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The art of Christmas traditions

For entertainment tonight, some local families will share family traditions and the history surrounding Christmas. And some families have refined the art of Christmas, celebrating well into the new year.

"Christmas is a season that can last until Epiphany -- Jan. 6 -- or even Candlemas on Feb. 2," said Char Henn, executive director of the Goodhue County History Center.

From Christmas trees to ornaments, from stockings to gift giving, where did the traditions come from?

Trees, ornaments and lights date back long before Christianity. According to the History Channel, just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees, ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows.

"In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness," states an article on the history of Christmas trees, found at history.com.

"The tradition of bringing holly and ivy, or any evergreen, into the house is another Christmas practice that goes back to the Romans. Bringing evergreens home and presenting branches to people was customary during the winter celebrations; evergreens are a token of good luck," Henn said.

The church easily made holly a Christian symbol. Its needle-sharp leaves and blood-red berries were likened to Christ's crown of thorns, she explained.

"A badge of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, ivy was harder to appropriate," she added.

Mistletoe was considered too pagan to try to incorporate into Christmas.

It was supposed to cure all illness and was such a powerful instrument of peace that enemies, if they saw it in the woods, had to put down their weapons until the next day.

"That is why it is hung up in homes -- to produce an atmosphere of friendship," Henn said. "Scandinavians also brought in evergreen boughs during Yule."

In the 16th century, the Germans began decorating trees and bringing them into their homes after Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree.

The Catholics didn't celebrate with trees right away because they were suspicious of things having to do with Luther, Henn said.

He got the idea walking home one evening when he saw stars twinkling amidst evergreens. When he got home, he placed a tree in the living room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

"Many here will remember the bucket of water and someone, quite often Mother, sitting attentively by the candlelit tree," said Henn, whose family is of German heritage.

Today's electricity of course makes it a lot easier to deck the halls.

In 1900, only 20 percent of American families had Christmas trees. They were more commonly found in public areas or schools.

C. O. Lundquist advertised in the Cannon Falls Beacon back on Dec. 11, 1914, that "Every Home Should Have a Christmas Tree Around which the family should gather on Christmas Eve."

A few years earlier, your tree could be bought from Henry Kulker's restaurant (Cannon Falls Beacon, Dec. 14, 1906).

In the early 20th century, Americans began decorating their trees with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples (to symbolize the Garden of Eden), nuts and marzipan cookies.

"Teddy Roosevelt advocated artificial trees by the 1890s -- conservation, you know. The first artificial trees were made of feathers," Henn said.

By 1930, almost every home had a tree.

Candy canes were also used to decorate trees by the Europeans. The Huffington Post reports that the originally sugar stick candies represented a shepherd's staff and were given to children during nativity services to keep them quiet.

The canes, which were then solid white, became a part of the American tradition when a German immigrant decorated his own Christmas tree with them.

According to allthingschristmas.com, the white represents Christ's purity, while the red symbolizes the blood he shed. The three red stripes represent the Holy Trinity.

Although every family that celebrates Christmas has created traditions of their own, children (and adults) still enjoy seeing Santa Claus, eating candy canes, decorating festive trees and exchanging gifts during the holiday season.

"Christmas day was generally observed as a holiday in Red Wing and practically every place of business was closed all day. Families throughout the city celebrated reunions, due to the fact that out-of-towns members of the families were home for the big holiday." The Red Wing Democrat Eagle reported Dec. 26, 1911)

Christmas wasn't generally celebrated until the latter part of the 19th century, Henn said. The Puritans outlawed Christmas for about 30 years, because the Bible didn't mention it. There were fines for celebrating Christmas or acknowledging it in any way, unless it fell on a Sunday, in which case, it was "celebrated" by attending church.

As the Catholics were suspicious of trees, the Protestants were suspicious of Dec. 25, because early Catholics took pagan holidays and gave them an alternative Christian significance, Henn said.

The shift around 1910 from small gifts to cards in exchanges between friends greatly curtailed the time givers spent on Christmas remembrances for their friends, because cards were usually acquired in bulk and could easily be "wrapped" in their envelopes.

"How many of us think of this labor-saving innovation when we sit down to do our cards?" Henn said.

The incoming and outgoing mail service at the Red Wing Post Office increased 20 percent from 1914 to 1915. (RWDE Dec. 27, 1915)

-- Riham Feshir from Forum Communications Co. contributed to this story.

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

(651) 301-7870
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