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The Fascinating Origins of 16 Popular Christmas Traditions

Kim Bryan has experience as a waitress in a diner. She's sharing her tips (that will hopefully result in big tips!).

Common holiday traditions

Common holiday traditions

Origins of Christmas Traditions

Most Christmas traditions and customs were being practiced by other cultures and religions long before the Roman Catholic Church declared the season's festivities to be a celebration of Christ's birth, but there's no lack of relatively new customs either.

Is your favorite Christmas tradition old or new? Find out with the following snippets of history about 16 popular Christmas holiday customs.

1. December 25th

Paganism had been long been practiced in Rome, and a favorite celebration was Saturnalia. During the week of the winter solstice, pagans would host large parties, drink wine, and exchange gifts in celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Although Christianity became the dominant religion in the 4th century, church leaders knew there would be a backlash if this holiday was eliminated. Thus, in 350 A.D., Pope Julius I declared December 25th to be a day of celebration of Christ's birth. All Saturnalia traditions remained intact.

2. The Christmas Tree

There are many recorded instances of trees being used in Christmas tree customs, but the first known indoor Christmas tree wasn't until the 16th century. Legend says a German preacher went for a walk through a forest on the night before Christmas and looked up as he was walking. Seeing the stars shining through one tree's branches was so beautifully overwhelming that he took the tree home and told his children it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of Heaven to come to Earth.

3. Christmas Tree Lights

The tradition of Christmas lights began soon after the Germans adopted the indoor Christmas tree idea in the 17th century. It was then it became popular to decorate them with the candles lit from the yule log—a pagan ritual during the winter solstice, wherein a log was lit and a quiet celebration occurs among family as it burns. Legend says the longer a log burns, the greater the family's prosperity will be in the coming year.

In 1882, Edward Johnson, a friend of Thomas Edison, displayed the first electricity-powered Christmas tree lights that had become a popular American Christmas custom in the 19th century. These new lights quickly became a popular alternative to candles, even more so after President Glover Cleveland was the first to order the White House adorned with electric Christmas lights in 1895.

4. Christmas Tree Ornaments

Christmas ornaments come in all shapes, sizes, and colors today, but the tradition of ornaments began soon after Christmas trees became an indoor custom. In 15th century Germany, the branches of the tree were adorned with roses which were associated with the Virgin Mother Mary.

5. Stockings

Everyone knows the old tradition of children leaving their stockings hung by the chimney just waiting to be filled with goodies from Santa Claus, but few know that this tradition is taken from an old German tradition. Before Christianity became a dominant religion, children would leave out boots filled with carrots, straw, or sugar for Norse mythology God Odin's flying horse. Odin, in turn, would reward the children by leaving their boots filled with candy and other small gifts.

6. Candy Canes

Although the claim is heavily disputed (but there is no evidence to prove otherwise), legend says a German choir leader had grown tired of restless children and approached a local candymaker with an idea to correct this problem. He asked the candymaker to make a sweet treat to keep the little ones occupied. He asked that this candy be made into the shape of a shepherd's cane so said candy would come with a bible lesson, thus explaining the use of candy in church.

Another similar legend says an Indiana preacher was looking for a way to help spread the gospel. After much thought, he believed shaping straight candy canes into a "J," which would stand for "Jesus," was a good idea, and thus the candy cane was born.

7. Christmas Ham

Germanic and Scandinavian pagans ate ham as a gift to Norse mythology God Freyr. When Christianity replaced paganism as the dominant religion, this custom was recognized as the feast of Saint Stephen. As the saint's feast day was on December 26, over time, it simply evolved into a Christmas custom.

8. Christmas Wreath

Wreaths have been made since Ancient Roman times and used as adornment as well as decor. However, they wouldn't become a symbol of Christmas until the 16th century. It was then a Lutheran priest used a wreath to teach the children of his congregation about God. The evergreen used represented eternal life, he explained, and its circular shape symbolized the no beginning, no ending of God.

9. Christmas Gifts

As previously mentioned, the pagan holiday Saturnalia was Christmas before Christmas existed. During the Saturnalia season, pagans enjoyed festive gatherings where they partook in large meals and exchanged gifts.

10. Traditional Colors of Red, Green, and White

During the reign of paganism, evergreens were seen as representative of eternal life and the fertility of men. A favorite evergreen was Holly because the red berries were symbolic of female fertility.


After Christianity became popular, the colors of the season remained but were redefined. Green maintained its status as a symbol of eternal life, but red was now indicative of blood shed by Christ on the cross. White was insidiously worked in and is now considered to represent peace.

11. Eggnog

There's no interesting story behind eggnog at Christmas. It's speculated the syrupy alcoholic beverage became popular during the holidays because the texture was too much for farming stomachs during working months, and Christmas was an occasion special enough to "break out the spirits."

12. Christmas Cards

In 1843, Sir Henry Cole of the United Kingdom, along with an artist friend, created and sold the first Christmas cards. He had played a role in setting up the UK's post office system and had come up with the idea of Christmas cards in trying to figure ways more common people could use the post system. While the first cards were purchased for the equivalent of five cents each by today's standards, Christmas cards have been a billion-dollar-per-year industry for several decades now.

13. Mistletoe

In Norse mythology, mistletoe was believed to possess magical powers and be able to ward off evil spirits during the month of December, so it was frequently hung in the thresholds of homes. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is derived from an old English custom where a berry is plucked from the sprig of mistletoe before kissing, and the kissing must cease when the last berry has fallen off.

14. Santa Claus

There are a lot of legends surrounding the man known as Saint Nicholas, who lived in fourth-century Turkey. The most common story, however, is that he was a wealthy man who was orphaned at a young age. He was known as a kind man who often helped the poor. His gifts were often given in secret to those in need. So it's most appropriate he's the saint of children.

After the reformation in northern Europe during the 16th century, the idea of Saint Nicholas associated with Christmas was falling out of favor. However, the tradition of delivering gifts was to continue and needed a story. Various names were assumed for this man, including Germany's "Christ Kind," France's "Père Noel," and Colonial America's "Kris Kringle." Dutch settlers in America called him "Sinterklaas," from which the English translation Santa Claus would become the most popular alias for the patron saint of children.

15. Fruitcake

Soaked in brandy and covered in powdered sugar, this cake actually improves with age. Fruits and baked goods, especially those made with spirits, were considered fine gifts to receive in early America, and because their ingredients prevented molding, the cakes could be made months in advance of the holidays. It was quite the popular gift! That is, until America began mass producing liquor-less, often stale fruitcakes in 1913, which quickly led to them being vilified as an American Christmas gift.

16. Poinsettias

Until they were brought to South Carolina by the US Ambassador to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, these beautiful red-leaf flowers were known as Taxco del Alarcon in their native southern Mexico. It is there that legend says a little girl named Pepita was sad because she had no gift to present to baby Jesus at Christmas Eve Mass. Disclosing her fears to her cousin Pedro, he reassured her, "I'm sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him, will make Jesus happy." An idea came to Pepita, and she gathered a handful of weeds and flowers from the roadside.

Although embarrassed by her gift, Pepita knelt and laid her makeshift bouquet in front of the nativity scene. Suddenly the weeds bloomed into bright red flowers, and they were declared a miracle by all who saw them. Those flowers, of course, were Poinsettias.

Because of the shape of the Poinsettia's leaves, it is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to the manger where Jesus had been born.

© 2016 Kim Bryan