This just in: no one drank eggnog at the Nativity.
Shocked? No? Of course you’re not.
There has been an increasingly blurred line between Christian and secular holiday traditions over the last few centuries. Some aspects of the season are so ingrained that it’s difficult to imagine Christmas without them; there might not have been evergreen trees in Bethlehem, but for many, the Christmas tree is the eponymous symbol of the holiday. Joseph and Mary might not have ridden reindeer to the overbooked inn, but the narrative of Santa Claus doesn’t exactly involve him hitching his sleigh to flying donkeys. And ah, the mistletoe — that delightful little hemiparasitic plant that definitely wasn’t one of the gifts of the Wise Men. (Hey, it makes sense that this one became a secular tradition; what better excuse for tipsy, socially acceptable kissing in the days of yore?)
But then there are the elements of Christmas that are so secular, they have absolutely nothing to do with either the religious version of the holiday or the narrative involving Santa’s workshop and his overworked little elves.
The produce aisles of grocery stores make room for this seemingly iconic fruit as Christmas approaches. The tradition of placing an orange in the toe of a stocking has been around for centuries; oranges, like other tropical fruits, were once scarce in northern climates. The advent of the transcontinental railway in the U.S. helped improve distribution channels, and oranges became a customary treat for children on Christmas morning.
But — why clementines? Well, this aromatic fruit enjoys a late harvest season from October to February. They have, in a sense, become a custom by proximity; they’re available at Christmas, so we associate them with the season. And the age-old tradition of oranges during this season helped usher this tiny, cheerful fruit into our seasonal diets. Just try imagining the holiday without at least one crate rotting fragrantly on the counter.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
A friend recently remarked, surprised, that The Sound Of Music was playing onstage somewhere in the summer of 2017. “Why would they do that?” she said. “Isn’t that a Christmas show?”
Nope, but it’s an understandable misconception. When Christmas week rolls around, The Sound Of Music is always on TV. Most of us probably even think of “My Favorite Things” as a Christmas song.
This one is actually a real stretch in its ties to the Christmas season, and the origins of this tradition are hazy at best. It wasn’t even released at Christmas; it came out in March of 1965. But ABC has inexplicably aired the film during Christmas week since 2002, and we speculate that this has to do with the network’s search for family-friendly, happy-ending programming for what is customarily a family-oriented season. And while nothing about the sweeping rise of fascism exactly says ‘holiday spirit’, it’s now such a customary part of the holiday that the wispy melody of “Edelweiss” has us reaching for the mulled wine.
The consumption of Chinese food on Christmas Eve appears to have started as an American tradition, thanks primarily to the rising Jewish and Chinese immigrant populations of New York City in the early 1900s. Both minority groups found themselves in a predominantly Christian society where everything tends to shut down for the holidays, and that doesn’t bode well if you are not celebrating, bored, and hungry.
But we can only imagine that something magical occurred when the first Jewish New Yorker walked into the first Chinese food restaurant while the rest of The City That Never Sleeps slept. Presumably the answer lay in a bowl of Gong Bao Chicken. “While it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness,” writer Adam Chandler wrote on the phenomena in a piece for The Atlantic. Chinese food also largely excludes dairy, making it easy for Jews to find a kosher meal.
Today, eating Chinese food has become a Christmas Eve tradition for many, regardless of religion or cultural background. It’s a beloved custom of singles celebrating alone, friends celebrating one last hurrah before putting on their tacky sweaters and heading off to spend the night with family, and families too tuckered out from prepping for Christmas dinner to cook even more.
So happy holidays to all our readers — whatever you’re celebrating, and however you choose to celebrate, we wish you a season full of health and happiness.