Christmas Traditions and Where They Came From
Posted by Sophie Barnes on
Have you ever wondered about our Christmas traditions and where they came from? What inspired them to become mainstream? Are they regional or religious? Are they silly or serious? Did they evolve from pagan traditions? Is there a historical significance to them?
Most families have annual traditions they partake in around the holidays. Maybe they are unique to the family, or maybe they are embraced nationally. Either way, it is worthwhile to explore the various Christmas traditions and where they came from. We have compiled a list of the top ten Christmas traditions and will explore their origin.
1. Christmas Trees
Christmas trees are a fairly new tradition in America, but evergreen trees have held significant importance in pagan religions since at least the ancient Egyptians. Pagans used to believe that winter happened because the sun god was sick, and celebrated the solstice with evergreen boughs because it meant he would begin getting well again. These evergreens symbolized life triumphing over death for the pagans, and to the druids, it was a sign of everlasting life.
Christmas trees as we know it gained popularity in Germany in the 16th century. Christians began bringing trees into their homes, with some building Christmas pyramids out of wood planks when trees were scarce. They would decorate these trees with apples, nuts, marzipan cookies, berries, and brightly-dyed popcorn. Martin Luther, leader of the protestant movement, is often credited for being the first person to add lit candles to a tree. It is believed that one night while walking home, he was admiring the stars twinkling among the evergreens and wanted to recreate the scene for his family.
Christmas trees were viewed as a Pagan symbol until the late 19th century in America, with some politicians preaching against anything joyful at Christmastime. People could be fined for decorating their house or celebrating in any way besides attending church. It was not until an influx of German and Irish settlers immigrated to America that Christmas became a time for joy and celebration.
In 1846, Queen Victoria was sketched with her family next to a Christmas tree. Victoria was extremely popular, and many people would emulate what they saw from her. By publicly endorsing the Christmas tree, Victoria inspired east coast Americans to embrace the tradition. In the early 20th century, Americans began crafting homemade ornaments for their Christmas trees. After the invention of electricity, people began adding Christmas lights to trees. This addition led to trees being erected in public spaces and Christmas trees became an official American tradition.
2. Christmas Cards
Christmas cards, like Christmas trees, are a newer tradition. However, where evergreen trees have been used symbolically for centuries, Christmas cards were not invented until 1843. Senior government worker Sir Henry Cole helped establish the Post Office, which was at the time called the Public Record Office. The Post Office created a service called the Penny Post, which allowed you to mail a letter or card anywhere in the country with a penny stramp. Beforehand, only the rich could afford to send mail correspondence.
Similar to texting nowadays, it was considered rude not to respond to mail that you received. An important tradition at the time, people would draft long letters to friends and loved ones wishing them a happy holiday. With mounting letters to reply to – he was very popular – Cole had to come up with a way to easily respond back to all of his friends. He reached out to his friend John Callcott Horsley, a local artist, and commissioned an illustration in which a family at their table celebrating Christmas with images of people helping the poor on either side of them. The card had a blank space after “to” and “from” so that the card could be customized for any recipient. Cole had 1,000 copies of this card printed on cardboard and began sending them out. Although the card contained controversial matter – children drinking what seems to be wine – these convenient time-savers quickly gained traction among elite Victorians.
Although these men are credited with the first Christmas card, it took decades for them to become popular in the UK, and even longer in the US. In 1875, Prussian emigrant Louis Prang began mass producing Christmas cards for the first time ever. With a print shop located in Boston, the cards Prang produced were quite different than Cole’s; rather than containing a holiday image, it simply had a painting of a flower and read “Merry Christmas.” By the 1880’s, he was producing over 5 million a year. People began collecting Christmas cards from printing companies, much like the way some people collect stamps or quarters nowadays.
The modern Christmas card was developed by the Hall Brothers company in 1915. They updated the format so that the card was now 4”x6” and could be folded in half to put in an envelope. Thirty years later, they changed their name to Hallmark and still remain one of the top Christmas card producers in America. Now, Americans purchase about 1.6 billion cards every year.
3. Ugly Sweaters
Originally known as “Jingle Bell Sweaters,” this garment was never intended to be ugly. These sweaters were joyful and creative, nowhere near as garish as the ones on the market today. Christmas did not become commercialized until 1950, which is when these sweaters got their start. The sweaters became mainstream in the 80s thanks to the exposure they received from comedies like "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." While Christmas sweaters are loved in an ironic way today, they were truly beloved in the 80s. Their popularity took a major hit in the 90s as grunge fashion took over, but with the 2000s the sweaters began increasing in popularity once again.
The authors of “Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide to Getting Your Ugly On” traced the origins of the modern Christmas sweater to Vancouver. According to them, Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch threw the first-ever Ugly Christmas Sweater party in 2002. In an interview on Shaw TV, they stated that they had just wanted “a cheesy, feel-good, festive party, and the sweaters were a main ingredient of that.” For the next several years, Ugly sweaters were a universal inside-joke. By 2011, Givenchy and Dolce & Gabbana were producing high-end sweaters. Just 11 years later, these sweaters can now be found at most retailers around the holidays.
The origins of the traditions of kissing under mistletoe are largely unknown by historians. Mistletoe has held a symbolic importance for thousands of years for many cultures, the Greeks used it as a cure for many pains and ailments, while the Romans used it as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers, and poisons. Similar to the Christmas tree, Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids because it had the ability to bloom even in frigid temperatures. Many pagans believed that Winter solstice was the day that their sun gods were dead, which allowed for evil spirits to roam freely. Because of its ability to grow year-round, it was believed that hanging mistletoe above your door prevented evil spirits from entering before the sun gods’ rebirth.
Historian Mark Forsyth believes the tradition began between 1720 and 1784 in England. His research showed that although Mistletoe had been written about many times, its connection to kissing and Christmas had not been referenced before the 18th century. The earliest reference of kissing under the mistletoe is in a song published in 1784, which read “What all the men, Jem, John, and Joe, / Cry, ‘What good-luck has sent ye?’ / And kiss beneath the mistletoe, / The girl not turn’d of twenty.” It is unknown where the connection spurred from in those 64 years. The custom became popularized after being featured in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
5. Santa Claus
Santa Claus is actually based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of children who lived in Turkey during the third century A.D. There is very little historical record of Saint Nicholas, with the year of his passing unknown. Many believe he gave away all his wealth and traveled the country helping those who needed it. He became known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and was depicted as a large man with a white beard who traveled by boat on December 6th each year to leave either gifts or coal at children’s homes.
Stories of Sinterklaas were likely brought to America by Dutch settlers – in 1773 and 1774 a New York newspaper reported that many Dutch families gathered to honor his passing. In 1809, Washington Irvey wrote a book about New York’s history in which St. Nicholas was an overweight Dutchmen who drove a flying wagon and dropped gifts down children’s chimneys. Fourteen years later, Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem in which Saint Nicholas drove a sleigh manned by eight reindeer to children’s homes. Cartoonist Thomas Nast rounded out the backstory, deciding that Saint Nicholas actually lived on the North Pole and not in Turkey.
In the 1840s, holiday advertisements began including Santa in an effort to sell more. Christkind, a common nickname for Santa in Europe, was updated to Kris Kringle around this time. Around 1890, the Salvation army needed a way to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided so they began dressing unemployed men up like Santa to solicit donations. This tradition continues today.
Macy’s claims to be the first store to have Santa visit in 1861, but there are many reports of a store in Philadelphia hosting the first Santa in 1841. Macy’s Santa is the most popular Santa, however, due to their being featured in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” Although there are several legends about Saint Nicholas, it is unsure if any of them are even true. Either way, he inspired a tradition that has lasted and will likely continue to last for centuries.
6. Santa’s Elves
Most people picture Santa’s elves as little people who assist Santa by crafting the toys he delivers. This modern interpretation of elves came about when Santa was fully developed in America. Unlike Santa, these Christmas characters were not derived from deities. With Pagan roots, elves could be found in virtually every community in Scandinavia. The behavior of these elves depended largely on their behavior of their homeowner; if you were nice, they protected you from evil, but if you were naughty, they would be naughty back to you. In the centuries before Jesus, winter was viewed as a time of misfortune. If good things were to occur in this time, it was because elves had visited.
In the different Christmas legends, Santa was assigned various assistants. Scandinavian writers changed the image elves had developed over the years and assigned them as Santa’s helpers. The elves had various duties, with the main one being spying on children and reporting their behavior back to Santa. Cultures were merging in America as people continued to immigrate, and because so many of these cultures had stories about elves, the Christmas elves were quickly accepted as part of Santa’s lore.
It was not until 2005 that elves became part of how Santa keeps up with the behavior of children. Chanda Bell wrote and self-published her book the Elf on the Shelf based on an elf from her own childhood. Her mother had started the tradition by giving her and her twin sister an elf named Frisbee. As an adult, Chanda set out to share that same magic with the world and sold Scout Elf along with her books and other merchandise. Over 17.5 million Scout Elves have been purchased since they debuted 17 years ago.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph was invented over 100 years after his peers. A copywriter named Robert L. May wrote a poem in a similar style to “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in an effort to increase traffic into his store. This poem told the story of Rudolph, an outcast who saves Christmas despite the ridicule he so often receives. May sold two and a half million copies of the poem in 1939. The story then sold another three and a half million copies when it was reissued in 1949. The story has since been translated into 25 languages and turned into a made-for-tv movie. A little-known fun fact – female reindeers are the only ones who do not shed their antlers in the winter, meaning the reindeers are likely female despite several having male pronouns.
8. Yule Log
The burning of the Yule Log is another Christmas tradition that originates from before medieval times. Winter Solstice Festivals were once called Yule in parts of Northern Europe. Nowadays, Yule is used synonymously with Christmas. Pagans used Yule Logs to protect themselves during the Solstice. It was not until the fourth century A.D. that Pope Julius I decided the light from the log represented the light of the Savior and not the light of the Sun.
The log was originally a full tree that was brought into the home. The bottom of the tree would be placed into the hearth, with the top sticking out into the room. Never allowed to burn completely, it was believed that if the fire went out before Christmas had ended, then tragedy would strike in the coming year. If someone’s shadow from the light of the fire was headless, it was believed they would die. The log would be lit using the ashes from the previous year’s log, and would keep the fire going throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas.
With the invention of central air and heating, a full tree was no longer needed to keep a house warm. This led to the popularity of Yule Logs instead of entire Yule trees. Although this tradition is not as widely celebrated as some, it did inspire the dessert Boche de Noel. Similar to a roulade, the Boche de Noel is a flourless sponge cake full of frosting that resembles a log. Many people add meringue mushrooms, sugared cranberries, rosemary, and powdered sugar to the outside of the dessert to make it more closely resemble an actual log.
While the exact lineage of eggnog often debated, it likely originated from the British drink “posset” which was a hot, alcoholic, milky drink. In the 13th century, milk, eggs, and sherry were seen as foods for the wealthy. Monks would drink posset with figs and eggs and use it to toast to good fortune. In the 18th century, posset was brought to America and renamed eggnog. The etymology of eggnog is unknown, but many believe it comes from “noggin,” meaning a wooden cup, or “grog,” which is another word for rum. By the end of the century, eggnog was the official name for the drink.
Eggnog’s claim to fame is the Eggnog Riot of 1826. Just one year before, alcohol had been banned from WestPoint Academy. Despite the ban, many cadets managed to sneak in whiskey and whip up their own eggnog. At least 90 cadets participated and eventually lost control; two officers were assaulted, bannisters were torn down, windows were damaged, and many dishes were smashed. Eleven cadets ended up being expelled.
In America, eggnog quickly evolved from a winter tradition to a holiday tradition. Because the FDA permits any eggnog-type drink with at least 1% egg yolk to be sold as eggnog, many claim that anyone who does not like eggnog has never had the real thing. George Washington even had his own signature eggnog, though he forgot to include the quantity of eggs in his written recipe. By 1951, eggnog was being bottled and sold in stores, with nonalcoholic versions being offered as well. With up to 400 calories per cup, eggnog is a popular tradition among those who want to indulge.
10. Gingerbread House
A few centuries after the emergence of gingerbread, the first gingerbread houses are believed to have originated in Germany in the 17th century. They became popularized in the early 1800s after the Grimm’s fairytale “Hansel and Gretel” was published. They quickly became a holiday tradition in Germany and were brought to America as Germans emigrated their home country.
In the Middle Ages, “gingerbread fairs” would be held and people participated in contests around building the houses. At this time, gingerbread simply referred to any preserved ginger and was not the dessert we know today. The gingerbread at these fairs was a hard cookie, often adorned with gold leaf and shaped like animals or royalty. Queen Elizabeth I is credited as being the first person to decorate these gingerbread cookies in a similar fashion to what we see today.
While there are no longer public fairs, many Americans still have gingerbread making contests around the holiday season. The world record for the largest gingerbread house was set in 2013 in Texas. A local golf club enlisted the help of several contractors and built a gingerbread house large enough for people to walk through. At almost 40,000 cubic feet, the house used 1,800 pounds of butter, 7,200 eggs, 7,200 pounds of flour, 3,000 pounds of brown sugar, 225 gallons of molasses, and 22,304 pieces of candy for decoration. The house had a total of 35,823,400 calories. Now that’s a big gingerbread house!