There is so much more to Christmas than presents, trees and even so much more than the man in red himself Santa!
Last year I counted down to Christmas by sharing the history of the jolly old fellow and you can read this by heading to the blog: Click Here!
This year I've been counting down to Christmas by looking at how, any why, some iconic Christmas symbols came to be.
My previous post talked of how Santa came into being but it didn't talk about many of the things that we've come to associate with Santa so here is a quick look at a few of the symbols we've come to associate with the man in red!
Symbols Associated with Santa
1. The North Pole
Here is a question, how do we know that Santa lives in the North Pole? When did it become Santa's accepted home?
Thanks to Janet Giovanelli's great book "The True Story of Santa Claus" the answer was easy to find!
Just like his red suit and cheery disposition that came about in the late 19th century it was at this time that Santa took up residence in the North Pole.
Artist Thomas Nast worked at Harper's Weekly from 1863 to 1886 and it was during this time that he began to flesh out Santa's life. One element he added was Santa's workshop in the North Pole where he lived & was aided by Elves.
2. Santa's Sleigh
Most traditions linked to Santa Claus tend to have their origins in the tales of St. Nicholas and other European Kris Kringle’s, but the use of Santa’s sleigh didn’t come into the picture until the tale crossed the oceans and landed in the USA.
Prior to this the most common form of transport for a Santa character was by donkey.
In the early 19th century tale of Santa talk of him travelling by “wagon” and later a sleigh pulled by the reindeer. Hence, the sleigh and reindeer came into the picture around a similar time however the sleigh did come first.
3. Santa's Elves
It is commonly believed that the story of Santa saw elves enter the picture in the mid-19th century when stories of Santa began to be told in mass-published books and magazines.
While this is when most Americans would have first come across elves their origins date to much further back in time.
The Nisse are a common part of Scandinavian folklore. They resemble gnomes and have large point hats (yes like Santa’s). They appear to perform tasks similar to Santa’s elves and according to tradition it is them who delivers presents.
The accepted first appearance of elves in modern literature was by Louisa May Alcott (the author of Little Women) in the 1850s when she wrote a book titled “Christmas Elves” and though this was never published the image of the elves in the workshop became popularized in several publications (pictured here is the 1873 cover of Godey’s Lady Book” which helped the concept of Santa in his workshop with the elves.
Today Santa’s elves are a well-accepted part of the Santa story.
While most things related to the modernisation of Jolly old St. Nick came in the late 19th century and mid-20th century the reindeer were a much earlier addition.
The first known reference to the reindeer is thought to be from 1823 in a poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clerment Clarke Moore.
It would be over a century later that the Rudolph would be added to the mix with the popularity of the song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” hitting the airwaves in 1949.
Symbols Found in the Home
5. The Christmas Tree
What do trees have to do with Christmas?
For the earliest days of Christmas, the tree symbolised eternal life and could be found in celebrations. Just as many other Christian celebrations and traditions went underground in subsequent years, so to did the use of the tree and it is thought that the custom of decorating your home, which was most visible in the Scandinavian world, was used as a substitute for the lack of a tree.
After centuries without trees the modern use of the tree dates to Germany in the 16th century and is often linked to rise of Lutheranism with Martin Luther known to have added candles to his tree.
The most concrete date for a Christmas Tree entering the home is 1576 when a tree was represented on a keystone home sculpture in Alsace which at the time was part of Germany (today part of France).
With this being such a German tradition then how did it make its way into the homes of the rest of the world?
For that we can largely thank Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. By the time he introduced it to the British royal family the use of the tree had spread throughout many of the noble houses on the European continent so you could argue it was a matter of time before Britain jumped on board, given every royal family was related to one another.
Albert had grown up in Germany and after they introduced a tree it became more widespread amongst the general populous. In 1844 a book titled “The Christmas Tree” was even published detailing the use of the tree and its origins.
I must point out that Albert didn’t introduce the concept of the tree to Victoria who herself was part German and her diaries show she grew up knowing what the tree was.
In 1800 Queen Charlotte who was also German-born & wife of King George III, had attempted to introduce the tree to the British however after she featured it at a children’s party it didn’t gain traction. It wouldn’t be until the couple that all Britain wanted to emulate adopted the tree that it entered the mainstream and spread to the use it has today.
So the tree came inside but why did it begin to be decorated? Isn’t the tree enough?
The earliest trees actually had fruit hung on them which again ties back in with the theme of life and the birth of Jesus. Over time what went onto as tree developed and it is thought that people began trying to emulate a candle flickering on the tree.
Why? Well remember Martin Luther put a candle on his tree but if we are fire smart that likely wasn’t the best option for a flammable item inside a home.
Baubles came to represent this light due to the way the light flickered on the glass of the bauble (yes traditional baubles were beautifully made of glass very far from a lot for the ones we have today).
Christmas lights are simply the next step in the progression of the bauble tradition.
Remember how Martin Luther put a candle on his tree as candles represent life? Then to be fire safe this developed into baubles which came to represent the light due to the way the light flickered on the glass of the baubles.
Flash forward to modern days and now we have Christmas or fairy lights!
Ah the bells! Who doesn’t like the chime of a nice bell when kept to a minimum and only on special occasions…too much bell ringing can drive a town crazy (just think of that episode of Gilmore Girls).
What is a bells main function? To announce an arrival or call for attention. This simple daily use is how they are actually used as Christmas and how they’ve been used for centuries.
For kids ringing bells can be fun but for adults they can be a pain! Ironic perhaps as in Pagan times they were rung to scare away evil spirits (for kids I’m sure some adults would be classed as evil spirits)!
At Christmas time bells are rung to call in the season and in churches especially they announce the birth of Christ.
Isn’t it interesting that almost every Christmas tradition does tie back to the original religious origins!
Where does the concept of stockings at Christmas come from?
This Christmas symbol has its origins in the St. Nicholas tradition. In some European country’s children would leave out their shoes with treats for his donkey and in turn, they would receive a gift in their shoes (or a variation of this story).
It is custom to put out your stocking on St. Nicholas day and it will then be filled. In several European nations St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated as one of the main holidays of this period.
This is where the original term “stocking stuffer” comes from and it developed to be an “extra” or “smaller” present that was received alongside the presents that were found under the tree.
But why a stocking? According to many traditional tales St. Nicholas threw presents into one poor family’s home (some stories say via the chimney others say through the window) and it landed in the children’s stockings so the following year the stocking was left out and thus begins the tradition.
I love poinsettia’s all year round, but they are traditionally thought of as a Christmas flower.
Unlike most Christmas traditions that originate in Europe or the USA this tradition has its origins in Mexico.
According to Mexican legends a young girl didn’t have anything to give Jesus on Christmas, so she gifted a weed to the altar of the church, and they blossomed into the poinsettia. (Sounds a bit like the Little Drummer Boy story doesn’t it)!
It is said that the petals of the flower are symbolic of the star that led the three wise men to Jerusalem on Jesus ‘birth.
Why do we associate gingerbread with Christmas?
If you ask Google, you will get 100 different answers!
These will range from things about gingerbread being sacred and therefor limited to only Christmas time or date back to Germany in the early 19th century with the story of hansel and Gretel.
The later tradition can be traced to around 1812 when families began making houses out of cake at Christmas time which eventually became gingerbread based homes.
Gingerbread became popular during the time of Queen Elizabeth I when she is said to have had Gingerbread “men” created of guests at her parties. Though popular amongst the rich court, Gingerbread was hard to come by for poorer folk, so this is why it became a special treat.
During the mid-twentieth century it became custom to leave cookies out for Santa. Initially, this was a way children could show generosity and thanks to Santa for the presents he brought at Christmas, and it remains a popular tradition today.
12. The Nutcracker
Nutcracker’s date back to before the creation of the well-known ballet.
Stemming, like many other Christmas traditions from German folklore, nutcrackers were given as keepsakes to families to protect the home.
In 1892 Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet “The Nutcracker” debuted and as it is set on Christmas Eve it has become a staple of Christmas time.
Janet Giovanelli, "The True Story of Santa Claus: The History, The Traditions, The Magic", (New York, USA: Centennial Books, 2020).
Judith Flanders, "Christmas: A History", (London, England: Picador Publishing, 2017).
Alex Palmer, "The Atlas of Christmas: The Merriest, Tastiest, Quirkiest Holiday Traditions from Around the World", (New York, USA: Hachette Book Group, 2020)
Andy Thomas, "Christmas: A Short History from Solstice to Santa", (London, England: Quarto Publishing, 2019).