Category Archives: Traditions

Why do we give presents on Christmas?

Many of our Christmas traditions are centuries old, others have only been around less than 200 years. Gift giving, as we know it today, wasn’t always part of Christmas.

Pagan Origins

It’s possible to trace the practice of giving gifts at Christmas time to early pagans. The midwinter festival was a time for feasting, drinking, performing skits and ritualistic begging. Continue reading

Origin of the Christmas Stocking

Do you know how the tradition of Christmas stockings began?

The Legend of Saint Nicholas

According to legend, St. Nicholas (a priest, then bishop, who was reputed to be generous to the poor) heard of a man who had three daughters but not enough money for their dowries.  Wishing to bestow an anonymous gift, St. Nicholas threw gold down the man’s chimney, which landed in the stockings of the daughters, washed and drying on the mantel.

For this reason, many people today still put a tangerine or orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking. It represents the lump of gold.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers, as well as children. If you see a symbol of three golden balls on a pawn shop sign, you now know they represent the three lumps of gold the saint bestowed on the daughters of legend.

The dreaded lump of coal

How about the lump of coal? Well, you can imagine what a big deal it was to receive gifts in the old days. It didn’t happen every day. Children had a big incentive to behave themselves, so their benefactor would bring them a surprise on St. Nicholas Day. What happened if they didn’t? They knew they would receive sticks, switches (to symbolize a thrashing) salt or lumps of coal to make the stocking look as if something was in it, bu not contain any small toys or gifts. Sometimes, there was another, more frightening figure to bestow the presents or punishments on naughty children. Coal was commonly used in later centuries, as it was handy. Today, of course, coal is usually placed in the stocking as a gag gift.

Although I remember hanging one of my real socks on Christmas Eve, nowadays, it’s more common to see a stocking that is shaped like a Santa Claus boot, and some adults also put up stockings. The humble sock has transformed into a decorative piece that can cost $50 or more.

Does your family hang stockings on Christmas Eve? What are your traditions?

What is Advent?

You may have heard of Advent, and you may have had an Advent calendar as a child. But do you know what Advent means?

Advent is a Christmas tradition and liturgical practice that marks the days of waiting before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Since early Christian times, it has taken place on the four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday of Advent is the first day of the Christmas season of religious observance and also the first day of the Christian liturgical year.

That day is today. Today is the first Sunday of Advent.

The last day of the Christmas celebration is Epiphany, in many traditions, which is January 6, and celebrates the day the Wise Men came to visit the baby Jesus.

You have heard of the 12 days of Christmas? Those are the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany.

The Advent Candles and Wreath

Some families have an advent wreath at home. When they do, it’s traditional to gather reverently to light a candle on the evening of each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Candles also appear at Sunday services in the churches of many denominations. The candles are often placed in a wreath of greenery and represents God’s never-ending love.The wreath is a custom that comes from Germany, like the Christmas tree.

On the first Sunday you light one candle, the second Sunday, two candles, and so on.

While the traditional colors of Christmas are red and green, Advent candles are often purple (the first two and fourth Sundays) and pink (the third Sunday). The clergy’s vestments during Advent are also purple and rose on these days. But there are different colors and customs. Some candles are all red, all white or other colors.

Meanings of the Four Advent Candles

The candles have different meanings and tell, sequentially, the story of Christmas.

  • The first candle is called the “Prophet’s Candle” and represents hope. The prophets of the Old Testament waited in hope for the arrival of the prophesied Messiah. The first, second and fourth candles are often purple, but in some denominations, they are blue. Purple represents penitence (and is also used during Lent), while blue represents hope and expectation.
  • The second candle is “Bethlehem’s Candle.” The candle represents the faith that Jews held that a Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
  • The third candle is the “Shepherd’s Candle.” It represents joy, the joy the shepherds had when the angels came to them to tell them that Jesus was born. This candle is pink. It is pink, because in liturgy, the color pink stands for joy. The joy is the anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Messiah. This service or Mass is also usually a joyful one.
  • The fourth candle the “Angel’s Candle.” It represents peace. The angels told that Jesus had come to bring peace to all people.
  • Sometimes, people or churches add a fifth candle, in the middle of the wreath and light in on Christmas Day. This one is usually white and is is called “Christ’s candle.” The candle represents the purity of Christ. It is also the color of celebration in the church, so vestments are white on Christmas and Easter.

Advent is a lovely, quiet and reverent tradition to add to your celebration of Christmas.

Christmas Tree Lightings in November and December

Do you light up like a Christmas tree when they light up Christmas trees? Here’s an ahhh-some (and printable!) list made just for you.

Some of these tree lightings occur in November so I’m giving you advance notice. Most events include free entertainment, visits from Santa Claus and in some cases, toy collections. Click the links to learn more and plan your fun evening.

Friday, November 15, 6 p.m. Tree lighting at Holiday Light-Up, Fairfax Corner, Fairfax. Plus: horse carriage rides!

Friday, November 15, 6 p.m. Tree Lighting on the Plaza with Tommy McFly and musical entertainment. The Plaza, Tysons Corner Center, Vienna.

Saturday, November 23, 6 p.m. Tree Lighting Ceremony in Old Town Alexandria, City Hall on King Street and Market Street.

Friday, November 29, 6 p.m. Tree lighting and Sing-a-long at Fountain Square in Reston Town Center. While you’re there, visit the Hyatt Hotel lobby to see a real gingerbread village.

Monday, December 2, 6 p.m. Tree lighting in the Town of Vienna at The Church Street Holiday Stroll. Santa arrives by firetruck!

Tuesday, December 3, 6 p.m. Norwegian Christmas Tree Lighting and ceremony at Union Station, Washington, DC. Plus: the famous model railroad display on view all December!

Wednesday, December 4, 5 p.m. U.S. Capitol Tree Lighting, West Lawn, U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC. The tree will be lit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and will be illuminated each evening in December until 11 p.m.

Thursday December 5, 5 p.m. The National Christmas Tree will be lit by the First Lady and will remain on view through December at the Ellipse (in back of the White House) in Washington, DC. The National Tree is surrounded by 50+ smaller trees for each U.S. state and territory.

Saturday, December 7, 5:30 p.m. Tree lighting at The Festival of Lights and Carols, Old Town Square, 10415 North Street, Fairfax City. Holiday Festival of Lights and Carols 2 pm. – 7 p.m. with live music, s’mores and hot cider.

 

Spread a little Yuletide Cheer

Mom making her purchases at The Christmas Mouse

Mom making her purchases at The Christmas Mouse

There’s this thing I do now during the holidays that I learned from my mom. I guarantee it will really make you feel Christmas-y.

Buy some small treat — you know like a Russell Stover mini box of chocolates, or a Godiva Bar. You don’t have to spend more than a couple of dollars, if that. And it doesn’t have to be candy — it can be like a $5 gift card for McDonalds or Starbucks or something. Even a candy cane or an extra Christmas card would do.

Just keep ’em stashed in your purse, or on you.

Then when you go out this time of year, like say to a restaurant, you leave that token along with the tip for the waiter. Or if you are Christmas shopping, you give it to the person who rings you up, even at the grocery store. At the drive-thru. For your pharmacist. For your bus driver.

Anywhere where people are nice to you or you think they could use a lift. The more random and anonymous, the more fun it seems to be.  You know, like your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing.

By the way, if you have kids, this is something you want your kids to “catch” you doing from time to time. Generosity is learned and modeling is the best way to do it. And what better way to be generous, in any way you can, than during the holidays?

This isn’t to replace the conventional tipping you would do during the holidays, like for your barber or hairdresser, dog walker, babysitter, etc. This is a little extra you give to people who would not expect it.

Let me tell you: people act like you gave them a million dollars! You want see a tired person grin, just try it.

They’re so surprised and pleased, and they really appreciate it — all you have to do is give it to him or her with a quick and warm thank you, and of course, Merry Christmas. Strangers have hugged me!

It is so much fun and it will make you feel like Santa Claus!

Celebrate Epiphany with a Kings’ Cake

January 6 is Epiphany, or the twelfth day of Christmas.  It is traditionally celebrated as the final day of the Christmas season, is a feast celebration, and marks the day that the wise men brought gifts to the Christ Child.

In our household, as in many, Christmas greenery is left in place until Epiphany passes.

When I lived in France, it was traditional to eat a delicious Kings’ Cake on this day, called a “galette des rois.” It’s different from the Mardi Gras King Cake you might have seen, which is shaped like a ring and decorated with purple, gold, and green sugar, and beads.  The Mardi Gras cakes are also offered on Epiphany through Mardi Gras, or the Tuesday before Lent.

The French Kings’ cake is a flakier pastry concoction, however, more like a Pithviers than a layer cake, and typically has almond paste inside, and is generally eaten during Epiphany.   The cake concealed a small baby or other nativity figure, and was adorned with a gold paper crown.  If you got the token in your slice of cake, you got to wear the crown and would be king for the day.

It can be hard to find a real, French-style king’s cake in this area.  I saw one at La Madeleine Bakery and Cafe this week, however, for about $16.

Cool Yule Video: Nutcracker Ballet Pas de Deux (Videos)

Here are not one, but two, choreographed versions of the pas de deux in The Nutcracker.

The first video (1968) portrays a classic version featuring the phenomenal Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as the Nutcracker Prince and the very great Merle Park as Clara. At the time, they were both dancing for the Royal Ballet of London. Her performance in The Nutcracker earned her international acclaim and assured her a place among history’s greatest ballerinas.

What I appreciate about this flawless performance, in addition to its beautiful choreography (by Nureyev) and emotional quality, is the athleticism and laser precision of the dancers. 

The second video (1977) is Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version for American Ballet Theatre in which he performs with Gelsey Kirkland. It created a sensation when it was presented at the Kennedy Center in 1977. This highly artistic and deeply psychological interpretation adds all kinds of novel elements.  For one, he puts Clara in the pas de deux, whereas in other versions she is merely a spectator of this dance.  Then he also adds Herr Drosselmeyer into the dance, which adds all kinds of layers of meaning and a novel dimension, really creating a pas de trois!

With its fluid choreography and drama, and the wispy costume and flowing coiffure of the delicate Ms. Kirkland, the intensely emotional, dream-like performance is full of mystery and beauty, conjuring up all kinds of musings about love, coming of age, strength and vulnerability, and even desire and sensuality.  (The pas de deux begins at 3:43 in this video.)

See “The Real Santa Claus” and more at Merrifield Garden Center Open House, starting November 28

Merrifield Garden Center in Falls Church, Virginia  (8132 Lee Highway, on the corner of Lee Highway and Gallows Road, across from Office Depot and Arby’s) presents an eye-widening array of Christmas decorations each year in its Christmas Shop.  This is the place to go for live and artificial trees, holly, pine roping, and all kinds of festive greenery, and exquisite ornaments.  But it is also one of my favorite destinations just to walk around and take in the beauty of the holiday decorations.

Holiday Open House November 28-29

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, November 28 and 29, the store holds its annual holiday open house, with refreshments and the arrival of “The Real Santa Claus.”  St. Nick holds court in a real sleigh in a special Santa Claus house.  The lines are often long, especially on the weekends, but there are trains, lights, displays, and plenty of things to look at inside Santa’s house.  (To avoid the longest lines, come early in December, on a weekday, right at 5 p.m. if you can manage it.)

Santa’s Schedule

You can visit Santa starting November 28 through December 23 from 12 noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.  Tuesdays- Fridays.  Santa takes a day off on Monday, except for December 21st.

Santa’s “Press Conferences”

Kids and adults of all ages will enjoy Santa’s press conference, which takes place on 12 noon on Saturdays and Sundays, and at 5 p.m. on .  Before each session, Santa takes questions from the children and leads some sing-a-longs.  He also recites poems and tells some jokes.  It is really enchanting, and even if you don’t have children, you should see this at least once.

By the way, there is also a bin there for new unwrapped toys for the less fortunate.  Please consider bringing a toy.