Candy canes began as straight white sticks of sugar candy used to decorate the Christmas trees. A choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral decided have the ends bent to depict a shepherd’s crook and he would pass them out to the children to keep them quiet during the services. It wasn’t until about the 20th century that candy canes acquired their red stripes.
Tinsel made its first appearance in Germany in and around 1610. The early tinsels were made of real silver and machines were invented to pull the silver into very thins strips for the tinsels. The Christmas tree was lighted with the shiny tinsels both on the Christmas Day and Christmas Eve. Though silver is a durable metal, it tarnished quickly with candlelight so could not be left on for long. Efforts were soon on to find a substitute and experiments were made with a mixture of lead and tin. The resultant mixture was heavy and tended to break down the branches under its own weight, therefore not reasonable to use in decorations. Silver tinsels continued to be used as recently as the mid-twentieth century when synthetics and plastics took the place of costly metals. To the right is a Victorian Era tinsel.
Father Christmas/St. Nicholas—
During the first centuries AD England was largely Saxon and Viking up until the Norman invasion in 1066. Effects to Romanize and Christianize only went so far, the native peoples holding on to their gods. Odin was the Viking father of the gods and he had 12 characters. In December he was Jul and the month was Jultid (Yuletide) with Odin (Jul) disguised in a long blue hooded cloak, carrying a satchel of bread, and walking with a staff. Legends say he would join his people at the campfire listening to hear if they were content and giving gifts to the poor.
When the Normans brought their St. Nicholas customs – the saintly priest giving gifts to children at Christmas – the images mingled over time with a Christian element added. During the Reformation most records were lost so little is known of the customs and beliefs that evolved, but there is great evidence that Father Christmas grew rowdier with a spirit of Christmas cheer more than Christmas piety! We do know that when Parliament under Cromwell banned Christmas in 1647 secret publishers of Broadsheets used “Old Father Christmas” as the imaginary spokesperson of Christmas traditions. “In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!” He became heavily disguised and secret, a jovial creation synonymous with the goodwill and entertaining aspects of Christmas that were forbidden rather than the saintly attributes of the past. This idea remained even after Cromwell’s edict was overthrown.
Gifts have been a part of Christmas since the Wise Men began the tradition. St. Nicolas, the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor did exist and had a reputation for generously giving, especially to children, at all times of the year but Christmas was special to him by all accounts, whether one believes the gold thrown down the chimney that ended up inside the stockings hung to dry story or not. By the 10th century gift giving customs in nearly every country were well established, although usually sweet treats and other handcrafted items.
The Industrial Revolution led to a shift to manufactured gifts and the boon in advertising begun in earnest in the 1840s led to the commercialization of Christmas giving. Wrapping gifts or hiding them in some way as to be a surprise is probably far older than Christmas! Until the 1890s when printing technology existed to manufacture colored prints in large quantities, gift givers used plain brown paper, colored tissue paper, cloth, or decorated baskets and the like. The gift would be highly decorated with drawings, flowers, greenery, and so on.
In 1917 the Hall Brother’s of Kansas City ran out of the red, green, and white tissue paper in their store prior to Christmas so the next year the brothers shipped large sheets of decorated envelope liner. It sold like hot cakes so they began printing their own Christmas wrapping paper for the holidays, surprised to have the paper quickly rival the nice holiday cards they sold. Needless to say they did very well with their business and if you haven’t guessed it as yet, Hallmark was born! Lucky for them, and us, scotch tape was invented in 1930 making the use of string, ribbons, and sealing wax unnecessary.
Wassail is a word that derives from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hal meaning “be in good health.” It was a greeting that evolved into a drinking toast as early as the 8th century in Beowulf. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135 fair Renwein spoke the phrase to King Vortigern, offering him the goblet of spiced wine to drink from first as an opening blessing upon the banquet before passing it to the other guests to drink from, each shouting “was hal.” This community goblet/cup/bowl idea was typical for wassail. The practice of floating crisps of bread or dipping cakes into the wassail gave rise to “toasting” as a term for a drinking salutation.
Wassail has many recipes, but true wassail must contain some kind of liquor laced with spices. Apples came to be added as a common ingredient during medieval times when farmers “wassailed” their crops and animals as a fertility ritual. After drinking from the wassail bowl they would dip bread into the wassail until soaked and then spread it over the branches, animals, or fields. As time went on the custom centered on winter-dormant apple trees and grew to be a party-style event associated with Christmas. This fun moved into the towns and cities with roving bands of liquor-merry celebrants singing carols and carrying wassail bowls door-to-door drinking to the health of their neighbors. Such revelry was one of many that disturbed the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell!