Wednesday, May 12, 2010
In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 and 22, and is call the winter solstice. Many ancient people believed that the sun was a god and the winter came every year because the sun god has become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun god was strong and summer would return.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death.
Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the Druids (priests of the ancient Celts), also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The Vikings thought that evergreens were the special plant of their sun god, Balder.
Germany in credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is held belief that Martin Luther, a 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Most 19th century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830's by German settlers in Pennsylvania. In the late 1840's Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrim's second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." In 1659, the Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other that a church service) a penal offense, people were fined for hanging decorations. That continued until the 19th century when German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.
In 1846, the royals, Queen Victoria and German Prince Albert, were sketched in the London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree.
By the 1890's Christmas ornaments where arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about 4 feet tall, while Americans liked the Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling.
The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-Americans continued to used apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.
People have been making jack o'lanterns at Halloween for ages and ages. The practice started from an old Irish myth about a man named "Stingy Jack". According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy the drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word, not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern", and then simply "Jack O'lantern."
In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack's lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used, immigrants from these countries brought the jack o'lantern tradition with them when they came to the U.S. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack o'lanterns.