Traditions from the Old World

Kate Fechter-Stamper

Holiday traditions in America: the Christmas tree, presents, carols, and mistletoe are traditions we are all familiar with. But what about the ones that were left behind when the holidays came to the new world?

St. Lucia Day is celebrated in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries on Dec. 13th, and is considered the beginning of the Christmas season. On this day, the oldest daughter, dressed in a white gown with a red sash and a crown of twigs with nine lit candles in it, wakes her family, and they eat breakfast in a room lit with candles. St. Lucia lived during the 4th century when Christians were persecuted. Legend says that she lost her eyes while being tortured for her beliefs. Light is the main theme of this holiday.

The Yule log began in Norway, and was used by the ancient Norse to celebrate the return of the sun at the Winter Solstice. “Yule” means “wheel”, originating from the Norse word hweol. The burning of the Yule represented the sun returning. It was burned during the 12 days of Christmas and the charred remains were used as kindling for the following year’s fire. It was thought to protect the house from lightning and fire.

German Christkindlmarket or Christmas markets have been around since the 1500s, and is a joyous event bringing fun to the cold, dark winter season. People can purchase unique handcrafted gifts, while having food, drink, and good companionship. Each market varies by region, and is a highlight of the holiday season.

Wassailing the apple tree is an old English tradition that generally takes place on the 17th of January, the old twelfth night. Wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon term “wes hal” meaning be whole. On this night, farmers and their families feast on cider and hot cakes, and then go into the Orchard where a cider soaked cake is placed at the foot of the tree. The men fire their guns and bang on pots and pans, while the rest of the people sing the “Wassailing song”. This is to ward off bad spirits, and encourage the good spirits to bring bountiful crops the following year.

Mumming is an old holiday tradition that traces its roots to an old pagan tradition where men and women wrapped themselves in swaddling clothes, animal skins, and donned masks, and visit neighbors for merry-making. Still observed in Newfoundland, plays are sometimes performed with masked, costumed mimes, who could be considered mum. The saying “mum’s the word” originated from this tradition.

Finally, the Feast of the Three Kings is celebrated Jan. 6th, and is also called Epiphany or Dia De Los Reyes. This holiday, which celebrates the three kings or wisemens’ visit to baby Jesus bearing gifts, is a Puerto Rican tradition that is important to the children. On the eve of Epiphany, children place boxes or baskets of straw, hay, or grass under their beds as a gift of food for the kings and if they have been good, the three kings will visit them leaving gifts.

These old world traditions are still practiced by some in their native countries.