The Tradition of Christmas

About the Author: Haley Stodart is the Summer 2021 Education Intern at Andalusia. Her semester-long project included developing educational programming for the site as part of her master’s course work in the Public History program with a certificate in Museum Studies at the University of West Georgia. She will graduate in the Spring of 2022.

Tradition plays a significant role during the Christmas season. What one does, celebrates, or even eats often has historical origins and customs that bring meaning to the holiday. As a practicing Catholic, many Christmas traditions would have been familiar to Flannery, who referenced some within her letters to friends during the season. Through her correspondence, we can observe what customs she followed and relate them to the history behind such traditions.

When writing to her friend William in 1956, Flannery states: “Me I am glad that at least half of the holidays are over and I hope we soon get rid of the fruit cake and turkey. We had our Christmas dinner on Sunday and for Christmas I demanded and got meatballs and turnip greens.”[1] Christmas meats and treats are a highlight for many during the holidays, with classics including glazed ham and, as Flannery mentions, fruit cake. According to tradition, however, the Christmas ham was once a wild boar! Connected to the pagan practice of Saturnalia that honored Saturn, the god of harvest, wealthy families would often have a boar as the centerpiece of the holiday meal. For those who couldn’t afford specialty boar, domesticated ham (often already on the farm) became an equally delicious option. Today, Christmas ham remains one of the cornerstones of holiday menus in many parts of the world, with turkey often being associated with Thanksgiving.[2]

Cooking from the Commonwealth by Robin Howe, 1958. (Andalusia Collection 2018.1.947)

The fruit cake, bringing sweet with the savory, is one of the oldest holiday classics. The ancient Romans made a mix of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts, and raisins, but the modern fruitcake can be traced back to the Middle Ages when dried fruits became more widely available.[3] Although variations of the cake began to appear throughout the years, it was in the 18th and 19th centuries when making fruitcakes for special occasions gained in popularity. Considered a Christmas classic, this cake has become more of a joke or cliché in recent years, but its popularity continues to grow regardless.

Two years later, Flannery focused more on the drinks than the meal. According to a 1958 letter Flannery wrote to Robert Lowell on Christmas Day, “it is mighty unseemly of you to enshrine me in your memory falling up the steps with a bottle of gin. I recollect the incident. It was not gin but rum (unopened) and the steps were slick.”[4] Rum is one of the key ingredients of Eggnog, one of the most famous Christmas drinks. Though it comes from posset, a medieval England drink made with hot curdled milk and ale, it was American colonists who supposedly added rum and made it the popular yuletide cocktail we know today. Even George Washington had a recipe![5]

In 1961, Flannery seemed to ditch the booze and gained the birds. In a letter to John Lynch on December 31, 1961, Flannery wrote, “This fall I acquired a pair of swans and I plan to become as great an authority on swans as I now am on peacocks.”[6] Though she was most excited about this early present, the tradition of gift-giving is one of the oldest during the holidays and has multiple origin stories. To many Christians, the gifts given at Christmas are connected to those given to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men. The Bible’s New Testament describes the Three Magi — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — following a star to Jesus’s nativity and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, the tradition of gift-giving extended long before the founding of Christianity, with roots in the festivals of the ancient Romans — in particular the festival of Saturnalia.[7]

As mentioned above in the history of Christmas meals, Saturnalia is where thanks were given to the bounty provided by the agricultural god Saturn. The festivities traditionally took place in December, and were celebrated with banquets, gift-giving, and partying. The Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity started the end of pagan celebrations in the Empire, but Saturnalia wasn’t banned right away. Many of the festival’s traits (including gift-giving) were slowly brought into the Christmas tradition, which switched from celebrating Saturn to commemorating the birth of Jesus. Rationalized in Christianity through association with the gifts of the Magi, gift-giving was also influenced by the life of Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th-century saint who was recognized for his fondness of giving people gifts. When venerated as a saint, he became known as Saint Nicholas, one of the origins of the name ‘Santa Claus.’[8]

Equinox and calf, 1963 (Andalusia Collection 2019.1.432).

Two years after her great present, Flannery would spend the Christmas of 1963 dealing with her ailments from Lupus. On Christmas Day, Flannery wrote how she “Didn’t even get to Mass Christmas Day. I fainted the Monday before Christmas and have been in bed ever since.”[9] Missing midnight mass was worth noting, as this was an important Catholic Christmas tradition that honors the birth of Christ, widely believed to have occurred at night. Another custom that celebrates the birth of Jesus was the nativity scene and Christmas pageants. Flannery’s 1963 Christmas letter also states that “Ernest [a donkey from the farm]–that is Equinox’s pa–did the honors for the burros this Christmas and went both to the Christian manger and the Methodist pageant. He did very well in the Christian manger–in which there were also a cow a pig a Shetland pony & some sheep and he did all right at the Methodist dress rehearsal but when the big moment came and the church full of Methodists, he wouldn’t put his foot inside the door.”[10]

Christmas of 1963 would be the last holiday season Flannery would celebrate. Though she passed in August of 1964, her letters over the years helped reveal many treasured traditions of Christmas. We hope you enjoyed the history of these customs, and wish you all a merry holiday season!


[1] Flannery O’Connor, “Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being,” Ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 1979), 189.

[2] Mira Rotkovitz, “Traditional Christmas Foods,” The Spruce Eats, last modified August 28, 2020, https://www.thespruceeats.com/traditional-christmas-specialty-foods-1665645.

[3] Jesse Rodes, “Fruitcake 101: A Concise Cultural History of This Loved and Loathed Loaf,” Smithsonian Magazine, last modified December 21, 2010,https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fruitcake-101-a-concise-cultural-history-of-this-loved-and-loathed-loaf-26428035/

[4] O’Connor, 311.

[5] Leslie Kennedy, “How 25 Christmas Traditions Got Their Start,” History, last modified December 18, 2020, https://www.history.com/news/christmas-traditions-history.

[6] O’Connor, 459.

[7] “Gifts Unwrapped: The History Of Christmas Presents,” Gifts International, accessed on June 22, 2021, https://www.giftsinternational.net/knowledge-hub/guide/gifts-unwrapped-the-history-of-christmas-presents.

[8] Ibid.

[9] O’Connor, 555.

[10] Ibid.

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