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14 October 2014
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Christmas traditions

Poinsettia plant with red leaves.

Poinsettia plants are white-leaved for most of the year, but often turn red in winter.

A Mexican legend tells the story of a child who could not afford a gift for the Christmas Eve service. Gathering a handful of flowers from the wayside, the child remembered that a gift given with love would be acceptable to Jesus and her spirits rose. As the child knelt before the nativity scene the plant bloomed into a brilliant red before the eyes of the congregation and all who watched felt they had witnessed a Christmas miracle.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng

A red breasted robin sits perched on a pole.

Robin redbreast
The robin is a sedentary British garden bird. During winter they are often joined by migratory Scandinavian robins, making their appearance at this time more common. The birds often feature on Christmas cards, their red breasts a dash of colour in a white wonderland.

According to a Christmas legend, a robin landed on the shoulder of Jesus and sang in order to relieve his suffering. The blood from Jesus' crown of thorns stained the little bird's chest, and from then on, all robins were red breasted.

Photo © Taro Taylor, courtesy stock.xchng

A collection of various baubles decorating a dark green Christmas tree

Bauble production originated in what is now Lauscha, Germany, in 1610. At the end of a day's work, glass blowers would play games to see who could blow the largest glass ball. Their wives would then take the balls, swirl silver nitrate inside them to give them a metallic sheen and sell them in the market.

When gas fires made it possible to design the balls more creatively, they increased in popularity and were exported to Britain. Initially a status symbol for the very rich, bauble decorating became popular with the masses around the late 1890s.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng

Christmas trees lit up with bright electric lights outside a civic building

Christmas tree
The fir tree became associated with Christianity when Saint Boniface, a monk from Devonshire, went to preach in an area of Germany that became famous for its Christmas decorations. The triangular shape of the tree was used to explain the concept of the trinity, the continuous green represented the everlasting hope of mankind and its shape signified thoughts towards heaven.

Decorated trees gained vogue in Britain when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured with their children around one in the Illustrated London News.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng

Sprigs of mistletoe hung with a red ribbon

Mistletoe is a partially parasitic plant which grows on trees and feeds on the nutrients of its host. It was revered by Pagans who believed that it had life giving powers and bestowed fertility. Kissing under the mistletoe was probably an early Pagan marriage ritual.

Scandinavians regarded mistletoe as a peace plant and it was given to indicate a truce between warring nations or husband and wife. Its evergreen leaves and association with kissing meant it was easy to use as a symbol of Christian love and eternal life.

Photo © iStockphoto

A dew covered holly bush with bright red berries in a garden

Holly wreaths were given as gifts during the Roman festival Saturnalia, which is believed by many to be the festival from which Christmas was originally adapted.

According to some stories, it is said that only the holly tree consented to be cut down and its wood made into a cross to bear Jesus. Some Christians believe that Jesus wore a crown of holly thorns whose berries were originally white. As Jesus' blood touched the berries, they turned red. The green leaves of the holly plant have come to represent everlasting life and the berries the blood of Jesus.

Photo © Lisa Wolfson, courtesy stock.xchng

Nativity crib scene

Nativity crib
The original nativity scenes were live re-enactments of the birth of Jesus, with actors and real animals. St Francis of Assisi is believed to have organised the first full nativity in the 12th century. In medieval times, the enactments were sponsored by churches, and actors were picked based on how closely they resembled who was being represented.

The first sculpted and painted scenes started in around the 16th century, when wealthy churches starting commissioning artists to decorate inside their buildings.

Photo © iStockphoto/Lisa F Young

A Christmas wreath

Wreaths were used by many societies for different reasons, including Romans who wore them as crowns. It is not known when they became decorative wall hangings, but it's possible that wreaths won in contests were put on display, similar to trophies today.

The Advent wreath is German in origin. Usually with four candles, one is lit every Sunday before Christmas, representing the coming of Jesus. For Christians, evergreen plants in a continuous circle symbolise everlasting hope and life.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng

The world's first Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley in London, 1843

Christmas cards
In the 18th century in England, children sent Christmas messages to their family on paper decorated with a border. But it wasn't until 1843, when a busy Sir Henry Cole commissioned a standard card greeting for all of his friends, that the modern day ritual of sending Christmas cards was invented. John Callcott Horsley designed the first.

The cards had a print run of 1,000 and were sold for a shilling each. They were expensive, but the idea caught on. The Penny Post, which had been introduced three years earlier, meant that a Christmas wish could be sent for just one penny.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Christmas stockings

Christmas stocking
According to legend, a poor man worried that this three daughters would not get married as he did not have dowry for them. St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, knew of their plight and wanted to help them. On Christmas Eve, after the girls had put their stockings out to dry on the fire place, he threw some gold coins down the chimney. The coins landed in the stockings and filled them. When news of this spread, other people began to hang stockings too in the hope that they would receive gifts.

St Nicholas is believed to be the inspiration for Father Christmas.

Photo © iStockphoto/Jim Jurica

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