The Secret Behind the Candy Cane
Did you know you wouldn't be munching on candy canes this Christmas if it weren't for a bunch of squirmy little kids? No kidding. Ancient rumor has it that in 1670 a German choir director got ticked off when kids wouldn't sit quietly through his holiday program. But instead of wrapping them in duct tape, he gave them candy. Clever guy, huh? He gave out candy sticks curved on one end—like shepherds' crooks found in the biblical story of Christmas. (The stripes and peppermint flavor were added later on.) Apparently, those rowdy kids just sat there enjoying their sweet treats—and kept fairly quiet. Of course, all that sugar probably had them bouncing off the walls once they got home.
You may know Francis of Assisi as the medieval monk with the bird on his shoulder. But what you may not know is he also invented nativity scenes—no, not the plastic ones in the yard that light up or the little wooden ones under your tree, but the live-action ones. During the Middle Ages, most people were illiterate. Books weren't widely available, and church services were held in Latin. Francis wanted to find a way to help people understand the Christmas story, so he gathered together some people (and some of his animal friends) to reenact the birth of Christ in a local cave. People came from all over the countryside to see. Children sang to the Baby Jesus, and Francis led songs—the first Christmas carols. Eventually, artists made nativity scenes out of wood, wax and clay, and the idea spread around the world.
Jolly Old St. Nick
Santa Claus' other common name, St. Nick, helps us understand where this Christmas symbol came from. Legend has it that Nicholas was a young Greek Christian who lived during the fourth century. No, we don't know if his cheeks were rosy. And he reportedly had no magic reindeer. But Nicholas came from a wealthy family and was known for his strong faith, his ability to perform miracles, and his generosity. He often disguised himself to give gifts to kids and the needy. Three local sisters were so poor, they couldn't afford to get married. So as each one got old enough for marriage, Nicholas visited late at night and threw a bag of gold through the window. (Boy, finding nice packages under the tree sure beats cleaning up all that broken glass.) After his death, the Roman Catholic Church honored him with sainthood and he became St. Nicholas (see where this is going?). Over time, his life story became merged with several other legends, traditions and a poem: Clement Moore's "A Visit From St. Nick" (we know it as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas … "). And we ended up with that red-suited, jolly Santa Claus that we know—and visit at the mall—today.
O Christmas Tree
When you think about it, it's kind of weird that we celebrate Christmas by cutting down a tree, bringing it indoors, and hanging stuff on it. Why not bring in a big rock and paint it? Or maybe trim a nice shrub? Well, there are at least two stories of how Christians came to use fir trees to observe the birth of Christ. Apparently, during the seventh century, a Latvian monk used the triangular shape of the fir tree to explain the three persons of the Trinity. He started a trend. Believers began to hang trees upside down from the ceilings of their churches. And eventually, they began to decorate them. Another tradition says that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was the first to light up a Christmas tree. The story goes like this: Luther was walking outside on Christmas Eve and was captivated by the beauty of the stars shining through the evergreen trees. To give his family a sense of what he'd seen, Luther set up a small tree in their home, and lit it with candles. Thankfully, as far as we know, his house didn't catch on fire.