Category: Holidays

The Surprising History of Christmas Traditions

Wassail, one of the oldest holiday drinks, is named after the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael” or “good health.” Wassail was originally made with mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar

New Brunswick, N.J. (Dec. 19, 2019) – Did you know yuletide caroling began 1,000 years before Christmas existed? Or how about the fact that mistletoe was used to represent immortality long before the holiday reached Europe? And before there was eggnog, the medieval English drank wassail made from mulled ale. 

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Maria Kennedy, an instructor of folklore at Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s Department of American Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, has researched the European holiday traditions that predate – and became an inseparable part of – Christmas.

She shared her insights with Rutgers Today.

What is the origin of Christmas caroling?

The act of going from house to house during the darkest time of the year to spread hope through song has its origins​ throughout Europe and takes many forms including the British tradition of Wassail and Mumming, and the Slavic tradition of Koliada, which began before 998 B.C. In many traditions, people would go door to door and ask for permission to perform. They would recite poetry, sing and sometimes perform a skit. The idea was that these acts would bring about good fortune to influence a future harvest. Many of these visiting rituals were incorporated in the celebration of Christmas and are still performed in modern Ukraine as well as throughout Europe and across the United States.  

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Why do we associate Christmas with eggnog?

Holiday beverages like eggnog, mulled wine and hot cider often include cinnamon, cloves and/or other spices. In medieval England, these spices were of high value and would have been traded for other goods. They were a sign of wealth, so bringing them out for celebration was equivalent to bringing out the best wine for guests. Drinks with eggs and cream may seem strange to palates today, but these were also common in Medieval England. 

The ancestor of these drinks is wassail, named after the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael” or “good health.” Wassail was originally made with mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It was served in huge bowls made of wood, pewter, porcelain, and silver. The act of wassailing would begin on the 12th day of Christmas – Jan. 5 or Jan. 6 – and included bonfires in the orchards, shooting guns to scare away bad spirits, caroling and pouring hot cider into the roots of trees for a good harvest the following year.

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Where did mistletoe and evergreen trees become part of the holiday?  

Mistletoe, an evergreen shrub, was used in celebrations dating back to the ancient Druids – Celtic religious leaders – some 2,000 years ago. Mistletoe represented immortality because it continued to grow in the darkest time of the year and bore white berries when everything else had died. Hanging its sprigs over doorways and windows was supposed to keep the evil spirits of disease from entering a house. Farmers found it easiest to remove parasitic mistletoe from apple trees in winter when the branches were barren.

The decorating of evergreen trees is a German custom that began in the 16th century and was popularized in England and America during the reign of Queen Victoria after she married Prince Albert in 1840. Albert would decorate the trees at Windsor Castle with wax candles and sweets. By the 1860s, hundreds of Christmas trees were sold in Covent Garden and eventually the trend made its way into American tradition. Originally, trees would be decorated with oranges stuck with cloves, cinnamon sticks and pine cones. Sometimes, the nut would be removed from a walnut shell and replaced by a small gift or candy before being hung on a tree. 

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Don't Get on Santa's Naughty List

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Photo by hue12 photography

Looking for ideas on easy ways to reduce your environmental impact during the holiday season? With the help of UK Recycling, here are eight easy ideas for you and everyone in your life to stay green this holiday season.

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  • Think reusables when wrapping — Use reusable bags or containers when wrapping instead of onetime use items. Also consider using brown craft paper or newspaper comic strips, which can be recycled, or wrapping presents with reusable bags or scarves.
  • Send electronically — Send electronic greeting cards instead of sending cards through the mail to help you reduce the amount of waste you generate this holiday season.
  • Look for electronic recycling programs — Lots of people upgrade electronics around the holidays. Wondering what to do with the old ones? Look for electronic recycling centers, such as Lexington’s Electronic Recycling Center. A full list of acceptable items is here.
  • Shop at resale places —​ Thrifting is reusing good condition items. Not only is shopping at resale stores usually cheaper, but it also supports local businesses or charities. A full list of resale places in Lexington can be found here.
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  • Give everyday items a new life — Turn a teacup into a candle or a mini planter, or a soda can into a unique ornament. With a little creativity, items can be reused and given a new life for your friends and family to enjoy.
  • Give gifts that can be reused — Everyone needs a reusable water bottle or coffee mug. Give useful gifts that everyone loves and can be reused year-round. Other examples are silicone food bags, stainless steel straws and travel utensils.
  • Give the gift of experiences — Not sure what to get someone? Give the gift of an experience. Get them tickets to a concert or take them bowling. Experiences are more likely to be unique and personal than material gifts — and do not generate materials for landfills.
  • Continue to recycle during the holidays — Find out what is recyclable in your area and participate in the program. Recycle all your cardboard, aluminum cans and plastics bottles and jugs and help keep them out of the landfill.
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For information about what is recyclable at UK visit www.uky.edu/facilities/cppd/services/facilities-services/recycling/what-is-recyclable. For any other information about UK recycling visit www.uky.edu/facilities/cppd/services/facilities-services/recycling or contact recycle@uky.edu.           

Holiday dieting can backfire

It can be hard to resist a spread of decadent food over the holidays. But as much as you might prepare for gorging by dieting in advance, Natalia Groat, a registered dietitian at Harborview Medical Center, says that plan can backfire.

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Dieting causes your body to think it’s starving, so it slows down your metabolism to hold on to nutrients of whatever you do eat. That means you could end up gaining weight when you stop dieting.

The best way to eat guilt-free?  Groat advises mindfulness.  Eat the foods you like, just in smaller portions, and be conscious of how your body feels and what it needs. In between holiday meals and parties, adhere to your normal routine of what you eat that makes you feel good.

4 tips to make the holidays more healthy and less stressful.

Don’t fall victim to the holiday hustle— Here’s advice to make the holidays more healthy and less stressful.

Francoise Adan, MD, ABIHM, Director, University Hospitals Connor Integrative Health Network, offers these tips for a healthy holiday season.

Photo by Charlotte Coneybeer

The holidays are meant to be a time of celebration and quality time with family and friends. However, when trying to manage our families and navigate all of the festivities, this season is often a catalyst for a lot of stress and anxiety. Not to mention that many of us let go of the healthy habits we have been fostering all year.

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With the added emotional strain, skipping regular exercise and overloading on food and alcohol makes us even more susceptible to holiday blues. This year, instead of falling victim to the holiday hustle—set the tone you want for this season. Be the change you wish to see and influence those around you to do the same!

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  • Holiday Eating: This season it is not about feeling guilty or “derailing your diet.” Think portion control. Be intentional about eating healthy during non-holiday meals. Try eating a light healthy snack before going to holiday events. This way you will have more control when it is time for the main course, without depriving yourself of your holiday favorites. Moderation is key—but enjoy yourself!
  • Time Management: It’s hard not to feel pulled in too many directions this time of year. With all of the to-do lists and planning ahead, when do you find time to actually absorb the meaning of all of it? This year, be more selective with your priorities and let go of impossible expectations. Simplify holiday traditions and commitments and do not overschedule yourself. Talk to your family about which traditions are most important. Make a list of your holiday commitments and say no to any unnecessary stressors.
  • Holiday Shopping: Just thinking of holiday lines and chaos can elicit feelings of overwhelm. And even if you elect to shop online, it can still be worrisome trying to find the “perfect” gifts for our loved ones. One idea is to take the pressure off by simply asking what they want. However, that sort of takes the fun out of things. Gift cards are always safe, but when possible, giving personalized gifts is a nice touch. Chances are your friends and family are just as wound up during the holidays as you. Let them know you care about their well-being. Think about gifting them relaxation with a massage session or yoga class.
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  • Self-Care: Do not forget to manage your own well-being. Instead of resisting all that comes with the holidays, acknowledge that stress is a healthy reaction to things we perceive as threatening. This season, be intentional about managing your stress so that it does not become detrimental your health and holiday spirit. As you are thinking of making things perfect for everyone else, remember to take time for yourself. Set the tone for the New Year and stop putting off that me-time you always plan to schedule eventually. Take a deep breath—try meditation for the first time or buy yourself a massage when you purchase them for others.  Add at least one gift for yourself on that long list of things to do for everyone else.

 University Hospitals has a digital broadcast studio available for interviews.

About Dr. Adan