It’s the most wonderful time of the year once again, but I didn’t need to tell you that. It’s all around — homes are lit up, shops are decked out with trees and garlands, and you’d be hard-pressed to spend any time out in public without hearing a carol or five. But have you ever stopped to think about why we celebrate Christmas the way we do? Why we decorate a tree or kiss under the mistletoe? Why do we dread receiving a fruit cake or tell our children that a man with magical flying reindeer will scoot down the chimney?
Some Christmas traditions are older than Christianity itself. Others have developed in just the last century or so. But they all share one thing: they exemplify what Christmas means for millions of people around the world. Read on to learn the origins of Christmas traditions. Does your family have your own special holiday tradition? Tell us about it in the comments!
1. Christmas Trees.
Though the history isn’t totally clear, the origin of Christmas trees can be traced back centuries, if not millennia. European Pagans would sometimes decorate their homes with tree branches in honor of the winter solstice. Historians have also pointed to the story of Adam and Eve as the origin of decorated trees inside the home. Whatever its initial origins were, though, written records of Christmas trees began to appear in 15th and 16th century central Europe. The practice was picked up among royalty and nobility from France to Russia, eventually making its way to England during Queen Victoria’s childhood. And that’s when the custom really took off; illustrations of the Queen’s Christmas tree were published in the United States in 1850. By the 1870s, Christmas trees were commonplace in American homes.
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2. Santa Claus.
There really was a Saint Nicholas, though he lived in Turkey, not the North Pole. Way back in the 300s, Nicholas was the bishop of Myra with a reputation for secret gift-giving. For centuries, Europeans would celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6th by giving gifts to children. Over time, the tradition, like Christianity itself, evolved, and became more and more associated with Christmas, not Saint Nicholas’ Day. In many parts of Northern Europe, however, Christians exchange gifts on December 6th, not 25th.
Much of the contemporary American Santa Claus as we know him today, however, traces back to just 1821. That’s when lement C. Moore’s classic poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” was published — you know, the story that begins, “twas the night before Christmas.” Before its publication, the folklore around Santa Claus varied considerably across the United States.
Though Christmas carols have been around for centuries, and going door to door has been around since Pagan Europe, going door to door singing Christmas carols is a tradition born out of Victorian England. Carolers would hope to get gifts — like figgy pudding! — in return for their good cheer.
So many of our Christmas traditions originated from pre-Christian Europe. Not this one. Santa Claus’ flying reindeer, like the contemporary American Santa himself, likely date back to just 1821, from, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” A little over a century later, Rudolph was added to the bunch as part of a marketing campaign by the now-defunct American department Store Montgomery Ward.
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Kissing under the mistletoe has its origins in Pre-Christian Europe. From the Druids to the ancient Greeks, Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, a symbol of male fertility and romance, in cultures across the continent. Though no one is quite sure how the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe arose, it’s likely that it has its roots in Scandinavia.
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Johnny Carson once famously quipped, “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Well, if that’s true, it’s been happening since Ancient times! Cakes made with fruits and nuts have been around for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 16th century, when Europeans brought sugar back from the Americas, that fruitcakes roughly akin to their modern counterparts emerged.