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San Clemente Journal

Yuletide Traditions Defining the Season

Nov 28, 2021 10:19AM ● By Anne Batty
By Anne Batty

Theologians, philosophers and psychologists tell us that traditions can shape, define and describe a society. They say that these practices mark off sacred time, a time that makes possible the duration of the ordinary time within which every human life takes its course. Further contending that it is within this sacred time that generations pass on information, instruction and beliefs for future preservation, and agreeing that there is a security in the sameness of these practices that both recreate and renew humanity.

Myths, stories, events, beliefs and more are found behind the establishment of traditions. And as the holiday season approaches we thought it would be interesting to explore the how and why behind some of those traditions, common and unusual, that might be celebrated during this festive time of year.

This yuletide cocktail is reported to have come from a popular medieval England drink called posset, made with hot milk curdled with ale or wine and mixed with spices. First used as a remedy for colds and flu, it is told that eggs were added by some 13th century monks. Upon crossing the Atlantic during the 18th century, American colonists are credited for making it popular by adding rum, and the first U.S. President, George Washington, is said to have had a special recipe that included brandy, whiskey, rum, sherry, and of course the requisite … eggs.

The Christmas Pickle
In this tradition a green pickle-shaped ornament is hung on the tree on Christmas Eve; camouflaged among the pine needles. On Christmas morning, the first child to find the pickle receives a special gift and an assurance of good luck in the coming year. History reveals that the story behind the Weihnachtsgurke, or Christmas pickle, comes from a tale of this practice that was brought to eastern Germany from Frankenmuth, MI in the 1990s by artist, Sascha Muller. It states that upon Muller’s return he had his artisans begin making glass pickle ornaments. Coupled with the retelling of this story popularity for the ornaments grew, becoming the impetus for what soon developed into a yuletide tradition that is often celebrated today.

Cookies and Milk for Santa
Leaving cookies and milk for Santa (and perhaps carrots for the reindeer) took off in the USA in the1930s during the Great Depression. It is reported to have been a way for parents during those hard times to teach their children the importance of giving to others. Purported to have origins in Denmark, Belgian and the Netherlands, this was a tradition in which children believed that horses carried Santa’s sleigh instead of reindeer. A tradition where carrots and hay were left out, leaving the children in hopes of receiving gifts of food such as chocolate coins, cocoa, mandarin oranges and marzipan in return.

Ugly Christmas Sweater
First known as Jingle Bell Sweaters, Christmas themed sweaters appeared in the 1950s with the mass commercialization of the holidays. Popular mostly among the middle-aged, the style eventually wound down in the ‘90s but never completely died out. Then in early 2000 it seems that two friends from Vancouver, Canada came up with the idea to host an ugly sweater party and the idea grew rapidly from home, to corporate and charity events. The younger population soon joined in, vying to see who could find the ugliest sweater, and with the internet and social media boosting interest the fashion trend soon went global. Taking things further, it is said that Ugly Christmas Sweater Lovers have now declared the third Friday in December as Ugly Christmas Sweater Day.

Elf on the Shelf
Touted as a tradition to remind children to be good during the holidays, it began in 2005 as a result of a children’s book self-published by mother/daughter duo Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. Packaged with what is deemed to be a Scout Elf sent by Santa to see who has been naughty or nice; this tradition features a stuffed toy that is hidden in unusual places in the home daily from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. The elf is said to be watching over the children and reporting their behavior to Santa nightly. Its popularity with the young has sparked a myriad of Elf on the Shelf products including an entire wardrobe that includes … an ugly Christmas sweater!

Advent Calendars
Since the beginning of time, children have excitedly counted the days leading up to Christmas, and it was the Germans in the late 1800s that first either burned a candle a day or marked walls with chalk to visibly keep track. From those early beginnings creative minds soon developed more concrete means of counting, using wood, paper and fabric to make calendars for marking the days. Many had pockets and/or windows holding a daily treat, others pictured gifts to give and receive, while others suggested daily acts of charity; all contributing to the anticipation of the celebration soon to come.

Gingerbread Houses
The first Gingerbread houses were said to be the result of the Grimm’s Fairytale Hansel and Gretel, a tale in which two children abandoned in a forest found an edible house of bread with sugar coating. Upon publication of this book German bakers are alleged to have created ornamental fairytale houses made of lebkuchen (gingerbread), a tradition that came to America with the Pennsylvanian, German immigrants. Many families make these houses today to commemorate the season.

Holiday Viewing
No matter the ages, there’s nothing more bonding than curling up on the couch with loved ones to enjoy a yuletide movie or TV special. Although there are myriads to choose from, the following are a small sampling of some traditional feel-good entertainment that crosses all generational barriers, remaining family viewing favorites and a reminder of simpler times year after year.
It’s a Wonderful Life - produced in 1946 as a family fantasy drama film, it is considered a classic and one of the most inspirational American films of all times. It is the story of a man who has given up his personal dreams in order to help others in his community, and whose attempt to give up on life on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel. Produced and directed by filmmaker Frank Capra, it is said to be his favorite movie, and in 1990 was designated as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and added to the National Film, Registry of the Library of Congress.  

A Charlie Brown Christmas – a 1965 animated television special about the true meaning of Christmas, it is based on the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. It is a story that touches on the virtues of friendship, encouragement, and acceptance. Executives involved in the filming had little faith in its success, but were pleasantly surprised when it soon became, and still remains a holiday staple in the United States today.

A Christmas Story - a 1983 Christmas Comedy presented in vignettes, this is the story of a boy whose only wish for Christmas is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This wish is rejected by his mother, his teacher and even the department store Santa with the warning, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Upon opening presents Christmas morning he is disappointed to find he did not get his wish until his father pulls out the final present. Of course the prediction of the trouble the gift would cause almost comes true. But as usual all’s well that ends well, and Ralphie goes to bed that night with “the best gift ever,” tucked securely by his side.

Home Alone - filmed in 1990 this Christmas Comedy is about a boy who is accidently left behind when a family leaves town for a holiday vacation. When the family discovers his absence they frantically try to get back home. In the meantime the boy takes advantage of his freedom viewing it as fun until robbers try to break into the house. The film proceeds with outrageous stunts to deter the crooks and ends with the young boy heralded a hero. The film has since been franchised with subsequent versions released in 1992, 1997, 2002, 2012, and another slated for release this upcoming holiday season.