Have you ever threaded popcorn onto a string or made a paper chain you draped across the branches of your Christmas tree? Some families cut down their own Christmas trees, and put up and take down their decorations on certain dates each year. Do you sit in the dark and watch a candle flicker tentatively on the mantelpiece or scan the darkness for lights glowing in the windows of neighbouring houses? Do you stop to listen to buskers and carollers on the street singing carols and Christmas songs? Decorating Christmas trees and lighting our houses for the holiday season, and singing festive songs and carols are just a few of the customs or traditions that many of us enjoy each Christmas.
What is a tradition? Wikipedia says: A tradition is a belief or behavior (folk custom) passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. Traditions can persist and evolve for thousands of years—the word tradition itself derives from the Latin ‘tradere’ literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping. While it is commonly assumed that traditions have an ancient history, many traditions have been invented on purpose, whether that be political or cultural, over short periods of time.
There are so many customs or traditions associated with Christmas. They may be part of the celebrations of whole communities and countries or ones that belong to a single family. We put pine trees adorned with baubles in our living rooms; hang Christmas wreaths on our front doors, garlands on our banisters and stockings on our mantelpieces (or our bedposts); set poinsettas on our tables; run to advent calendars each day in December to discover what is in that day’s box; eat Christmas pudding, mince pies and candy canes, and enjoy a feast on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Some of our traditions, such as carol singing, date back hundreds of years, while others such as watching Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer or A Charlie Brown Christmas on television or embarking on frantic shopping trips in glitzy downtown precincts are very recent. Many of our best-loved traditions, including decorating our trees, cookie swaps, sending Christmas cards and adorning our trees and houses with lights aren’t much more than a century old.
But, in our own experience, if we have practiced a custom since childhood, it feels like it must have always existed. It becomes integral to our festive season. An important aspect of Christmas traditions is the sense of continuity that they give us. Some people find such predictability boring but most of us find it comforting.
This autumn I contributed a short story to Deadly Traditions, a multi-author Christmas-themed cozy mystery anthology. The stories in the book launch readers into a whole stack of mysteries and holiday traditions.
If you’d like to know more about the anthology, you can find it here: https://books2read.com/u/4NjW6G The book is only available until December 31st.
I had fun writing my story for the book, Mistletoe and Murder, as it evoked memories from my teen years. As a teenager attending youth group Christmas activities, I always looked out for any mistletoe in a room, hoping that whatever boy I had a crush on that year would steal a kiss from me under it. It was an exciting part of the holiday season for a young girl. But, in my story, I turned the tables on my character Marge Kirkwood. She has a completely different experience and finds more trouble under the mistletoe than she ever wanted.
Quite a diverse assortment of traditions get a mention in Deadly Traditions. They include decorating the house and the Christmas tree, Santa Claus’s yearly trip around the globe, cookie swaps, carol singing, sending Christmas cards, hiding a pickle in the Christmas tree and stringing up Christmas lights. Many of them were very familiar to me but some like cookie swaps and hiding a pickle in the tree were completely new.
Christmas lights are one of my favourite traditions. Light is a source of warmth and cheer. It’s ability to pierce the darkness encourages us to hope for better times to come after the dark ones.
Before electric light was invented, candles were placed on Christmas trees to illuminate them. In 1882 Edward Hibberd Johnson, Thomas Edison’s inventing partner, strung together a set of lights and put them on a Christmas tree in New York. Since then, the Christmas lights industry has boomed. I never tire of seeing strings of coloured lights winking in ever-changing patterns on a Christmas tree, in windows or fixed to the roof of a house.
Since I love Christmas lights, it’s probably fortunate I wasn’t born a generation earlier. Electricity didn’t arrive in most parts of the county in Northern Ireland where I live until 1947 or later. Prior to this homes were lit with oil and kerosene lamps, and candles. Large candles, set in carved-out turnip bases, were placed in the windows on Christmas Eve. Although flickering candles are beautiful, I think I would have missed the range of colours and lighting patterns my string of electric lights can produce.
There’s just something so magical about watching lights twinkle. Every year when I see them, I think back to Christmases in my family home when I was growing up. In our small house we had a pair of green wreaths, with electric candles set in them, hanging in our front windows; their flames glowed red and welcoming as I returned home each evening. And before I went to bed on Christmas Eve, I sat in the dark in our living room and watched the multi-coloured lights glowing on the pint-sized Christmas tree sitting on a table in the corner.
The wonder that Christmas lights awaken in me brightens my holidays each year, and links me to my childhood memories, and to the age-old hope that light brings. What traditions are your favourites? Do they link you to your past or more ancient traditions?
Whatever customs are part of your Christmas celebrations, I hope you have a bright and warm holiday season. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!