If you are anything like us at Perfect Imperfect, you are fascinated by the history of decorating and design. With the holiday season approaching, we thought this was a perfect time to share the stories behind some of our favourite Christmas symbols and decorating traditions.
Exploring the history behind Christmas symbols is a great way to inspire fun and meaningful holiday decorating traditions of your own.
Arguably, the most iconic symbol of the holiday season is the Christmas tree. Trees have always been revered for their strength, beauty and resilience. Pine, spruce, fir and evergreen trees were especially important to early Viking and Saxon tribes for their ability to remain verdant throughout the harsh winter months.
The modern Christmas tree can be traced back to 16th century Germany, when Christian families brought decorated trees into their homes for winter celebrations. The addition of lit candles to Christmas trees is widely attributed to Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, who wanted to recreate that special brilliance of stars twinkling amidst fresh evergreens.
We have Prince Albert and Queen Victoria to thank for popularising the Christmas tree. German-born Albert was instrumental in introducing German holiday customs, like the Christmas tree, to Great Britain. When the Royal Family was seen decorating their Christmas tree with gifts, candles, toys and ornaments, the public took notice. The Christmas tree thus quickly became a fashionable item across Europe and North America.
You may be aware that the basis for modern day Santa Claus is rooted in the legend of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Greek bishop. His charitable acts are widely credited for creating the popular holiday tradition of stocking stuffing.
Nicholas believed that childhood was a time to be cherished and enjoyed – something that was not always possible as many children were forced to work to support their families. During his travels, Nicholas would often leave gifts of food and clothes for those in need.
Legend has it that during one of his journeys, Nicholas learned of a recently widowed father struggling to provide for his three daughters. Knowing the man would not accept direct charity, Nicholas resolved to help anonymously. After dark, he returned to the man’s home and dropped gold coins down the chimney; landing in each girl’s stockings, which had been left to dry by the fireplace.
Thereafter, children all across the land hung stockings in the hope that Saint Nicholas would make a visit and leave a special gift. Little has changed since the time of ‘ol Saint Nick. However, today’s Christmas stockings are more likely to be stuffed with small gifts, candy and toys (and not gold, sadly).
Christmas wreaths can easily be traced back to ancient harvest rituals. Evergreens were prized for their ability to withstand the brutality of winter. Wreaths made of evergreen represented power and strength. The circular shape of Christmas wreaths, which have no beginning and no end, is meant to symbolise everlasting life.
Over time, the Christmas wreath has become a symbol of holiday cheer and welcoming. Wreaths are hung on doors to emphasise hospitality, generosity and the gathering of loved ones.
Sneaking a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe is a favourite holiday tradition of many. The history behind this little plant’s symbolic powers dates all the way back to the first century A.D.. Celtic Druids prized mistletoe for its ability to blossom during winter. They viewed it as a sacred symbol of strength, fertility and good luck.
No one is quite sure how this little plant went from a sacred herb to holiday decoration. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe actually begins in Norse mythology. Legend says that an arrow made of mistletoe killed Balder, son of the goddess Frigg. In her grief, Frigg wept tears of white berries, which brought Balder back to life. Overcome with joy she declared mistletoe a symbol of love and peace and promised a kiss to all who passed beneath it.
By the 18th century, kissing under the mistletoe was a well-established Christmas custom. During the Victorian era, men were permitted to ‘steal a kiss’ from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe. If you were lucky this kiss would lead to love and happiness.
By K.S. Spatola