For many of us, the holiday season is a time of family gatherings and a celebration of the good things that life has to offer. We may reminisce about the past year and begin to dream of the year to come. As you decorate your house, purchase gifts, and roast your holiday ham, let’s explore ten holiday traditions that started because of poverty.
10 The Original Nativity Scene
In the King James Bible, Luke chapters two through seven depict the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. One section reads, “…she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room in the inn.”
The fact that Jesus was born in a stable and had an animal’s manger as a crib comes down to the fact that Bethlehem was crowded with people coming to pay their taxes. It had nothing to do with the poverty of his family. They simply could not find accommodations in the town.
The birth of the Christ child is remembered each holiday season in nativity scenes. Nativity scenes typically include shepherds, sheep, an angel, a donkey, an ox, three wise men, the mother Mary, the father Joseph, baby Jesus, and the star of Bethlehem. Some nativities are simple, while others are elaborate. Many individuals even collect nativity scenes and adorn their homes with displays.
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene display that used real people and animals in 1223 to encourage Christian worship. Families across the globe still uphold the tradition of dressing up and reenacting the birth of Christ each Christmas season.
9 From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus
While ole Saint Nick shimmies down chimneys to drop off presents to good boys and girls worldwide, the real Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century Christian bishop who lived in Myra; now modern-day Turkey.
After the death of his parents, Saint Nicholas inherited a fortune from them but was a kind and generous man who donated all he had to those in need. He was renowned for helping the poor and giving life-changing gifts to those in need. Saint Nicholas is well known for being the patron saint of children and sailors, with a yearly celebration to honor the man on December 6th.
After the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, saints became somewhat unpopular, yet Saint Nicholas retained his allure and grandeur. Dutch families brought “Sinter Klaas” to America, and the rest is well—history.
8 Hang Your Stockings by the Chimney with Care
If I were to take a guess, I would guess that you have stockings well-hung somewhere in your home. Are they hung up on or near your fireplace? Have you ever wondered why the fireplace?
Well, the story goes that three poor sisters washed their stockings and hung them out to dry by the fireplace overnight. Knowing that the girls were living in poverty, Saint Nicholas (the same Saint Nicholas in number nine above) threw three bags of gold down the chimney, with each bag falling into each of the sister’s stockings. Now you know why you traditionally hang stockings on the fireplace and why Santa Claus delivers gifts via the chimney!
We still hang up Christmas stockings each year, but unfortunately, few get filled with bags of gold. Now, many stockings are filled with candy, small toys, or even the ever-famous socks and underwear combo. Thanks, Mom!
7 “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly”
Holly, also known as Ilex, is the traditional Christmas flowering plant with which individuals decorate their homes. Its glossy leaves and bright red berries bring a touch of color to drab winter days. Because holly was a common plant in the woodlands of Europe, it was a cheap way for the poor to brighten their homes, and it soon became synonymous with the Christmas season.
The Romans used holly in their Saturnalia festival around our current Christmas season for the same reasons that we use it today—it’s pretty! On the day of Saturnalia, masters served their slaves.
Nowadays, in the United States, commercial nurseries cultivate European holly for Christmas use. Unfortunately, Ilex likes conditions in America and has become an invasive species that causes considerable damage to native woodlands.
In traditional medicine, holly berries were used as a diuretic, fever relief, and a laxative. We certainly wouldn’t recommend this, as the berries can be toxic to humans. The colorful berries are enticing to small children and pets, but their effects can be sickly. So if you choose to decorate with real holly, please hang it out of reach of your pets and small children.
6 You Say “Panto,” I Say “Mime”
Many families enjoy going to the movies on Christmas day, but did you know similar practices have been going on for centuries? Pantos or pantomimes are not as important in the United States as they are, for example, in Britain. Nevertheless, various theaters across the country put on pantos during the holiday season.
Pantos generally follow the same general theme, whatever the subject. They usually showcase a tussle between bad and good, with clear plot lines, songs, and audience participation. Although pantos often reflect contemporary themes, pantos have a long tradition.
Pantos tradition traces its roots to medieval morality plays. These plays presented Christian themes and Bible stories in a way that was easily understood by the poor, illiterate townspeople who watched them. Services in the church were in Latin, a language that the uneducated didn’t understand. Morality plays were well-received by the public and continue to influence modern-day entertainment practices.
5 Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant. Its use as a holiday decoration shares, with holly, the virtues of being easy to find and decorative at a time of year when few other plants look their best. Like holly, it was a natural choice for the poor due to its easy access.
The Greeks used mistletoe as a cure-all, but the Druids saw it as a symbol of vivacity in the first century. Mistletoe thrived when everything else seemed dead; this small step led people to see the plant as a fertility symbol—hence our tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
This tradition of snatching a kiss seems to have gained popularity in eighteenth-century England, amongst the servants in the great houses, mainly through the literature of the day—Washington Irving’s “Christmas Eve” comes to mind.
4 Winner Winner, Turkey Dinner
There is a story that Turkish merchants brought a tasty African fowl to Europe. In Britain, this bird quickly became known as a “turkey.” Long before Britain established colonies in America, a trader named William Strickland got hold of some American fowl that he sold in Bristol in 1526. These new birds were also named, somewhat unscientifically, as “turkeys.”
Henry VIII decided that the English should eat turkey at Christmas. Although he often seemed to act on a whim, this was a question of the domestic economy. Mid-winter was a terrible season for farmers. Most farmers were poor with small plots of land that could support only a few animals.
The farmers could kill a chicken or slaughter a cow to celebrate the Christmas feast, but these animals were productive. Farmers could sell the eggs and milk, so they could not afford to lose them. Hence, turkey became an ideal substitute.
3 Yule Logs: From Wood to Cake
Originally, a Yule log was, well, a large log. In poor households, the fireplace was a source of heat and light. It was the center of the home where the whole family gathered. The family would cook their meals and chat in the dark winter evenings.
In the cold and dark days as the year turned toward spring, a huge Yule log would burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas, from December 25th to January 5th. “Yule” is from the Norse word, hweol, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the Yule log would usher in the sun, leading to warmth and longer days.
Today, many only know a Yule log as a tasty holiday dessert. A Yule log cake is a chocolate sponge cake rolled with a cream filling. The cake is then covered with chocolate ganache to resemble an actual wood log. A delicious treat—without the splinters and fiber!
2 Milk and Cookies for Santa
Leaving milk and cookies for Santa is a large part of the United States holiday tradition, so it might be difficult to believe that it is quite a recent addition to Christmas.
In America, leaving snacks out for Santa seems to have started during the Great Depression. With so many people out of work, poverty was a real fear. No one could be certain they would have a job the following week; everyone knew someone who had fallen on hard times.
In the households that were lucky enough to celebrate Christmas, some parents tried to teach their children the importance of giving and showing solidarity with those less fortunate than themselves. The leaving out of cookies and milk was symbolic, true, but an important lesson.
However, the tradition had long been popular in other parts of the world. Like several other holiday customs, it originated in northern Europe. The holiday tradition stems from the god Odin riding around the skies on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. During the Yule season, children would leave out food for Sleipnir, hoping that a grateful Odin would bring them a present in return. Rudolph and Santa’s reindeer are an echo of Odin and Sleipnir
1 Salvation Army Bell Ringers
Salvation Army bell ringers are perhaps the holiday tradition most obviously connected to poverty and need. The holiday season sees bell-ringers in virtually every shopping area in the country; I can hear the bells, even now.
The Salvation Army began when William and Catherine Booth organized a mission on military principles to help the needy in London, England. The Salvation Army is now an international institution that offers help to all who need it, regardless of faith or circumstance. However, the tradition of Salvation Army bell ringers is purely American and began in San Francisco, CA, in 1891.
The United States had recently come out of a short but damaging recession. Many people had moved west in search of new opportunities, but not all were successful. Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee had the worthy but relatively modest aim to bring some cheer to the unfortunate.
That Christmas, Captain McFee decided that he would like to host a Christmas dinner for 1,000 of the city’s destitute and set out a red pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing with a sign that asked people to “Keep the Pot Boiling!” to draw attention to the event and raise the necessary funds. This was the origin of the red kettles that the Salvation Army still use, and bell-ringing advertises their presence.
In 2019, the Salvation Army raised $126 million through its bell-ringing campaign. Their presence on our streets during the holiday season is a reminder of the true spirit of Christmas.