The Origins of Our Christmas Traditions

It’s time for my favorite holiday of the year! I absolutely love Christmas, as my past blog posts about the holiday might have indicated. I love Christmas trees, I love gift-giving, I love getting together with family to celebrate the holiday. Which is why it surprised me to realize that as long as I have been doing this, I have never written about where our most popular Christmas traditions came from. Well, let’s fix that.

Where did Christmas trees come from?

Winters in Europe, especially northern Europe, tend to be cold and snowy. This should come as a surprise to nobody. Having said that, one thing that anybody who lives in a place that gets snowy, cold winters can tell you is that, after a while, you come to miss the warmth and greenery of spring, and can’t wait for it to arrive. So, ancient Europeans would take the boughs off of pine trees and use them as evergreen decorations in their homes.

According to legend, though, it was Martin Luther that came up with the modern idea of the Christmas tree. The story goes that as the man who kick-started the Protestant Reformation was wandering through the piney woods in Germany on route to an important sermon, he looked up and saw the night sky shining through between the trees, and it reminded him of the wonder of God’s creation. This inspired him to bring a pine tree into his own living room and decorate it with lit candles so his family could see what he saw.

Seems pretty dangerous to me…

Christmas trees were brought to America by German immigrants in the 19th century. However, they didn’t become popular until something happened across the pond in England. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German prince, and the two of them adopted the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in Buckingham Palace, and that popularized the practice across the British Empire, which helped it to become popular in America as well.

A little side-note: the ancient European practice of decorating with pine branches in the winter may also have combined with the ancient Roman practice of putting wreaths on the door to celebrate an important victory to give us the Christmas wreath, though it may also have originated as a variation of another German tradition, the Advent wreath. This is a wreath laid on a table or mantle with four candles sticking out of it. The idea is that each week, as you count down to Christmas, you light one of the candles. On Christmas Eve, you put a bigger candle in the middle of the wreath and light it to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Why do we give gifts on Christmas?

I have mentioned this before on this blog, but the early Christian church liked to time Christian festivals to occur right around the same time as pre-Christian pagan festivals so that converts to the faith would have an easier time adjusting to their new religion. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival honoring Saturn (hence the name). One of the most important aspects of Saturnalia was the exchange of gifts. Children would get toys, while adults would get everything from clothes to tools to books, just like today. Sometimes, these gifts would be accompanied by poems, sort of like a modern greeting card.

Showing love for those you care about by giving something of yourself is exactly the sort of thing that is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, so it seems like incorporating gift-giving as a part of the celebration of Christmas was a natural move for the early church to make.

What is up with mistletoe?

This parasitic vine was believed by the ancient Druids to have magic anti-evil-spirit powers, and was widely used in pagan Britain as a decoration for that reason. Early Christian missionaries tried to ban the practice, but failed, as the plant was just so popular and so important to British culture. In medieval England, it was a common practice for young lovers to kiss under a mistletoe plant and pick a berry from it. The idea was that once the last berry was picked, you couldn’t kiss under the plant anymore. It was also once common to burn mistletoe after Christmas was over as a way to ward off Satan in the new year. Although ceremonies using mistletoe got far less elaborate over time, the practice of hanging the plant from the ceiling during Christmastime has managed to survive to this day.

Why do we eat candy canes?

By contrast, the practice of eating candy canes is a far more recent tradition, only dating back to the mid-18th century. Originally all-white, the red stripes were added in the early 20th century to symbolize their peppermint flavor. Many have attempted to assign a religious significance to their shape – either that it is in the shape of a shepherd’s cane in honor of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in the manger, of that it is in the shape of a “J” for Jesus – though all of these meanings were later additions. It seems likely the first candy cane makers just liked the shape and thought it was festive.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the origins of some of our most popular Christmas traditions. At last. Check that one off the list!


The Fascinating Story of Britain’s Worst Highway

Congratulations to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their recent engagement! I’ll admit to having been surprised by the news, as I remember the last time an American celebrity tried to marry into the British royal family. Still, I certainly hope for the best for the new royal couple. I have to wonder what her family must think about the match, as this will mean that to see their daughter for the holidays, they will have to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. And then, when they arrive, they will almost certainly have to sit for hours in traffic on the M25, the most infamous highway in the UK.

The M25 is a freeway that makes a big loop around the Greater London area. It connects London Heathrow Airport, the busiest airport in Europe by passenger traffic, to the rest of the United Kingdom’s capital city of nine million people. The M25 is by far Britain’s most infamous road, with traffic that easily rivals that of American cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It has become a punchline for many a British stand-up comedian, and such a nuisance for British travelers that some will try to avoid it at all costs.

I first learned of this highway from Top Gear, a British show about cars that I became a huge fan of a few years ago. Many a punchline was made at the M25’s expense on that show. However, I just thought the road was some ordinary highway with bad traffic. Only recently did I learn that the story of how the M25 was created, and how it ended up being such a nightmare to drive on, is actually quite the tale of how city planning can go horribly wrong.

Let’s start at the very, very beginning – the founding of London itself. The ancient Romans founded the city, which they named Londinium, in 43 A.D. For nearly a millennium and a half, the city was largely confined to the area within the walls the Romans had built, but in Tudor times the city started to experience rapid growth, particularly in Southwark, the neighborhood across the Thames River where William Shakespeare’s theater was based. In 1530, London had about 50,000 residents; by 1605, this had grown to 225,000. The city only kept growing from there.

In those days, there was no central planning commission zoning out what development went where. People just built wherever there was open land. Neighborhoods, and the roads that connected them, grew up organically. This meant that by the time the car was invented in the late 19th century, much of modern-day London had already been built up into dense urban centers. The city’s roads were built for pedestrians and horses, not for these big, bulky, newfangled machines of the modern age. This became a real problem as the car took off in popularity and everyone started demanding to own one. More and more cars were trying to use roads that were too narrow and too crowded, and traffic became a real headache.

Luckily, the Greater London Council had a plan to fix this: the London Ringways project. The brainchild of civil engineer Patrick Abercrombie, the project intended to build a set of four freeways that would form four concentric circles from London’s outermost edge to the heart of the city’s downtown (hence the project’s name). This, Abercrombie and the Council believed, would alleviate the city’s traffic problem and make the lives of every driver in London much easier. The plan was first published in 1966 and formally adopted in 1969.

There was a bit of a problem, though. Building the London Ringways, especially the inner freeways that were closer to the city center, would require clear, open space upon which an eight-lane sheet of concrete and pavement could be laid. The land chosen for this construction project was anything but clear – in fact, it included many historic neighborhoods and commercial districts. For the Ringways to be built, 100,000 people would have to be evicted from their homes. Combine this with a staggering price tag of £1.7 billion (in 1970’s pounds!), and one can see why public opposition to the project grew.

Nevertheless, the city began construction on parts of the two outermost freeways that were planned as part of the project. These were far less controversial, as they were located out in the green pastures beyond the developed parts of London. As the construction workers began the Ringways project in earnest, the city leadership continued to fight with the public over the plans, until eventually the British Parliament intervened. It was the spectacular cost of the project that ultimately doomed it – citing the exorbitant expense, Parliament cut all funding to the project in 1973, forcing its cancellation.

This still left those partial freeways that had already been built, though. Not wanting to have wasted all that time, effort, and taxpayer money, it was decided to link those bits together into a new, single freeway encircling the outer edges of London. This new highway was opened in 1986, and dubbed the M25.

This, ultimately, is what went wrong with the M25 and why it is such a congested nightmare. It is a single freeway carrying a traffic load that was meant for four!

These days, London’s city officials try to alleviate the city’s traffic problem by encouraging the use of its public transportation network instead – the famous “tube” and double-decker buses. Those who choose to drive in London are subjected to a “congestion charge” of £11.50 per day. A study in 2013 concluded that this scheme had reduced traffic congestion in London by 10%. Ultimately, though, in a city as populous and as old as London, there really is only so much one can do. So, when you go to visit your family for Christmas this year, have some sympathy for our friends across the pond who are trying to do the same.