Have you ever stopped in the middle of decorating your Christmas tree or gingerbread cookies and asked "Why am I doing this?"
While the holidays in general can be filled with time-honored customs, the traditions that many Americans follow sometimes do not come with a clear-cut reasoning as to how they started. It turns out, many traditions have long origin stories and have evolved over the many years of their existence.
You'll find the origin stories of three beloved holiday traditions below. Their storied pasts have led up to the rituals we know today.
According to PBS, the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 BC. Decorated gingerbread cookies first originated in 10th-century England, when the queen first commissioned some cookies to look like the dignitaries she was hosting.
The idea of a gingerbread house as we know it today arose in 16th-century Germany. The houses, which became associated with Christmas tradition, were elaborately decorated with foil and gold leaf, among other things. Their popularity skyrocketed with the Brothers Grimm's story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the two titular characters find a house made of gingerbread. So thank your favorite fairy tale from yesterday for your holiday cookie creation today.
Decorating a tree
Evergreen trees, as it turns out, were first associated with the winter solstice in Earth's northern hemisphere, which falls on either Dec. 21 or Dec. 22, according to History.com. Many ancient societies, including the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Vikings, worshiped the sun as a god and interpreted the winter as that god becoming weak. The solstice signified the sun god's return, which was celebrated with evergreen boughs, which represented life and the plants that would soon grow again in the summertime.
The idea of decorated Christmas trees, like gingerbread houses, is believed to have begun in 16th-century Germany. Devout Christians brought the trees into their homes, often decorating them with wooden pyramids and candles. The famous Protestant theologist Martin Luther is said to have first decorated a tree with candles in order to recreate the beauty he saw from stars twinkling in between the branches of firs on his walk home.
The tradition came to America in the 1700s, along with German settlers who settled in Pennsylvania. The practices of having a Christmas tree, as well as decorating for the holidays in general, was considered pagan by the Puritans until the mid-19th century. Eventually, the number of German and Irish immigrants coming to the U.S. overwhelmed the Puritanical rule, and the decorations were allowed.
Most culinary historians agree that the thick, spiced egg drink so closely associated with the holidays originated in medieval times in Britain, according to PBS. After that, eggnog's origin story differs significantly, depending on who is telling it. The original British drink, known as "posset," was made of hot milk, curdled and mixed with sherry or an ale that was sweetened and spiced. Historians say this drink was restricted to the upper classes of society due to how expensive the ingredients were. It was often used to toast to health and prosperity.
Some say monks were the first to add eggs to the mix, though the true origin in unclear. What is clear is just how much Americans quickly grew to love the drink. Americans had local farms that supplied milk and eggs abundantly. Sherry was replaced with the less-expensive whisky and rum. George Washington is said to have served eggnog to visitors at his Mt. Vernon estate.
Eggnog was considered part of the holiday season as early as the 19th century, though the exact origins of its name have yet to be completely illuminated. "Nog" may refer to the wooden mugs used to drink the beverage, called "noggins." It might also be a derivative of a Norfolk word for strong ales. No matter the name, the tradition of a creamy holiday beverage has spread all over the world, with variations found far and wide.
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