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Host: Scott LaMar

Smart Talk: Christmas history, customs, and traditions

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Dec 11, 2014 3:56 PM
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What to look for on Smart Talk Friday, December 12, 2014:

Are you in the holiday spirit yet?  The lights adorn the front of many homes, Christmas trees are up and decorated, Christmas music can be heard everywhere, and the stores are packed with shoppers.

The holiday season is probably the most festive time of year.

It's also a time when most of us will follow traditions and customs more than for any other holiday or special occasion.

But how did your family develop its own traditions?

For that matter how did we Americans embrace the ways we celebrate Christmas?

Who thought of bringing a tree in the house and decorating?  How about hanging stockings by a fireplace to be filled with gifts?  When did Santa Claus come on the scene and did he always look like he does today?  How about flying reindeer?

We'll delve into the history of Christmas customs and traditions on Friday's Smart Talk.


Joining us is Jim Morrison, historian and chief curator at the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster County.

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  • garrie keyman img 2014-12-12 09:27

    I can tell you about a unique Christmas tradition. Decades ago when my sister was a young mother of two small sons, her family was going through a very rough spell financially and the only thing in the house on Christmas eve was a package of instant vanilla pudding and enough milk to make it. She served the pudding, telling the little ones it was a special Christmas treat and tradition rather than tell them there was nothing else to eat. By the next year things had turned around for her family and ever after they could provide a more normal holiday for their family. But in rememberance of that desperate holiday, they continued the "tradition" of having their Christmas Eve vanilla pudding every year.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-12 09:37

    Thomas emails:
    Krampus is a beast-like creature from the folklore of Alpine countries thought to punish children during the Christmas season who had misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards well-behaved ones with gifts. Krampus is said to capture particularly naughty children and drag them off into the black forest.

  • Lisa img 2014-12-12 09:46

    Regarding Christmas caroling: Our church youth group still goes every year, but we go to the homes of our elderly who are unable to get out. When I was in high school over 25 years ago, our German language classes went Christmas caroling. Those who participated received extra credit. I still remember many of the carols in German.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-12 09:47

    Donna emailed:
    When I was younger, in addition to our real tree in living room, I had a mini-tree on my nightstand in bedroom. When I woke up, I was allowed to open those small gifts, which, smartly, always included a book, usually a Nancy Drew Hardy Boys Super Mystery. This kept me busy until my mom woke up. I know now this was so she could get some sleep after staying up shopping (Christmas Eve sales) and walking all night! Fond memories!

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2014-12-12 09:48

    Rick emails:

    Thanks to a pop-up book of Christmas traditions from around the world, for years my friends and I indulge in a more peculiar holiday celebration. Still celebrated in Alpine regions of Europe Dec. 5th is St. Nicholas day. Ee christened it Krampusfest! We gather together, have some food and drinks and at some point during dinner someone dressed in full Krampus regalia shows up at the door and proceeds to administer spankings to all the guests for their yearly indiscretions. Some grown-up fun amidst all the usual trappings.

    Further Reading:

    Everyone is familiar with Santa Claus, that jolly old elf who makes his way from house to house on Christmas Eve to deliver toys to the goodly children of the world. Here in the USA, some may know of St. Nick's European heritage, but few are familiar with his dark companion, Krampus. In many Alpine European towns, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day would not be the same without a celebration on its Eve, December 5th, honoring this dark servant.

    Originating in Germanic folklore as early as the 1600s, Krampus is believed to be a beastial creature who accompanies St. Nicholas on his earthly journey. While St. Nicholas rewards the good children with gifts and sweets, Krampus dispenses punishment to the wicked children who have strayed from the path of good. It is said he takes care of St. Nick's "naughty list." Why, the mere sight of Krampus alone is enough to turn any wrong-doer toward more peaceful pursuits.

    The name Krampus is derived from the Old High German word for "claw." This towering, seven foot tall, hairy creature is depicted as having bulging eyes, a whip-like tongue, pointed ears and horns atop his head. He carries a pitchfork or, more traditionally, a bundle of birch switches, to menace children as he travels through town on a pair of mismatched feet: one cloven hoof, the other a bear-like claw. Wayward children caught by Krampus are spanked, whipped and even shackled to be spirited away in either a basket or barrel to Krampus' lair. Once there they receive further punishment until they are repentant.

    Krampus festivals throughout Alpine communities kick off the holiday season with townspeople dressing in Krampus costumes, running rampant through the streets and putting a scare in the youngsters. After the children have been given a proper fright to ensure they stay on the straight and narrow, the rowdy Krampus are rewarded with holiday spirits, traditionally beer and schnapps. In fact, Krampus celebrations have become so popular that they can last for days before the arrival of Saint Nicholas on December 6th.

    For those who revel in the spirited fun of Halloween, Krampusfest is the perfect addition to your traditional Christmas and holiday festivities!

  • Lisa img 2014-12-12 10:02

    I'm one of those people who grew up knowing Santa Claus wasn't real. I remember always knowing that it was a "game" that people played and that it was fun, but not real. I don't feel that it detracted from my Christmas experience one bit. The reason my mother told us that Santa Claus was not real was because she felt that the concept of good children get gifts and bad children do not, sent the wrong message to poor children.

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-12 10:18

    A listener asks:
    Why do you hang a WREATH on the door during Christmas time what does it mean and where and when did it start question from Ronnie in dover

  • Scott LaMar img 2014-12-15 14:13

    Karl writes...
    I frequently listen to Smart Talk but due to one of our Christmas traditions I missed your program with Jim Morrison Friday morning. Our tradition is to spend several days (like 3) baking Christmas cookies (10 kinds) with friends.

    "Well", you might say, "you could listen while you bake." But no!! Along with the cookies must come the seasonal music: from the Canadian Brass, to Arthur Feidler and the Boston Pops, to Chanticleer, to Spike Jones and his City Slickers (All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth - nothing but the best).

    Hence, there was not Smart Talk in our home on Friday.

    This morning I spoke with a person who had listened and he said comments were made decrying the decline in Christmas Caroling. This evening I got to listen to the program to confirm his statement.

    I have always been a sucker for singing and playing Christmas Carols. I probably enjoyed playing Carols for my piano lessons more than any other pieces. During my college years when I came home for vacation I would call up some friends and we would drive around to home of our former teachers to carol to them. I could tell you stories.

    But the most important thing I must write about is that caroling is alive a well in Glen Rock, PA. Just tonight a monument was unveiled that honors 5 men who, in 1848 established the tradition of singing English carols throughout the then small village of 7 homes. That tradition has continued unbroken to this time for 167 years. I have included a link to the Glen Rock Carolers Association web site so you can learn more.

    Caroling is alive and well in Glen Rock.