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The Surprising History Behind Some Christmas Traditions

The Christmas season is full of traditions, from decorating trees to kissing under the mistletoe. But why do all of these traditions exist, and how did they get started?

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Michael Foley, author of the new book Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained, to discuss some of our favorite Christmas traditions and the history behind them.


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Transcript: The Surprising History Behind Some Christmas Traditions

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Do you know the origin or meaning behind the many traditions, treats, carols, and characters that mark the Advent and Christmas seasons? Well, wouldn’t it be great to share some fun facts about one or two at your holiday gatherings? To help us out with that, we’re joined today by Michael Foley, whose newest book, Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained, offers some funny anecdotes and surprising facts behind many of the season’s favorite traditions. Michael Foley, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

MICHAEL FOLEY: Thank you so much for having me on.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, so this book is fun. So why did you decide that the world needed a book like this?

MICHAEL FOLEY: Well, like every kid growing up in America, Christmas was always my favorite season. And it really does stand out in our year, not just because it’s so special but because of the symbols. There are so many customs and symbols that make the Christmas season distinctive, but they’re not always self-explanatory. You know, why do we deck the halls with boughs of holly and not something else? So I grew up mesmerized by these customs, but I didn’t always know what they meant. And finally, as a grown up and a scholar, I got a chance to dive into those things and find out what they symbolize. And the result is my book.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So as Christians, I think we always, kind of, maybe have a guilty pleasure when we have our Santa Clauses and our other little traditions that surround Christmas. But there’s no guilt in you regarding that, right? And why is that?

MICHAEL FOLEY: Well, for one thing, Santa Claus is St. Nicholas. And as long as you remember, sort of the origins of Santa Claus is not that bad.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk about the origins of Santa Claus, then, how did it happen that he came about, and why does his story continue to endure even to this day?

MICHAEL FOLEY: He was a real-life person; St. Nicholas of Mira lived in the fourth century. He was actually tortured and imprisoned during the Age of Roman persecution, became a wonderful Bishop and was always known in his day as the champion of the little guy. He was the guy that you would go to when you were in trouble with like the Roman imperial government or some bad politicians are trying to tax you too much. Nicholas protected the little guy. And he also protected, according to the story, young maidens from falling into destitution. And that’s one of the reasons why he became a patron saint of children. And that story of him made him a favorite in Christian Europe for many, many centuries. And it wasn’t until very recently that he was transformed into Santa Claus.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: How did that transformation happen that he is the one that brings gifts on Christmas morning?

MICHAEL FOLEY: So he brought gifts even as St. Nicholas but it was on his feast day, which is December 6, or the evening of December 6, December 5, but Santa Claus is just a uniquely American creation. There were stories about Santa Claus that the Dutch had brought to New York City, and the English kind of reluctantly allowed their children to observe this custom, but they didn’t like the sort of Catholic associations with it. So, they moved the gift-giving date to Christmas instead of St. Nicholas’s Day. And then, at the beginning of the 19th century, there were just a series of American poets that just added all these strange elements from Norse mythology. The god Thor is associated with fire, and his color is red, and he’s associated with the chimney, things like that. The god Odin drew a cart in the sky pulled by two goats, and that’s what makes thunder. They took all of these Norse elements, and then they took the St. Nicholas story, they put them in a blender and they flipped on the switch. And the result is the modern Santa Claus.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You have a chapter in your book on Santa’s helpers entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” And then another chapter called “Come to the Dark Side: Christmas and the Ghouls,” so is there a dark side to Christmas?

MICHAEL FOLEY: That was one of the big surprises of the book is discovering how many customs or superstitions about Christmas involve evil, bad things. Winter is a scary time, or it was a scary time, especially for our ancestors. It was a time of darkness and scarcity. And so there were lots of legends about things getting worse as you were around the winter solstice. And then, as the days started to get longer, the powers of darkness were furious because it meant that their nighttime was waning. So witches and goblins would do kind of like a last-ditch effort to strike at man. So Christmas was all sort of juxtaposed against this dark background.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk about plants, because there seem to be a lot of different plants that we associate with Christmas as well.

MICHAEL FOLEY: Very true. Some of these are pre-Christian holdovers. It was very natural for people to want evergreens in their house during winter as a sign of life when everything else was dead and depressing. But some of these are uniquely Christian, and one of the big surprises was discovering that the Christmas tree, contrary to popular belief, is not a pagan Yuletide holdover; it is actually a uniquely Christian invention. In the Middle Ages, December 24th was unofficially observed as the feast of Adam and Eve. As odd as that sounds, because you think Adam and Eve, you know, didn’t they sin big time? Yes, they did. But according to a tradition, he felt really, really bad after the fall, and they spent the rest of their 900 years in penance. So they eventually made it into the kingdom. And so people would observe this kind of feast of Adam and Eve on the day before Christmas as a reminder of why God became man in the first place. And they would celebrate these plays, and the plays had two different trees on stage. One was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the other was the Tree of Life. And then they combined this tree into what they called a Paradise Tree, the Paradise Tree would have red balls on it to symbolize the apple of the forbidden fruit. And initially, it would have unconsecrated wafers or hosts to symbolize the Tree of Life for Holy Communion. And then eventually, the hosts were changed to candy and the tree was moved from the stage into people’s homes. And that’s the Christmas tree.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, well, you have to talk about mistletoe since that’s part of the title of your book, so how did that get its connection?

MICHAEL FOLEY: That, everyone wants to believe, has some uniquely Christian origins to it. It is true that the druids thought of mistletoe as a beacon of peace, but there’s no record of Druids ever kissing under the mistletoe. So my theory is that the Irish and English, who were familiar with druidic understanding of mistletoe when they became Christian, they added the signature greeting of peace in Christianity, which is the kiss. The Kiss of Peace is something that St. Paul mentions. It’s still often used in traditional liturgies. So originally, only serious courters would kiss under the mistletoe. That is to say, it was associated with a marriage proposal. Then it got a little looser, a gentleman could kiss under the mistletoe however many times he wanted, but every time he did, he had to remove one of the white berries from the mistletoe. And when all the berries were gone, so were his kissing rights.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, so this next one, not hard to imagine how we embrace this one very eagerly. But what about food and drink? Why is that such an important part of Christmas?

MICHAEL FOLEY: Again, it has to do with the winter season. It was a time when nothing was growing, but you had these stores and stores of food from the harvest. And it basically, on a natural level, is a way of beating off the doldrums of winter, but on a supernatural level, on a pious level, it is a way of celebrating Christian fellowship during this very special time of the year. We’re celebrating a birthday of our Savior, and so, of course, feasting is going to be a big part of that.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And how about 12 Days of Christmas? Is there some significance to that specific number?

MICHAEL FOLEY: The 12 days of Christmas, or the 12 days between Christmas Day on December 25, and the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, and in the old days, our Christian ancestors took this very seriously. They would observe December as a time of preparation, restraint, the season of Advent, they’re looking forward to it. They wouldn’t have, you know, the raucous office parties that we have today. And then, on December 25, they would pull out all the stops and have a 12-day period of unbroken merriment. Courts would be closed, shops would be closed. St. Francis of Assisi said you shouldn’t even make your animals work during the 12 days of Christmas. Everyone deserves this break to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What about you? Do you have a favorite Christmas tradition or one you loved learning about the most and researching for your book?

MICHAEL FOLEY: After learning about the 12 days of Christmas, my family and I really tried to take that seriously. And you’re right, there is a way in which we can do that in modern society. We can sort of, you know, move around our vacation days and make it happen. Of course, you know, you also have after-Christmas sales and things like that, that kind of encourage you to like jump back into the commercial, you know, frenetic side of things. But if you can take the 12 days off, I would highly recommend it. I think it’s a, it’s a healthier model. You know, every year we start, we Americans start the Christmas season earlier and earlier. It used to be we at least waited until the day after Thanksgiving. But now, you know, even in October, you can see Christmas decorations being sold in stores. So the bad side of that is the more you do that, you exhaust yourself, and then by the time you finally get to Christmas day, you’re practically sick of Christmas. So I think the older model of having an Advent and restraint and have that 12-day period of unbroken merriment, I think that’s the healthier model.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you think this is part of the way that we can recapture the true meaning and beauty of Christmas? Would you consider that to be part of the key?

MICHAEL FOLEY: That’s absolutely right. It’s gonna be hard to drive out all commercialization or secularization of Christmas. But for we who really take the meaning of the seasons seriously, I do think trying to recapture something of that older model is a really good first step.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, and more specifically, what do you do during that time? Is it just partying for you, for your family? Or what are some other things that you do?

MICHAEL FOLEY: Here’s where it gets interesting. So in the Middle Ages, the way you observe the 12 days of Christmas was through a series of topsy-turvy customs. It was a time of social inversions. There would be a day where parents and children trade places, where the abbot and the novice would trade places, where masters and servants would trade places, even where men and women would trade places. It’s kind of like, you know, the modern body swap movies like Freaky Friday? They would basically change roles, and it served two purposes. One was it let off steam, like pent-up frustrations from your role in a hierarchical society. But the other main reason is it was a giddy imitation of the ultimate inversion in all of human history, Almighty God becoming a helpless baby in a measly manger.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you cover some of the other ideas about this 12 days in your book?

MICHAEL FOLEY: I do. Indeed. There’s a chapter on the 12 Days, and it goes into detail about some of these social inversion customs.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time. Before we go, Michael Foley, where can our listeners go to get a copy of your book, Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained, and also to follow the other work that you do?

MICHAEL FOLEY: It is probably easiest to find the book on Amazon. And then, if you click on my name, you will find some of my other books as well.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Sounds good. Well, Michael Foley, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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