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.

Why Do We Change Our Clocks Twice A Year?

This morning I had to turn all of my clocks back an hour. This wasn’t so hard for some of my clocks; my cell phone updated automatically, and my wall clock has a little dial I can use to quickly adjust the time. However, the clocks in my car and on my oven are a bit more complicated, and figuring out how to change them can be quite frustrating, especially since I only change them twice a year.

Which begs the question: why do we change our clocks by an hour twice a year? Why do we “Spring Ahead and Fall Back”? What is the point of this bizarre exercise?

The idea of Daylight Saving Time – adjusting our clocks by an hour in order to have an extra hour of daylight in the summer – was proposed in 1895 by George Vernon Hudson, a famed entomologist and astronomer from New Zealand. The idea came to him while he was working a day job that had him working different shifts on different days. When not working, he would spend his daylight hours collecting insects to study, and he began to grumble that there weren’t enough hours of daylight in the afternoons. He reasoned that since, in the summertime, sunrise tends to happen before most people wake up, adjusting the clocks an hour later would make the sunrise appear to happen closer to when everyone is getting up in the morning and give people more daylight to enjoy in the evening.

People slowly started to warm to the idea. In part, this was because Hudson was not the only person who advocated such a scheme. In fact, none other than Benjamin Franklin had proposed something rather like Daylight Saving Time more than a century earlier. The first real push to turn this little idea into actual government policy, though, was in the United Kingdom, where William Willett published a pamphlet in 1907 entitled “Waste of Daylight” to drum up support for the proposal.

The first town to actually try this “Daylight Saving Time” idea for itself was Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, in 1908. In 1914, Regina, Saskatchewan decided to adopt it as well, and in 1916, so did Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That same year, Germany and Austria-Hungary became the first nations to adopt Daylight Saving Time nationwide; ironically, they did so to aid in their war effort against the very British Empire that they stole the idea from. The logic was that by adjusting their clocks and gaining that evening hour of daylight, they would use less artificial lighting and thus save fuel. Soon thereafter, the British and French adopted DST as well for the same reason. The United States adopted it in 1918.

Then, the First World War ended, and almost all of the countries that had adopted DST quickly abolished it. Why? Well, in part because it was meant as a temporary wartime measure, not as something permanent, but in part it also had to do with opposition to the scheme from many sectors of society. Here in the United States, for example, DST was supported by retailers (because workers who had extra daylight after work were more likely to go shopping) but opposed by farmers (because they had less time in the pre-dawn hours to get their goods to market) and by the young motion picture industry (because it was thought people wouldn’t want to spend their daytime in a dark theater). When World War II broke out, the warring nations once again adopted DST, once again as a temporary measure to save fuel, and once again dropped it once the war was over.

So, if Daylight Saving Time was abolished after WWII, why do we use it today? Thank Wall Street. See, New York City really liked DST and kept it around even as the rest of the United States ditched it. This meant that the stock market in the United States observed the twice-yearly clock change, and so did banks and the rest of the American finance industry. Other cities followed the Big Apple’s lead, and soon the United States was a crazy patchwork of places that did and that didn’t observe DST, and to make matters worse, there was no consistency for when DST started and ended for those places that did observe it. It became rather frustrating for months out of the year, as it became very difficult for travelers to know exactly what time it would be when they reached their destination.

To end the confusion, in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act. Under this scheme, Daylight Saving Time would be regulated by the federal government and adopted nationwide, though individual states could opt-out of having to observe it. The feds would set the starting and ending dates of DST for those states that participated. Today, all states observe DST except Arizona and Hawaii.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Most of Arizona doesn’t observe DST, but the Navajo Nation, an Indian reservation that lies in three states, does observe DST in order to have consistent time throughout the tribal lands. However, the Hopi Indian Reservation is located inside the Navajo Nation and does lie entirely within Arizona, and therefore doesn’t observe DST. If that wasn’t confusing enough, a tiny piece of the Navajo Nation actually lies within the Hopi Indian Reservation! This is the last remnant of the Daylight Saving Time confusion once common in the United States – if you were to travel in a straight line through this one spot, you could end up changing your clock seven times! So, nothing is ever that simple.

So, why do we still observe DST all these years later, willingly giving ourselves a twice-yearly challenge to try to figure out how to change our clocks and trying to remember which direction to turn the clock? The same reason that we adopted it during the world wars: saving energy.

About 3.5% of all electricity consumption in North America is made up of electrical lighting use by residential homes. Since the 1970s, many studies have shown energy savings from the use of DST by many Americans. However, these findings aren’t consistent everywhere – in my home state of California, a 2007 study showed no significant energy savings, which makes sense considering that what may be gained from less light usage would be offset in many of the hotter parts of the state by heavy air conditioning usage.

Whether Daylight Saving Time is actually useful or not, though, it is clearly here to stay. So, may I make a simple request of all makers of ovens, cars, and other devices with clocks on them? Please make it easier for us to change the time forward and back for an hour! Is that too much to ask?

What even is Oktoberfest, anyway?

Today is the first day of October, and already pumpkins are on sale at the local farmer’s market, the stores are selling Halloween decorations and candy, and almost every craft brewery in America is rolling out its seasonal “Oktoberfest” beers. In various cities and towns across America, Oktoberfest celebrations and festivities are being held as we speak. There is even one near where I live.

All of which begs the question: what is Oktoberfest? Is it just some fancy way of saying “October”? A traditional harvest festival? An excuse to drink beer?

Actually, it celebrates, of all things, a wedding.

On October 12, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The Bavarian royal family decided to celebrate this royal wedding with a giant public festival in a field in front of Munich’s city gates. The celebration lasted for days, ending with a huge horse race.

It was this last decision that proved fateful. Otherwise, the festival would have just been a one-time wedding party. However, the people of Bavaria loved the horse race and wanted another one the following year, and the city of Munich was happy to oblige. In 1811, an autumn harvest festival, featuring a horse race, was held. This was the beginning of Oktoberfest’s history as an annual event held in Munich in the fall.

Ironically enough, given its name, these days the original Oktoberfest in Munich is held in late September. These days, it largely resembles a state fair here in the United States, with roller coasters and rides, games, and food.

And, of course, beer – the one thing the festival is by far the most famous for. See, the early Oktoberfests happened to coincide with the invention of lager beer, which many at the time saw as superior to the ales that people had been brewing since ancient times. However, lager needs to be brewed in cold conditions, and in an age before refrigeration, that meant you had to wait until fall to start making it. Thus, Oktoberfest became, in part, a celebration of the changeover from ale-brewing to lager-brewing.

That’s why Oktoberfest is so closely associated with beer culture, and why so many breweries carry “Oktoberfest” beers. However, if you attend the Oktoberfest in Munich, you won’t find any of those beers anywhere. See, only a small handful of breweries in Munich are actually permitted to sell their beer at the festival. After all, it’s the city’s festival, and they want to promote their city’s business!

So that’s the story of the original Oktoberfest… but what about other Oktoberfest celebrations here in America and around the world? Well, over the generations, thousands of Germans emigrated to America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries. As one might expect from people who have journeyed thousands of miles to start a new life in a strange foreign land, these German immigrants would often get homesick. So, they began to hold their own “Oktoberfests” in the lands where they now lived, in order to celebrate their German heritage. Today, the largest Oktoberfest celebrations are in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Blumenau, Brazil, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

It’s sometimes funny how history and culture works out. Sometimes, you find out that things you might not have ever considered before have truly bizarre origins. Like a big, international celebration that millions participate in today existing because of a wedding and a horse race.

Countries that Don’t Exist (but Almost Did)

Recently, I have become quite fascinated by “alternative history” – speculative re-imaginings of historical events and how they could have played out differently. How would have history been reshaped if, for example, Alexander the Great’s empire didn’t fragment shortly after his death? Or if Napoleon had won his war against Russia? Or if electricity had never been discovered? There are all manner of ways the world as we know it could have ended up completely different if a few circumstances had changed.

There are all manner of sci-fi and speculative fiction books set in alternative “what if” worlds, and recently, the Amazon Prime series The Man In The High Castle has attempted to bring the genre into the mainstream. I have become a huge fan of Alternative History Hub, a YouTube channel that presents well-researched, realistic scenarios that answer the “what if” questions of history.

So, inspired by this fascinating genre, I’ve decided to take a look at several countries that never actually existed, but had a really good chance of existing if certain historical events had gone differently. A few circumstances lining up in another way than in our own timeline, and these countries might have ended up on our modern-day maps of the world.

The Republic of Vemerana

Where it would have been: The island of Espirito Santo, in our timeline’s Vanuatu

The proposal: In the 1970s, a U.S.-based, libertarian group known as the Phoenix Foundation was founded by a real estate magnate named Michael Oliver, who had come to America after spending four years in a Nazi concentration camp. Oliver believed that even the good ol’ freedom-loving U.S. of A. was sliding toward tyranny, and so he decided to try to set up a new society somewhere in the world based on his ideas about freedom and minimalist government.

Meanwhile, there was a group of islands in the Pacific known at the time as the New Hebrides that were governed as a joint British-French colony. The islanders wanted their independence, and the British were more than happy to give it to them, but the French objected because they didn’t want their own nearby colony of New Caledonia to get any ideas. As the political wrangling between these groups grew, a man on the island of Espirito Santo named Jimmy Stevens started a political movement called Nagriamel. The movement wanted to break free from everyone and have the island become its own country, and the Phoenix Foundation, seeing an opportunity, formed an alliance with Nagriamel. With the Foundation’s backing, Stevens and his followers seized control of the island in 1980 and declared its independence as “The Republic of Vemerana”. Stevens proclaimed himself Prime Minister, and plans were put in place to make the island the libertarian utopia that Oliver dreamed of.

Why it doesn’t exist: This rebellion took place literally weeks before the New Hebrides were due to gain their independence, and the last thing that the new nation’s soon-to-be leaders wanted was a secessionist crisis. They asked the British and French to move in and crush the rebels, but the colonial powers refused, largely because they were getting ready to evacuate the islands entirely.

Soon, the New Hebrides gained their independence as the Republic of Vanuatu, and one of the new nation’s first acts was to ask neighboring Papua New Guinea to invade the rebellious island. Papua New Guinea agreed, an in the very short “Coconut War”, the rebellion was suppressed and the island was annexed by Vanuatu. Stevens spent 11 years in prison for his rebellion. Yet the Nagriamel movement still exists, now contesting elections peacefully as a political party.


Thankfully, this one has an alternative English name that is much easier to write and pronounce: Intermarium

Where it would have been: Central Europe, between Germany and the USSR

The proposal: In 1918, the new Bolshevik government that had just seized power in Russia made good in its promise to pull the country out of World War I, signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the treaty, Russia gave up a vast stretch of territory that included much of central Europe, including Finland, the Baltic Sea coast, Poland, and Ukraine. The Germans certainly wanted to dominate these regions, but they didn’t have the resources or infrastructure to outright annex them. Instead, their plan was to set up a string of pro-German puppet states.

Then, Germany lost the war, and the fate of central Europe was suddenly completely up in the air. Polish general Józef Piłsudski decided to fill the power vacuum with… himself.

Piłsudski romanticized the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which dominated this part of Europe from the 14th century until it was divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria in 1795. Inspired by its centuries of success, he wanted to create a new federation that incorporated all of these newly-independent countries in central Europe into a single union. The idea was that such a union would have enough people, land, and resources to be a major power in Europe and prevent either the Germans or the Russians from dominating them ever again. Piłsudski’s plan was taken seriously by the major powers negotiating the postwar peace settlement, and even had the official backing of the French.

Why it doesn’t exist: Unfortunately for Piłsudski, his plan was not very popular among the people who would have had to join this union for it to work. The Finns, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others all basically said “We just won our independence, and now you’re asking us to give it back up? No way.”

The plan was also opposed by the British and Americans, who at the time thought the Bolsheviks were a passing fad and that once peace and democracy were restored in Russia, it would continue to be their ally in Europe. They didn’t want to kneecap the “new Russia” as it was being born. If only they knew, huh?


Where it would have been: In the Middle East, in the northern part of Mesopotamia and the nearby mountains, incorporating parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

The proposal: The Kurds are an ethnic group living in a region that is divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They claim to be descendants of the ancient Median Empire, they speak their own language, and they have their own unique culture. Just about the only thing they have in common with their neighbors is that the majority of them are Muslim, but even here there are many exceptions. Their identity is distinct enough that they could viably have an independent, stable, prosperous nation-state of their own.

Indeed, this was the original plan when the Ottoman Turkish Empire was defeated at the end of World War I. The Ottomans were forced to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which carved up what little remained of the empire and left it with a tiny rump on a small hunk of Anatolia. The rest of the empire would be split between Britain, France, Italy, Greece, a newly-independent Armenia, and a sector corresponding to the lands inhabited by the Kurdish people that would get a referendum on whether to become an independent nation or not. There is little doubt that the Kurds would have voted for independence, as Kurdish nationalists had been fighting the Ottomans since the 19th century.

Why it doesn’t exist: The referendum never happened, because the Treaty of Sèvres was never put into effect. Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rejected the treaty and rose up in rebellion, leading to the Turkish War of Independence. The rebels deposed the last Ottoman sultan, set up a secular, Western-style republic, and forced the Allies to draw up a new treaty. The Treaty of Lausanne more or less gave Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors their modern borders, and as a consequence, hopes of Kurdish independence were snuffed out.

Kurds in Turkey were subjected to discrimination, forced to abandon their culture and assimilate into Turkish society. Even their language was banned. Since the 1970s, Kurds living in Turkey have fought an on-again-off-again rebellion against the Turkish authorities. Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria have also fought for their independence. Today, Iraqi Kurds are granted a high degree of autonomy by the post-Saddam Hussein 2005 Iraqi constitution, allowing them their own government and military, though they still are technically subordinate to Baghdad. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Kurdish community has taken advantage of the chaos and civil warring to set up their own “government”, called Rojava. It remains to be seen where these new developments will lead, but one has to wonder what would have happened if the Kurds had been able to win their independence peacefully in the 1920s as originally planned.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers! A small sampling of the countless alternative countries that might have existed if history had taken a slightly different path. Let me know if you liked this topic; there are so many other almost-countries I could have picked from, and I’m curious to see if you want to hear some of their stories, too!