For the Christian household, there are many ways to celebrate faith and tradition. Some of the most beloved holidays across the globe have their beginnings in Christian observances. Beneath the modern marketing and beyond the hype, they still have the power to create great memories and provide a foundation of faith that can last a lifetime.
Let's take a look at 10 popular Christian traditions. Most you know, but some of the details about them may surprise you.
10. Celebrating St. Patrick's Day
Although St. Patrick is given credit for driving the snake population of the Emerald Isle into the Irish Sea, snakes have never been indigenous to Ireland [source: Locantore].
It's a time-honored tradition to celebrate the anniversary of a saint's death with a day of feasting and festivities. Some saints have a more dedicated following than others, though, and St. Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland is a big favorite, both in the U.S. and abroad. St. Patrick was a fifth-century Christian missionary recognized for converting many Irish pagans to Christianity. And although the Irish in Dublin honor the holiday with a weeklong festival, in other locations it's typically a day-long affair occurring on March 17.
It may all be blarney, but St. Patrick has been credited with teaching the concept of the holy trinity using a three-leaf clover. If your children insist on wearing green and sporting four leaf clovers, don't be too concerned. Celebrating Irish culture is part of the fun of the holiday.
9. Giving Gifts on Boxing Day
Boxing Day is also observed as the feast day of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, who is the patron saint of horses. In honor of him, it's also a popular day for all types of sporting events.
Although Boxing Day isn't observed in the U.S., it's a popular holiday in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It falls the day after Christmas, Dec. 26. In the old days, alms for the poor were collected in wooden boxes as part of church observances. On the day after Christmas, the accumulated monies from these boxes were distributed to the needy. It was also the day service employees like maids were able to celebrate Christmas because they often worked on Dec. 25.
Over time, a tradition grew from the practice of awarding monetary gifts on this date, and today service and public workers are rewarded for their hard efforts on or around Boxing Day. That bonus for the mailman or charitable donation is in keeping with the spirit of the Boxing Day celebration. It demonstrates that kindness and generosity are both important.
8. Decorating and Hiding Easter Eggs
For a change this Easter, why not decorate eggs with letters of the alphabet and use them in a word making game. It's a fun, modern twist on the traditional Easter egg hunt that your young children will love. Take a look at our Alphabet Egg Hunt article for directions.
Eggs are a traditional Christian symbol of rebirth, and by extension, the symbolic resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you have children, holding an Easter egg hunt is probably one of the highlights of your Easter weekend. Because eggs weren't consumed during Lent, it was a common practice in Medieval Europe to hard-boil eggs between Ash Wednesday and Easter for later consumption. Using stores of hard cooked eggs during Easter festivities, and giving them to children as tokens, may have started because people had large stores of eggs to share.
Some common Easter activities like dying eggs, assembling baskets filled with treats and telling stories about the prolific Easter bunny probably have their origins in ancient pagan festivals celebrating the rites of spring. Over time, they've been adopted and adapted to enhance the excitement of the holiday.
7. Displaying an Advent Calendar
Historically, Advent ushered in the beginning of the church year. It was a time for fasting and personal reflection that spanned a number of Sundays (from Nov. 15 or 30 depending on the church involved), and ended on Christmas Eve. Today, it's a more lighthearted activity that enhances the enjoyment of the days leading up to Christmas.
If you've played the countdown to Christmas game, you know about the Advent calendar. Whether you've helped your child craft a calendar out of construction paper and glitter, or purchased a lovely finished calendar with decorative drawers to hold small gifts and candy, being able to diffuse some of the Christmas excitement with daily treats can be fun whether you have an Advent calendar tacked to your refrigerator door with magnets or displayed as a decorative wall hanging in your living room.
The use of a calendar to mark the passing days to Christmas may date back to 19th century Germany where the first Advent wreath was displayed in 1839, and the first mass-printed Advent calendar was created around 1902 [source:Hadley].
6. Celebrating Valentine's Day
The first feast of St. Valentine was officially declared on Feb. 14 by Pope Gelasius in 498 A.D.
Although the early beginnings of Valentine's Day are based in pagan rituals, the holiday is named for St. Valentine -- who could actually have been any one of three saints of that name dating from around the third century. The holiday's romantic associations started in 14th century Europe, where it was widely believed that birds started choosing their mates on Feb.14 [source: Religion Facts].
Nowadays, Valentine's Day is considered more a social holiday, rather than a religious one. It was removed from the Catholic Church calendar in 1969. Still, your young children probably think Valentine's Day is the perfect time to exchange cards with school friends [source: ChurchYear.net].
5. Preparing the Holiday Feast
You may not observe church services or even say a traditional prayer before a meal, but sharing bounty and bringing family together creates strong bonds that can help build faith, too. When you stuff the holiday bird, glaze that ham or put together any of the hundreds of dishes associated with the traditional holiday celebrations of Christmas and Easter, you're reinforcing Christian values and traditions in your home.
4. Saying Grace
Whether it's Christmas dinner, Easter supper or just Friday night at the kitchen table, beginning a meal with a brief prayer is a common ritual in Christian households. It may be reserved for special occasions or be a daily occurrence. It may even be a silent pause to express unspoken gratitude. Traditionally, saying grace was a way to reaffirm thanks to God for the day's bounty and for man's dominion over the animals. A modern interpretation of the prayer would be that it's an affirmation of faith, an expression of gratitude to God and recognition of the cycle of life.
3. Hiding Holiday Tokens in Food
You probably know how important food is in Christian tradition, but it may surprise you that the practice of hiding lucky tokens in classic holiday dishes has been popular for centuries. A coin, dried bean, toy or even a hard-cooked egg can be a symbol of good fortune for the diner who's served the lucky slice.
Portuguese sweet bread, Louisiana king cake, or the French variation, Gateau de Rois, are a few examples of foods containing treats that once had religious significance. The treat doesn't have to be inside a cake or bread, either. In Great Britain, it's traditional to bake a coin into a Christmas favorite, plum pudding.
2. Decorating the Tree
People began bringing Christmas trees (also known as Yule trees) indoors to decorate in the early 16th century. The practice probably started in Germany, but it spread quickly. Although the first decorated trees in the U.S. were cut and transported from local forests, city dwellers wanted decorated trees, too, and the first American Christmas tree lot opened for business in New York in 1851 [source: The Christmas Archives].
It's true that the Christmas tree isn't a symbol of Christian religion, but the tradition of decorating a tree can still be important: Like putting up a nativity scene or going to midnight mass, it creates a family ritual that can forge a link between the commercial and diverting aspects of Christmas and the substantive, faith-based underpinnings of the holiday.
1. Christmas Gift Giving
When you're up after midnight on Christmas Eve assembling toys, wrapping presents and putting runaway tinsel back on the tree, you're helping to build strong memories for your family. You're participating in a long tradition of Christian gift giving, too.
No one knows for sure where the practice of giving Christmas gifts started. The wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus, and that may be part of it. There's also the tale of St. Nicholas who provided dowries to deserving maidens. By the 10th century, gift giving around the Christmas holiday was a relatively common practice. These weren't the lavish exchanges many of us are used to today, though. Gifts of food were customary, and clothing gifts like socks (the dreaded underwear) and small trinkets weren't uncommon. Small coins were probably given to children, too [source: The Christmas Archives].
If you put an orange in your child's stocking these days, you may get an affronted stare on Christmas morning. Once upon a time, though, even a small remembrance was welcome. Times have changed, but maybe not that much. The exchange of gifts to commemorate the Christmas season is still a celebration of faith for many, as well as an expression of joy and hope.