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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: A Look at the Season
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 23, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Family historians are always looking for their ancestors. We often joke that we have not time for anything else, which explains why the house of a genealogist is often a sight to behold. There have been entire luncheon and dinner talks given on this subject. However, it is possible that at this time of the season you may be overlooking some valuable clues to the very history you are seeking.

This holiday season is a time of families. But more than that, it is a time of traditions. It is a time when we cook the family favorites, often these recipes have been handed from generation to generation. Many of the traditions that we hold fast to at this time of year have also been handed down from our grandparents or their grandparents. It is these traditions and special recipes that may hold a clue to your families connection to an old country.

Take the time to think about the traditions you celebrate at this time of year.

The Boar

There are many symbols we associate with Christmas, however, I suspect few of you think of a boar at this time of year. However, back in the 11th and 12th centuries in England, hunting of wild boar was a traditional Christmas sport. Once the boar was killed, the head was carried into the dining hall with much fanfare. There was even a Christmas carol for this special production, "The Boar's Head Carol" which is the oldest printed Christmas carol. It was printed in 1521.

The Scandinavian countries also have a connection to the boar. They save the last sheaf of corn from the harvest and bake a loaf that has the shape of a boar. This is done at Christmas time. Throughout their festival of Yule the boar-shaped loaf holds a prominent place on the table. Sometimes this loaf is saved until the crops are sown in the spring. Then either the ploughman or the animals who will do the plowing are fed part of the loaf and some is mixed with the seed-corn that will be planted. It is believed that these particular traditions can be traced back to a primitive deity that was in the form or a pig who helped the crops to grow.

Christmas Carols

I know that to me the Christmas season is forever interlaced with the carols we sing at this special time. However, would you believe that for about 800 years, Christmas was observed with no carols whatsoever?

The first carols are attributed to the Italian friars who were living with St. Francis of Assisi. They were simple songs based on the stories found in the Gospels of the Bible. These were not hymns, in that they were not serious. Instead they were intended to treat the subjects with a familiar and playful manner.

It was not long before these songs were being carried to Spain, France and Germany. The earliest English carols have been traced to about 1410. The first one appears to have been about the Virgin Mary singing a lullaby to her baby. With the rise of Puritanism, there was a time when the singing of carols almost died out. And in fact, for a brief period were outlawed by Oliver Crowmwell from 1649 to 1660.

Christmas Tree

Look anywhere you go these days and you will see decorated Christmas trees. However, this was not a popular tradition until the 19th century. There are many religious connotations to the tree that I suspect few of us were aware of. One of them suggests that at the time that Adam and Eve were forced to leave Paradise, that Adam took a sprig of the Tree of Knowledge which he planted in the wilderness. Supposedly it was wood from this tree for which the cross was built that Jesus would be crucified on.

Regardless of the religious traditions, the Christmas tree as we know it today can most likely be traced back to Germany. It was brought to America in the early 1700s. The tree was decorated with apples and surrounded by candles. One of the traditions that I discovered, and really like, is that in Germany the tree is decorated behind closed doors, so to speak, and not revealed until Christmas Eve in front of the family and guests.

In Conclusion

The traditions that surround this special time of year are many. Some will probably bring back smiles of reminiscence to your face. Others may be new to you.

There are a number of wonderful web sites that look at the season, some with reverence and and others with joviality. You may want to check them out.

May this special holiday season be a time of joy for you and your family. May you have fond memories to look back on and new ones to be made. And may you find an ancestor or two under the Christmas tree.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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