What’s the Deal With Mistletoe? The Origins of Christmas Traditions

We love history here at Piper Classics, and have enjoyed using this blog to discuss everything from presidential homes to the American tradition of quilt making.

But somehow, even though we’ve explored the origins of Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July we’ve never taken a good look at the history of the king of the holiday mountain: Christmas.

Where did Christmas caroling come from? Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? Who was St. Nicholas? Read on to discover the origins of some of our most cherished holiday traditions.


The First Christmas Carolers

These days, Christmas caroling is a tradition that only seems to exist in movies. If you spot carolers in real life, it’s usually at a community event, rather than a group of people roaming from house to house singing Christmas songs.

But how did this tradition begin? It’s the combination of two separate practices:

  1. Wassailing, which meant visiting your neighbors to wish them good fortune. (The word “wassail” comes from the Old Norse term ves heill, or “be well.”) It’s not clear when this custom began, but it didn’t initially involve singing.
  1. Carols were liturgical songs reserved for church processionals in the Middle Ages. The first carols weren’t necessarily written for Christmas. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the idea of fusing upbeat hymns about the birth of Jesus into Christmas church services.

In Victorian England, these two traditions were merged, and Christmas caroling entered its golden age, with songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “The First Noel” and “The 12 Days of Christmas” making their first appearance.


The Mystery of Mistletoe

When we think of mistletoe, we think of cute moments in Christmas movies: the two romantic leads look up, realize they’re standing beneath the plant, and share a kiss.

But mistletoe has a pretty dramatic history. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it for its healing properties. In Norse mythology, the trickster god Loki used an arrow made of mistletoe to kill the otherwise unbeatable hero Baldur.

When Baldur was resurrected, his mother Frigg – the goddess of love – declared mistletoe to be a symbol of love. She pledged to plant a kiss on anyone who passed underneath it.

It’s not clear how mistletoe made the transition from sacred plant in the Middle Ages to holiday decoration in the 1700s. The kissing tradition apparently began with the serving class in England before moving to the middle class.

From St. Nick to Santa Claus

Santa Claus has a lot of different names: St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas. But who was he?

To find the answer, we need to go to back to Lycia – in what’s now known as Turkey – in the fourth century. That’s where we’d find St. Nicholas, a beloved monk whose reputation for charity made him the subject of many different legends that saw him championing the poor.

His feast day is December 6 – the anniversary of his death – a day where it was considered lucky to get married or make large purchases. He became one of the most popular saints in Europe, especially in Holland. The name Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname (“Sinter Klaas”).

The name Kris Kringle comes from the German word “Christkindl,” which referred to the celebration of the infant Jesus. Eventually, this term transformed into yet another name for Santa Claus.

What about Father Christmas? These days, that name is typically thought of as a British term for Santa Claus, but originally, Father Christmas was yet another distinct figure.

Father Christmas got his start in ancient Britain, where he was a character in mid-winter pageants who wore a long green robe and a crown of winter greeneries (think of Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present). He eventually merged with the Saxon and Viking traditions.

The Vikings had a festival called Jultid, in which the Norse god Odin took on the persona of Jul and visited the earth giving gifts. Father Christmas would come to take on some of Odin’s characteristics: He was depicted as a portly, bearded older man who knew whether people had been bad or good, and who could travel by magic to be in several places in a short period. (Sound familiar?)

Now you have plenty of information for conversation starters during your holiday gatherings this month. And whatever you celebrate this year, and however you celebrate, we at Piper Classics wish you all the best.