We tend to think of Christmas traditions as things that were set in time long ago and never vary. But they change from time to time, and place to place.
For instance, here at Stephens Grove, we have our own traditions that are particular to our neighborhood, and have come into being within most adults’ lifetimes — although of course they are rooted in older traditions known to previous generations. Take a look at our Facebook page, and you’ll find:
- Christmas Tree Lighting, with Santa — This one is already a warm memory, having taken place way back on the first of the month.
- Then there was the Ladies Night Gift Exchange, just a week after the lighting.
- And this week we’re in the middle of the 6th Annual Christmas Light Fight. The voting is going on the whole week of Dec. 11-18, with the winner being announced on Monday, Dec. 19. By the way, “Fight” doesn’t mean we expect fisticuffs or artillery fire, but fiercely fun competition is always anticipated.
Other traditions have been going on a good bit longer, although not necessarily as long as you think. For instance, although Jesus of Nazareth was born in the neighborhood of 6 or 4 B.C., it wasn’t until 350 B.C. that Pope Julius I declared that the celebration would thenceforth be celebrated on Dec. 25.
Of course, some traditions we hold dear preceded Pope Julius. For instance, the Romans were already having a major holiday — Saturnalia — at precisely the time of year when our shopping today enters its “last-minute” frenzy. And while we’re not sure of the details of Germanic and Scandinavian pagan traditions, they were decorating trees before it was converted into a Christian tradition.
But, you protest, something doesn’t have to go back 2,000 years to be what you’d call a well-established “tradition.” Point taken. So let’s stick to the last couple of centuries.
You’ve heard of that recent movie, “The Man Who Invented Christmas?” Well the title stretches things a bit — remember Pope Julius way back when? But Charles Dickens had a big impact on our modern concept of the holiday, via his most famous work, A Christmas Carol. That was first published in 1843, and its influences on British — and then American — Christmas celebrations were considerable. For instance, while he didn’t make up the phrase “Merry Christmas,” his story made it much more popular. As Wikipedia reports:
Dickens advocated a humanitarian focus of the holiday, which influenced several aspects of Christmas that are still celebrated in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit.[n 14] The historian Ronald Hutton writes that Dickens “linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation”.
OK, but that was before even your grandparents were born, right? OK, traditions could indeed be established even later. So let’s look at where some more recent ones came from. How about Christmas songs?
Jingle Bells — 1857, but not as a Christmas song
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — story in 1939, song in 1949, Gene Autrey. Stop-motion animation television special (1964)
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town — 1934, but the definitive version by Bruce Springsteen wasn’t until 1985
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel — If you want to get really traditional, this is the granddaddy of all such songs. It began as a monastic chant in the 9th century. But it’s never been seen as a Christmas song. It’s an Advent song. That’s the season we’re in now, by the way. Christmas doesn’t start until Dec. 25, and runs for 12 days — traditionally. Try explaining that to a retail merchant. They tend to think it starts around Halloween.
Who knows what we’ll be doing 100 years from now. No telling. But expect ads for the Christmas deals of 2122 to start appearing on your smart phone sometime during 2023.