As a lifelong wannabe history buff (emphasis on “wannabe”), I carry a constant curiosity for anything age-old and rich in history, tradition and meaning.
The timeless customs, folklore and fanciful characters of the holiday season bring to mind some of America’s most cherished and loved memories.
Holiday festivities are not exclusive to Christmas alone. Hanukkah is also the center of many unique and historical stories.
In recognition of these important holidays, here is a brief history of some of our most well-known and beloved tales and traditions, in a nutshell, of course.
Hanging stockings with care:
While the origin of this tradition is still somewhat in the air, legend offers us the “Noblemen Theory,” which illustrates a rags-to-riches miracle.
As it goes, the wife of a nobleman fell fatally ill and eventually died, leaving her husband to raise three daughters.
As the father grew worrisome about money and his daughters’ futures, it is said that St. Nicholas of Myra knew this and passed through the father’s village, dropping three bags of gold coins down his chimney.
In the morning, the three girls woke to find their washed-and-hung socks contained gold coins. After witnessing St. Nicholas’ generosity, the villagers continued hanging stockings every year after.
Lighting of the menorah:
The menorah (hanukiah in Hebrew) of Hanukkah is a six-to-nine branched candelabrum, which is said to symbolize the Israeli nation and its mission to be “a light unto the nations.”
Its significance also stems from a story about Jewish revolutionaries and the retaking of the Temple from the Syrians.
According to tradition, in order to restore the Temple’s purity and dedicate it to God, the Jews needed eight days’ worth of oil to keep the menorah burning.
With only one day’s worth of oil at hand, the menorah was lit and miraculously lasted for eight days.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:
In 1939, a Montgomery Ward department store copywriter, Robert L. May, created America’s favorite reindeer as per request of the shopping center.
Originally a coloring book, the story of Rudolph sold 2.5 million copies its first year of production. Before deciding on “Rudolph,” May considered naming him “Rollo” and “Reginald.”
Together, May and his brother-in-law and songwriter Johnny Marks brought Rudolph’s story to life in print, music and film.
The original book is currently displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The Elf on the Shelf:
The original “The Elf on the Shelf” story was brought to life by Flora Johnson in the early 1960s.
Christmastime in Johnson’s family meant a visit from Christopher Pop-In-Kins, a traveling elf doll that “pops in” during the holiday season to encourage children to behave nicely for Santa (and for parents, I’m sure).
In the 1980s, Johnson received an excited phone call from her grandson who informed her of Christopher Pop-In-Kins’ arrival at his home. Inspired by her grandson’s cheer, Johnson took her idea and mass-produced the elf and his story.
The Elf on the Shelf has grown into a mysterious, modern-day tradition and has evolved, as seen in Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell’s version which has become a Christmas norm for many families.
Spinning the dreidel:
During the rule of Antiochus, Jews were unable to freely practice Judaism.
Because of this, when Jews came together to study the Torah and worship, they would bring a top – a four-sided spinner with Hebrew lettering on each side – and spin as soldiers passed through, hoping it would distract them from their Torah study.
The letters on a dreidel translate to the Hebrew phrase, “A great miracle happened there,” meaning Israel.
The game associated with the dreidel is often played by children during Hanukkah, and the prizes won usually include chocolate coins, candy, nuts and raisins – anything, really.
The nativity scene:
Although a seemingly obvious tradition, the nativity scene of Jesus’ birth is an age-old image and story. In 1223, a man named St. Francis of Assisi held a midnight Mass in honor of the Jesus’ original birthplace in Bethlehem.
With the high priest’s permission, the man constructed a live manger scene filled with hay, a donkey and an ox. St. Francis, “bathed in tears and radiant with joy,” according to St. Bonaventure’s description of the incident, publically preached the gospel of Jesus.
This is the first recorded account of a public manger scene.
Fried foods of Hanukkah:
The importance of oil in the Hanukkah story is also seen in the fried foods served during the eight-day celebration.
Some of the holiday’s more prominent foods include fried potato cakes (latkes), which are often topped with applesauce or sour cream and doughnuts filled with jellies and gelt (chocolate Hanukkah coins).
The Yule log:
Dating as far back as the 1200s, the tradition of the Yule log spread throughout Europe and into the United States.
Although the tradition is practically non-existent today, it is said that Europeans would cut an enormous log and place it in a hearth on Christmas Eve.
After sprinkling the wood with salt, oil and wine, families said prayers to protect their homes from the devil. In some parts of Europe, daughters lit the new Yule log with splinters from last year’s.
In other countries, “the lady of the house” did the honors. In the 1800s, Yule logs transformed into a decorative piece such as a centerpiece. It was often decorated with candles and tree branches, and cooks created Yule log pastries covered in chocolate or coffee.