I’m continuing last month’s topic because I friggin’ love Christmas and there was a lot I didn’t cover. I love Christmas, I love history, I love completely useless trivia. I’m really surprised you didn’t all see this coming. Buckle up, I went into hyperfocus mode and my ADHD won’t let me walk away from the topic yet. Don’t worry, I’m trying. I don’t want to get stuck on this forever, so I started an audiobook (Dial A for Aunties) and it’s kind of hilarious so far. It definitely has a chance to bring me back. Back to the land of the Neurotypical. Or at least the world of the masked neurodivergent.
But I digress.
Here are 10 MORE things you might not know about Christimas decorations.
- The reason we associate the colors red and green with Christmas is because of The Paradise Play from the 11th Century. The play is about creation, not the birth of Christ, but due to its religious themes it was quickly associated with Christian celebrations in general, and Christmas falls into that category. In the original play, there was a green tree with red fruit on it used as a central and iconic prop. The red/green motif eventually became associated with the Christian celebration of Christmas and today everyone is decking the halls with red and green regardless of whether they are celebrating on a religious basis or a cultural one.
- Tinsel was a way for Germans to flaunt their wealth. That’s right kids, long before the French peasantry got fed up and started forcing nobles to the guillotine and Russians went on a murderous rampage against all things Tsar, the Germans were stirring up ill feelings among the masses. This also led to more than one period of heavy peasantry exodus from Germany to places like the American colonies (just one example). But those who had money had no shame in their game. They literally decorated their trees with strands of silver. Originally, they claimed it was to “reflect the lights” of the candles and make the tree glow a bit more, but mostly it was a statement. It said, “I have so much money, I can literally decorate dying greenery in my home with strands of silver.” Or maybe even, “Oh, you have purebred racehorses and a mansion? That’s cute. I have a castle and with a tree dripping in precious metals inside it.” Anyway, eventually the masses began to copy the look using cheaper materials. Centuries later during World War I and II, when those materials became scarce, they changed again. First to aluminum, which is turns out was crazy flammable (keep in mind this was placed on a tree with lit candles on it), then to lead which is literally poison. These days it’s made of synthetics and is basically safe, though now most very affluent households have abandoned the idea of tinsel because it’s considered tacky or gaudy. I mean, if poor people can afford it, what is EVEN the point? **A lot of people who read this don’t know me in real life, so let me assure you that I’m completely joking.
- Mistletoe is actually a parasite. No, really. It’s spread by birds when they, ahem, defecate on tree branches. Then it grows on the tree and dries it out by leeching water and nutrients from it. To save the tree, the mistletoe must be removed before it spreads. In ancient times, once removed from trees, it was used medicinally. Romans as far back as the lifetime of Pliny the Elder are recorded using mistletoe to battle epilepsy, gastric distress, or other ailments. Due to its ability to flourish even in winter, Druids considered it a sign of fertility and used it to treat infertility in humans and animals. While the Norse have a myth that involves a mother’s love and Loki’s jackwagon nature that somehow ends in a kiss, most historians are still in debate about how kissing under the mistletoe came about. There are several different theories, but what we know for sure is that it was a practice among English servants by the 1700s.
- Gingerbread houses are another holiday tradition we can thank the Germans for. Though, theirs were first decorated with gold foil and were mostly used a table decorations among the affluent (seems to be a theme with German Christmas decor). Then came the story of Hansel and Gretel, a cautionary tale that seems to be somewhat allegorical now that I better understand its origin. As the tale spread across the region, so did the tradition of building houses (now big and small) of gingerbread.
- Poinsettias are named after a diplomat. The Aztecs called the flower Cuetlaxochitl (Flower That Grows in Residue) and used it both to make red dye and as a fever reducer. Eventually, the flower would be given the Spanish named Flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flower) due to its vibrant red and green color. It is still called by its Spanish name in most of Central America (to which it is native). However in the 1820 Joel Poinsett was the first U.S. Minister to Mexico and during his travels between Mexico and his home in South Carolina, he brought the plant back to his greenhouse, in love with its beauty. He showed it off to many of his friends, began cultivating it and sharing the flower and between 1828 and 1836 it was dubbed the Poinsettia after him.
- Snowglobes were an accident. In 1900 Erwin Perzy was trying to improve the brightness of electric bulbs. Over the course of his experiments he ended up pouring (or spilling, depending on which source you read) semolina into a small, round, glass bulb and he saw how it looked like snowfall. After that he created a small winter themed diorama and attached it. The snowglobe was born.
- The very first Nativity scene was staged by St. Francis of Assisi. He got approval from the Pope before staging the live scene in Grecio, Italy. Locals were used as actors and the scene was setup in a cave. The scene included the Holy Family, shepherds, and three wise men and as people came to see it, the saint preached a message about the Savior. Though, shepherds and wise men never actually appear together in the Biblical narrative (the wise men do not arrive until Jesus is two years old and we are told of three gifts, but not how many men come to him), the original scene still inspires those sold and displayed all over the world today.
- While Santa Claus is the Dutch rendering of Saint Klaus, the shortened form of Saint Nicholas (a real person), the white-bearded, red wool suit wearing image used to decorate many places for Christmas is actually the work of a commercial artist. Coca-Cola created a series of painted Christmas advertisements in 1931 that featured the image we’ve come to embrace. The artist’s inspiration was a poem from 1823 that described a red robe or cloak wearing Santa.
- Rudolph was born in 1939. He was featured in the storybook that Montgomery Ward gave out during the holiday season that year to customers visiting his department store. The song featuring the quickly beloved little red-nosed reindeer was written in the 1940s, and a couple of decades later his story was immortalized in claymation.
- The ringing of bells to call church patrons to mass and prayer dates back a long way. Many sources credit St. Patrick with the use of a handheld bell to call his parishioners to prayer, but the tradition was solidly in place for all major Christian holidays long before it became associated with Christmas. By the early 1800s, however, carolers in England would ring bells as they traveled through the streets singing to call the attention of the residents. It was then that the ringing bell became primarily associated with Christmas.
Bonus fact. Jingle Bells was originally written for a Thanksgiving celebration concert in the 1800s. It didn’t become associated with Christmas until years later.
Merry Christmas, y’all! Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in January, when I’ve taken all my wonderful Christmas decor back down after the Epiphany on the 6th.