One of the most time honored Christmas traditions is immortalized in the 1846 film It’s A Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed look up in tandem and see that they are standing under a bough of mistletoe. They do what the tradition dictates and they kiss rather passionately.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has origins in Norse folklore, in which one myth fodders the tale about the Norse goddess Frigga who is said to have put a spell on all plants so none of them would harm her son Baldur, but she overlooked one winter evergreen, the mistletoe. In the tale, the Norse god Loki makes a spear out of mistletoe and uses it to kill Baldur. Frigga resurrects her son and enchants the mistletoe to spawn love rather than death into the world, and the world has complied ever since.
The Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe can be traced back to the writings of American author Washington Irving who penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In his 1820 scroll entitled The Sketch Books of Geoffrey Crayon, he tells, “The mistletoe is still hung in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it.”
The time honored tradition has been immortalized in songs as well, most recently in Justin Bieber’s single Under the Mistletoe. Others date much earlier such as Tommie Connor’s 1952 singalong “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus / underneath the mistletoe last night.” Another popular song is Meet Me under the Mistletoe by Joe Collins, Mark Abramson, and Betty Jackson with a chorus that chants, “Meet me under the mistletoe / midnight Christmas Eve / your sweet kiss is the first gift / I’d like to receive.”
Besides movies and music, the Christmas tradition has been celebrated in romance novels most notably Gayle Eden’s book, Under the Mistletoe. In the novel, Everyn Hurst, the Marquis of Coaldrake, attends a Christmas party hosted by the Bloomfield family. At the party, he sees the lovely maiden Mary Bloomfield standing alone under a stream of mistletoe and steals a kiss from her pointing up to the berry-encrusted shrubbery to validate his roguish behavior.
Though the mistletoe is perceived as a plant bestowed with enchanting properties, it only sprouts around Christmas making it one of the Christmas evergreens, which also include holly and laurel. It shares this specialness with another evergreen, the fir tree whose season peaks around Christmas time making it the prime choice for a Christmas tree, another time honored tradition celebrated in homes at Christmas time.
The role of the Christmas tree is a focal point in the 1952 book, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Theodor Seuss Geisel. When the Grinch stole the town’s Christmas tree, it makes the reader gasp. The story sheds light on the Christmas tree having grown into a symbol of family love and communal happiness.
The tradition of mounting a Christmas tree in homes and town centers, decorated with candles for light and confectioners for ornaments, originated in Germanic and Nordic cultures around the 16th century. The custom spread to Russia by way of foot soldiers that fought during the Imperial Wars of the 1800’s across Asia Minor. Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson epitomized the tradition of making a Christmas tree in his 1844 fairytale The Fir Tale. The tradition came to America by means of German and Dutch immigrants who settled in America through the 17th and 18th centuries.
Along with books that celebrate the Christmas tree tradition, songs have also joined in the festivities. The singalong tune “O Christmas Tree,” translated in 1824 by organist/lyricist Ernest Anschutz of the German folk song “O Tannenbaum” based on the German melody “Lauriger Horatius,” pays homage to the home’s centerpiece at Christmas time. An angel or star is often set on top of the tree depicting the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The Nativity is also believed to spawn another time honored tradition– that of giving gifts on Christmas Eve. The Three Wise Men, also called the Magi, are said to have been guided by the North Star, also known as the Star of Bethlehem, which brought them to the manger where Jesus was born. They came bearing gifts, a tradition that people accepted into their homes. The author O Henry (aka William Sydney Porter) focused his story “Gift of the Magi” around this theme as an impoverished couple sells their most prized possessions to buy gifts for each other on Christmas.
The gift giving tradition of Christmas extends to leaving Christmas cookies and a glass of milk for Santa by the tree on Christmas Eve as a small token of the family’s appreciation. The American singer Teresa Brewer celebrated this tradition in the song “Christmas cookies and Holiday hearts” beaming “That’s the way the Holiday starts / Christmas cookies and Holiday heats / goody goody yum yum yum.” The tradition was revived 2010 by country music’s trio Redpath in their single “Santa’s Cookies” touting, “We’re going to the kitchen to get the 2% / I will have to hurry so I can get to bed / I’ll pour a glass of milk to go with Santa’s sweets / For Santa’s cookies on Christmas Eve.”
American confectioner Betty Crocker has also added to the fanfare with the brand’s Christmas commercial for their sugar cookie batter. In the scene a little boy chastises his father for eating all of Santa’s cookies and convinces his Dad that they absolutely have to make a fresh batch of cookies for Santa.
The time honored traditions of mistletoe, Christmas trees, Christmas gifts, and Christmas cookies are revered and immortalized in books, films and music. Along with these traditions, the Yuletide is also celebrated by the traditional burning of the Yule log. In Robert Chambers’ 1832 publication, The Book of Days, he cities, “Two popular observances belonging to Christmas are… the hanging of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.” The mistletoe as a symbolize of love in homes and the Yule log representing protection for the family.
The Yule log is steeped in the Germanic heritage discerned as a magical and protective amulet. In English folklore, Father Christmas is often portrayed carrying a Yule log which is why in the 1951 British film, “A Christmas Carol,” the American version was renamed “Scrooge,” shows the Ghost of Christmas Present carrying a Yule log for this reason.
The Yule log was also the inspiration for the two to four hour television program “The Christmas Yule Log,” which was first broadcast on the New York-based station WPIX. Filmed in 1966 at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York City, it was made for residents in the city who lived in apartments and might not have a fireplace or hearth. The program is a film loop of a burning Yule log, which is meant to be accompanied by the family playing Christmas music in the home.
The Yule log is a part of the home setting in a number of Christmas movies including “Christmas Vacation” in 1989 and “Home Alone” in 1990. The Yule log imbues warmth and a sense of home in these films enhancing the Yuletide ambience and creating a domestic setting in the backdrop of the chaos that ensues in these films.
Traditions, such as the customs honored during Christmas time, can make a novel identifiable to the reader. They provide the reader with the opportunity to relate to the characters and form an attachment to the story. It is a trait which I was conscious of when writing my romance novel, The King Maker from Champagne Books.
My novel takes place around Halloween which allowed me to incorporate into the story the Halloween-themed, time honored traditions of pumpkin picking and watching scary movies. Sometimes tradition are not based on the Holidays at all, but rather on customs passed on through cultures and families such as when a man holds out a chair for his lady, or when a lady keeps a picture of her beau in a locket. Traditions make a home feel safe and families feel loved, and they make a book feel real. http://susanfrancesny.wordpress.com Susan will be giving away a copy of Kasey Michael’s historical romance A Reckless Beauty. Please leave a comment to be entered in the drawing.