Hey all, Ernie here with the final installment in our Twelve Things of Tedium series. It’s been a fascinating one to work on, and to finish us off, Andrew Egan is going to take us home with a holiday specific twist. Check it out—cheers!
Today in Tedium: Christmas is marked by tradition. Some, like trees and presents and cookies, are shared by many people. Other families have their own unique traditions. The Seinfeld holiday “Festivus” is one fictional example. But here is comedian Jack Whitehall claiming that his dad makes his family stand during the British Queen’s annual Christmas speech. Questions surrounding Christmas traditions have been a part of life for as long as I can remember. Why did my family pray in Spanish on Christmas Eve even though neither I nor my siblings speak the language? Why did we eat this admittedly delicious potato soup every year? And what’s up with all the nutcrackers and no nuts to crack or snack on? As part of our Twelve Things of Tedium, we’re going to ask the hard questions that you might only ponder one or two days a year. Today in Tedium, you’ll get a few new facts to distract from any awkward turns during dinner. Happy Holidays, whatever you celebrate! — Andrew @ Tedium
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How did kissing under mistletoe become a thing? (And who thought this was a good idea, anyway?)
Of the many traditions that follow Christmas, one of the weirdest to last into the modern era has to be kissing under mistletoe. Like everything else Christmas, this can be traced back to pagan traditions, specifically Celtic Druids. However, the “heathens” simply associated mistletoe to their sacred traditions. It was the Greeks that gave us the kissing.
Saturnalia was a Greek/Roman festival held in December in honor of the god Saturn or Cronus, both recognized as the god of the harvest. Both cultures held festivals in honor of their harvest gods but the Greeks observed the holiday in July while the Romans did so in August. Both cultures recognized mistletoe, a relatively rare plant that grows on oak trees, as a sign of fertility. It was also common for enemies in the Roman era to put their differences aside under mistletoe, demonstrating one of the earliest versions of “kiss and make up”. (There is also a Nordic myth involving one of the Internet’s favorite adopted sons, Loki. Long story short, Loki tricks a separate goddess and kills her son with an arrow made of mistletoe. There’s also a revenge story where the goddess declares mistletoe a symbol of fertility.)
The tenuous link between contemporary Britain and the Roman Empire can be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the King of Britain, a classic of the Middle Ages that helps establish the legend of King Arthur. Britain doesn’t openly consider itself “The Third Rome” but its cultural traditions tend to claim a connection. And mistletoe is no different. Rather than continue as a sign of fertility, mistletoe had become a signal of courtship in Victorian England. However, because things like this can’t be innocent, the Victorian tradition held that if a woman refused a kiss under the mistletoe, they would die a lonely old maid.
On the bright side, the male kisser was traditionally required to eat one of the mistletoe’s white berries per kiss, which are toxic and can induce vomiting, hallucinations, and death. Good luck getting to the altar.
The Claxton Bakery: Defining Christmas for a very specific region
If you’re from the southeastern United States, you probably don’t need much of an introduction to the Claxton Bakery. The venerable, Georgia-based company specializes in the kind of holiday treat that’s been the “Choice of Millions since 1910”.
Founded by an Italian immigrant that trained in Brooklyn, the Claxton Bakery has been a purveyor of finer fruitcakes in the south for over a century. The bakery’s founder, Savino Tos, had fallen in love with the coastal areas between South Carolina and Georgia and decided to settle in the agricultural community of Claxton when he realized the town didn’t have a bakery.
Pretty soon the bakery was a success as customers purchased various baked goods and ice cream. But one of the bakery’s staple products was developed to commemorate the holiday season each fall. Tos used the “finest fruits and nuts” to create a fruitcake. Yes, the exact type you’re thinking of.
By 1945, Tos was looking to retire and sold his bakery to an employee. Albert Parker had worked for Tos since 1927 and had a remarkably keen eye for business. As grocery stores began consolidating products that were once found at specialty stories, Parker noticed that bakeries, butchers, and ice cream makers were going out of business. Parker decided to focus on a niche product that would shield his business from the whims of the market. The Claxton Bakery was going all in on fruitcake.
In their first year of mass production, the Claxton Bakery produced a remarkable 45,000 pounds of fruitcake. People across the country soon began talking about “those delicious fruitcakes with the unique horse and buggy label”. Albert Parker proved a savvy steward for the bakery, recognizing unique sales and marketing opportunities, like fund-raising with local organizations and entering a fruitcake-themed float into the Orange Bowl. The company even participated, with great success, in the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
Despite numerous jokes about the limited appeal of fruitcake, the company is still going strong and is now operated by Albert’s children after his passing in 1995. While plenty of bakeries make traditional fruitcake, Claxton has since become synonymous with Christmas in the south.
The small town in Germany that made ornaments essential
Among the greatest contributors to modern Christmas tradition, Germany has provided the world with Christmas trees, a proto Santa Claus, and giving coal to naughty children. However, one of the country’s most enduring Christmas legacies involves a small town in east Germany that has often been caught up in some tumultuous history all while maintaining the Christmas spirit.
Christmas decorations had long been part of the holiday but were limited to perishable goods like candy and fruit. According to legend, a glassblower in 16th century Lauscha named Hans Greiner wanted to decorate his tree, but couldn’t afford expensive fruit. Being skilled in his profession, Greiner created his own reusable glass apples, along with beads and other baubles. Locally, the idea caught on and as glass ornaments became more and more popular across Germany, the glassblowers of Lauscha found themselves the unofficial ornament makers of Christmas
After the marriage of Prince Albert of Germany to Queen Victoria of England, German Christmas traditions were incorporated into English cultural heritage as writers like Charles Dickens dutifully documented the introduction of Christmas trees and ornaments into 19h century England. These new Christmas traditions quickly spread to the U.S. to such an extent that by the 1890s, Woolworth’s department store was selling $25 million worth of German-made, glass-blown Christmas ornaments every year.
The second half of the 20th century was not especially kind to the Christmas ornament industry of Lauscha. Following the end of World War II, the town was incorporated into the Communist-controlled East Germany who promptly turned the glass blowing into state-owned endeavors. This pretty much meant an end Lauscha’s prominence as ornament maker of Christmas, which hasn’t been reestablished since the reunification in 1990.
The only real War on Christmas (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise)
Flip to a certain cable news channel any given December, and there’s a four word phrase you’re likely to hear. “The War on Christmas” is routinely evoked in order to wrangle the channel’s conservative Christian base into perpetual fear that their way of life, their traditions, are under attack by unspecified others.
This is nonsense, of course.
Simply saying “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” does not a war make. It only acknowledges that other faiths are also celebrating holidays around this time of year.
The current use of “The War on Christmas” is especially strange when you consider that America’s Judeo-Christian founders hated Christmas. To be fair, it wasn’t a universal ban with holiday only being officially outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1644 until 1660. The early American Puritans had perfectly understandable, religious reasons for outlawing the holiday. Considering pagan associations with Christmas, Puritans were wary of potential idolatry.
With the ascendency of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, Christmas was once again welcome again in the American colonies but celebrating it openly or boisterously was frowned upon. Well into the 18th century, Americans largely avoided celebrating Christmas, with many historical observers noting that Congress did not formally take recess around Christmas during most of the first 70 years of U.S. history, though they generally weren’t working that day.
The first U.S. to recognize Christmas as an official holiday was Alabama in 1836. However, the ever helpful people at Snopes recognizes that even this date is dubious as it comes from a book written in the 1950s rather than primary source documents. It wasn’t until 1870 that American religious culture finally began to loosen up enough that sharing merriment with friends and loved ones was no longer considered “unchristian”. Some 150 years later, it seems things have gone 180 degrees. Perhaps in another 150 years, a future generation of talking heads (be they pundits, pastors, or poets) will deride the moral failings in the lack of enthusiasm for the solemn celebration of “Chrismukkah”.
How different religions and cultures celebrate the end of the year (if they do so at all), commemorates the best of humanity. Friends and family. Food and music. Generosity and gratitude.
Whatever you celebrate and how, is entirely up to you. But how we get to these traditions is steeped in history about who we are and where we come from. That this list (along with the two previous Tedium articles in this series) focuses on Christmas is more a function of upbringing. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate anything. Even among Christians, I’ve noticed that Catholics tend to have most of their celebrations on Christmas Eve while Protestants focus more on Christmas Day. (My own family’s traditions of Colombian food and Spanish prayers usually raises eyebrows from those unaware of my background.)
The traditions that guide our holiday experience are not immutable. They change with the times, needs, and beliefs of the people celebrating them. Without that evolution, Christmas would still be a pagan holiday, little resembling what many enjoy today. No sugar cookies, no presents from Santa, and no time off. So from year to year, go with the flow. Accept others traditions and celebrations. And dare say, maybe even adopted something new to your holiday routine. You never know what you might enjoy. Now I’m off to eat ajiaco (potato soup) and empanadas.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Best of whatever you celebrate!