Christmas Legends

By Lauren Baumbauer

September 4, 2009 5 min read

It's time to break out holiday decorations, plan parties and find gifts. But have you thought about why you're making lists for Christmas cards every year? Have you ever stopped yourself while hanging mistletoe and wondered what the mistletoe had to do with Christmas?

Legends abound in every detail of the Christmas holiday. Whether you're interested in something to focus on for a party theme or just curious about why you're kissing under that mistletoe -- although any reason for kissing is probably a good one -- here are some legends of modern-day Christmas:

*Santa Claus

There are many traditions of the famous gift giver, brought to North America from around the world. St. Nicholas is a popular origination, based on a fourth-century bishop from Turkey. According to Christmas World (, St. Nicholas was born from a wealthy family and regularly helped the poor. One night, he helped a family by throwing three gold coins down their chimney. People celebrated by having feasts and giving to others on the anniversary of his death, Dec. 6, and he became tied to Christmas.

But how did Santa Claus take his current form? His appearance changed over the years, from a tall thin man to an elf, and his robes were never the same colors. According to the Coca-Cola Co., Santa Claus is the way most think of him today -- a jolly large man in a red suit with black boots -- because of an advertising campaign by Coke.

With the art of Haddon Sundblom in 1931, Coca-Cola launched a campaign to bring its soft drink into any month. Sundblom's Santa was inspired by Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," commonly referred to as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Coca-Cola denies that the red in Santa's outfit has to do with "Coca-Cola red" and instead relates to Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast's later interpretations of his outfit as red in Harper's Magazine.

*Christmas cards:

Another tradition born from a need to increase revenue, according to Shonnie Scarola, a writer for Domestic Church Communications, Christmas cards began as a type of stationery during the Victorian era by Sir Henry Cole. Cole, who worked for the British postal service, hired artist John Horsley. The bottom of the card, depicting a picture of a family dinner scene surrounded by two panels showing acts of charity, adorned the well-known phrase "a merry Christmas and a happy new year to you."

*Christmas trees and mistletoe:

The traditional use of the tree and mistletoe, according to Reigning Gifts, originated because they were seen as symbols of fertility by Germans; they are all evergreens and stay green throughout the cold winter months.

In fact, Germans were more than likely the first to decorate their Christmas trees, as early as the 15th century, with apples and white wafers, which grew more elaborate and decorative throughout the years. The custom of trees at Christmas became a staple when Queen Victoria of England received a Christmas tree as a gift in 1841 from her husband, Prince Albert of Germany.

Decorating the Christmas tree may have started when Martin Luther, bedazzled by the beauty of the fir trees in the woods during a walk on Christmas Eve, took one home and decorated it with candles "to remind his family and children of the magnificence of God's creation," Reigning Gifts informs.

According to LiveScience, mistletoe is a semi-parasite on branches of trees and shrubs that is a popular spot for birds' nests and, thus, their droppings. Mistletoe's berries are toxic to humans. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" means "twig," so mistletoe means "dung on a twig." This doesn't sound like an appealing object for kissing under, but that it is.

Besides representing fertility, the dung on mistletoe was thought to have "life-giving powers" by the Greeks, according to The Holiday Spot. A plant of peace in Scandinavia, spouses could kiss and make up under it, and enemies could declare truces. Mistletoe also has long been used in marriage festivals or as a sign of couples to marry in the coming years. The Norse goddess of love, Frigga, brought her son, the god of the summer sun, Balder, back to life with her tears, which became the white berries on the mistletoe, after the evil god Loki had him killed with an arrow shooting the mistletoe. The cold months created by his death were over, and Frigga kissed everyone in happiness underneath the mistletoe, which became an object that brought love.

This year, renew old traditions with the mistletoe; wish a merry Christmas on a card sent through the post office; decorate a tree with wafers; and dress up as an old-fashioned Santa Claus. Share some new facts about mistletoe and dung with your friends at your next party, and kiss beneath one the next time you have a fight with your spouse.

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