This holiday season, many of us will be swigging eggnog and decorating our Christmas tree (possibly drunk). But where do these annual festivities come from? Here are the origins of traditions that have become pop culture staples.
The Christmas tree has become so popular that 8 in 10 Americans say they plan to put one up this year, according to Pew Research Center. (One South Carolina woman has 26 trees in her home this year!)
We can thank the Germans for the tradition. It dates back to the Middle Ages.
Roman Catholic countries, including Germany, celebrated the Feast Day of Adam and Eve on Dec. 24. The Germans would do a procession carrying "paradise trees" with apples on them representing the forbidden fruit, said Bob Doares, a training specialist in the historical research department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
The tradition was introduced to England during the Victorian era. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German, he brought Christmas trees into their palaces.
Although it's difficult to trace back to the very first Christmas tree in the United States, it's assumed Germans settlers brought the tradition with them, Doares said.
In Williamsburg, Va., the first Christmas tree came in 1842. German professor Charles Minnigerode, while teaching at the College of William and Mary, brought a Christmas tree to the home of a fellow professor to entertain his colleague's children. Minnigerode decorated the tree with colored papers and used wire to attach candles to the branches, Doares said.
Why do we pucker up under this parasitic plant?
One story of mistletoe's beginnings comes from Norse mythology: The god Baldur was certain that Earth's plants and animals wanted to kill him, so his mother and wife negotiated with every living thing to leave Baldur alone. But mistletoe was the one plant his wife and mother overlooked, and, ultimately, Baldur was killed with an arrow made from the plant. "We kiss beneath it to remember what Baldur's wife and mother forgot," writes biologist Rob Dunn in Smithsonian Magazine.
Another story: Druids believed mistletoe had magical powers and used it during rituals. Because of its use in pagan ceremonies, mistletoe was banned in Christian places of worship, writes Leonard Perry, a forestry professor at the University of Vermont. It's unclear when mistletoe became associated with Christmas, he writes.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to 16th century England, and is possibly related to the belief of the plant's "effects on fertility and conception," according to an article on the American Phytopathological Society website.
About 16% of Americans said they plan to go caroling this year, according to the Pew study. The tradition goes as far back as the 8th or 9th century, said Daniel Abraham, musicologist and director of choral activities at American University. In feudal times, the visits may have been intended for people to take their harvest to their lords and get something in return, Abraham said.
Like Christmas trees, it was in the Victorian era when modern-day caroling was born — four-part harmonies and refrains in songs, Abraham said. Popular songs today — such as Good King Wenceslas, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Little Town of Bethlehem — became standards during this period, he said.
The milky, frothy drink is often flavored with nutmeg and spiked with alcohol. The beverage has its roots as a wintertime drink for British aristocracy, writes Frederick Douglass Opie, food history professor at Babson College, in his blog Food As a Lens. Only the wealthy could afford the milk and eggs and added expensive liquors like brandy and sherry to keep the drink from spoiling, Opie writes.
Eggnog came to the U.S. colonies in the 18th century, where the drink was changed. Instead of adding the heavily taxed brandy or wine, colonists added rum — "the drink of the marginalized" — which was traded from the Caribbean, according to Opie.
What about the name — eggnog? Opie writes that the term is a combination of two colonial slang words — rum was referred to as grog and bartenders served it in small wooden mugs called noggins. The drink first became known as egg-n-grog and later as eggnog.
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