Christmas Folklore Puts Meaning Behind Traditions

December 16, 1997

December marks the time of year when children behave better than usual because Santa Claus is checking a list from his North Pole home to find out who’s naughty or nice.

According to Michael Bell, an English professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Santa’s real name was Saint Nicholas and he was drawn from a bishop of the Greek Empire during the fourth century A.D.

“If he’s real, there are a couple of legends explaining how he came about,” Bell said.

One of the legends is the story of a poor man with three daughters who were forced to turn to prostitution because their father was unable to give them dowries, Bell said. When St. Nick heard about it, he snuck up to their house and placed three gold balls inside an open window.

“This started the tradition of secret gift giving on Christmas and apparently the three black balls you used to see in the windows of pawn shops derive from that,” Bell said.

The other legend tells of an evil innkeeper who kidnapped a couple of children, cut them up into little pieces and threw them into a large barrel. When St. Nick discovered this atrocity, he went to the barrel, took the body parts out and put them back together so the children would come back to life.

“This began the belief that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children,” Bell said.

Other Christmas traditions that mark the coming of the holiday season include caroling, hanging mistletoe and decorating a tree. Many of the customs we take for granted date back to pre-Christian times, he said. Carolers could well have been pre-Christian Romans celebrating the pagan holiday “Saturnalia”-- the Birthday of the Sun.

“We know of no societies that don’t have some kind of celebration during the winter solstice,” he said.

The lean, severe months of winter inspired many people to use seasonal celebrations to make a difficult time more bearable. It followed naturally that, when people converted to Christianity, they celebrated Christ’s birth with familiar pagan traditions.

In fact, with all the feasting and exchanging of gifts, it is hard to distinguish “Saturnalia” from a modern-day Christmas.

“No one was supposed to work, except cooks and bakers,” Bell said. But unlike today, “nothing was allowed to be published unless it was upbeat.”

The holiday season also brings romance into the air. During the winter solstice celebrations, the Druids hung mistletoe in their homes to act as a special blessing. Bell said the Druids may have believed the mistletoe, which grows as a parasitic plant in oak trees, was put there by lightning. For some reason, oak trees are especially susceptible to lightning, he said.

“Over time, people may have begun kissing under the mistletoe as a practice of forgiveness and an opportunity to forget old grievances,” Bell said.

Christmas tree decorations began as simple communion wafers and later a variety of fruits were placed on the fir tree as symbols of fertility.

“It seems to go back to the pagan idea of the fir tree as a symbol of life that does not die in the winter -- an evergreen,” Bell said.

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