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Christmas Traditions, Origins, and Meanings

Updated on August 12, 2017
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Nothing says Christmas like a dazzling decoration dangling from a real fir tree
Nothing says Christmas like a dazzling decoration dangling from a real fir tree | Source

Christmas Traditions

Christmas has become one of the biggest and most widely celebrated holidays of the year. And while its original intention was to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has equal significance as one of the most important feast days of the calendar year for believers and non-believers alike. What marks it out as the holiday of holidays is the number and variety of traditions that have grown up alongside it, giving everyone who celebrates it the chance to indulge in a collection of activities that would seem out of place at any other time.

Red and green are the original colours associated with Christmas
Red and green are the original colours associated with Christmas | Source

The Colours of Christmas

These days homes and trees are decorated in just about all the colours of the rainbow, including clear and white lights. But in the beginning only two colours were associated with Christmas. These had their origins both in pagan beliefs and the beliefs of Christianity:

  • Green - the colour of the tree and the holly branch, green was used to remind people that new life would return to the world once the cold, dreary winter months had passed.
  • Red - the colour of cranberries, holly berries, Santa's suit and the robin's breast, red is believed to symbolise the blood that Jesus shed during the crucifixion.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Santa Claus in Sanok, PolandSinterklaas is a holiday celebrated in the Low Countries on December 5 (St. Nicholas eve)Papa Noel in ColombiaA Japanese drawing of Santa Claus dating from 1914
Santa Claus in Sanok, Poland
Santa Claus in Sanok, Poland | Source
Sinterklaas is a holiday celebrated in the Low Countries on December 5 (St. Nicholas eve)
Sinterklaas is a holiday celebrated in the Low Countries on December 5 (St. Nicholas eve) | Source
Papa Noel in Colombia
Papa Noel in Colombia | Source
A Japanese drawing of Santa Claus dating from 1914
A Japanese drawing of Santa Claus dating from 1914 | Source

What does Christmas mean to you?

Which of these most closely describes what Christmas means to you?

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Christmas and Santa Claus

Is there really a Santa Claus? Why, of course there is. His first appearance was in the form of St. Nicholas, a 4th century Turkish bishop with a reputation for kindness and generosity. His magnanimous nature must have been something of an oddity at the time, so much so that before long all sorts of rumours about the miracles he performed were whispered amongst the townsfolk.

The Dutch variant of St. Nicholas is Sinterklaas, and it's easy to see how this was transformed into the familiar Santa Claus legend when Dutch settlers colonised America.

The sight of presents under the tree fills young and old with anticipation
The sight of presents under the tree fills young and old with anticipation | Source
Frankincense is mainly used these days to make incense
Frankincense is mainly used these days to make incense | Source
A dish of ground myrrh, also destined to be burned as incense
A dish of ground myrrh, also destined to be burned as incense | Source

Christmas Presents

The giving of gifts at Christmas is believed to date back to the time of Christ's birth. It was then that the three wise men known as the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the stable where Jesus lay, according to the legend. But what exactly is frankincense, or myrrh?

The nature of frankincense may be slightly easier to understand thanks to the latter half of its name, i.e. incense. Both it and myrrh are resins from the sap of trees found largely in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where they've been used for centuries. Their sweet aromas were the air fresheners of the day, and they were also used for personal and medicinal purposes, from beefing up eye shadow to healing wounds.

So if you're wondering what to buy this year for that special person in your life or someone who has everything ...

Create Your Own Christmas Traditions

Throughout December
Christmas Eve
Christmas Day
Making decorations
Taking a walk
Giving gifts
Baking special treats
Singing carols
Making lunch
"Putting up the tree" party
Watching a favourite movie
Visiting friends and neighbours
Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Christmas tree in America on Christmas EveA Christmas Tree in GermanyA Danish Christmas tree
A Christmas tree in America on Christmas Eve
A Christmas tree in America on Christmas Eve | Source
A Christmas Tree in Germany
A Christmas Tree in Germany | Source
A Danish Christmas tree
A Danish Christmas tree | Source

Christmas Trees

Bringing an evergreen tree into the house reminds us that spring will soon be here. The green branches hint at new growth in a few months, when the weather warms up and the days get longer.

This is a long-standing German tradition, first introduced into the United Kingdom when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria. These days Christmas trees can be artificial, big or small, decorated however we see fit. Yet they still serve to remind us that winter won't last forever.

For people who celebrate Christmas with any enthusiasm, a tree is essential. Getting it out of the attic, or in from the field, forms part of many a family's traditional Christmas preparations.

Christmas Cards

The sending and receiving of Christmas cards may be becoming something of a lost art, a victim of the electronic messaging that's so universally practiced these days. Now it's easier to send an e-card, many of which are free, than to try to keep track of all those postal addresses. But even e-cards can trace their origins back to the early 19th century.

It was then that the Englishman Sir Henry Cole first came up with the idea of creating cards to simplify sending out greetings at this festive time of year. Cole is thought to have printed off about 10,000 cards, each one carrying seasonal messages that could be sent to friends and family, either to wish them well or to catch up with those not seen in a long time. The tradition is still alive and well, of course, as it's common for couples to send each other a physical card.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A late 19th century Christmas cardA Christmas card design issued circa 1888A Victorian Christmas card from 1870
A late 19th century Christmas card
A late 19th century Christmas card | Source
A Christmas card design issued circa 1888
A Christmas card design issued circa 1888 | Source
A Victorian Christmas card from 1870
A Victorian Christmas card from 1870 | Source
Stockings hung by the fire in anticipation of the big day
Stockings hung by the fire in anticipation of the big day | Source

Christmas Stockings

Legend has it that the concept of hanging up Christmas stockings originated with the precursor of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas. He is rumoured to have been moved by a poor family whose daughters had no wedding dowries. So, one day, he snuck up to their house and threw bags of gold through a window. Another bag he dropped down the chimney and, as luck would have it, it landed in one of the girls' stockings that was hanging to dry by the fireplace.

Christmas Music

Initially Christmas music took the form of carols and songs for celebration. As the centuries rolled by it became ever more appropriate to create new songs to celebrate the festive season. Christmas music now exists in just about every genre, from classical to pop and rock and everything in between. Famous examples include Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, and too many more to mention.

A band performs at the Americana in Glendale, California
A band performs at the Americana in Glendale, California | Source

As Christmas also happens to be the time of year when more music is bought, it has now become a target for artists and their record labels to get a song into the charts in the run-up to Christmas. This doesn't have to be Christmas music, of course, and in most cases it's simply the latest track of an established performer or a new release by a lesser-known artist.

Surprisingly, even though there is a lot of competition for music at this time of year, it's still possible to hear anything from The Carol of the Bells to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And whether you're a fan of Christmas music or not, it's nice to know that new works are adding to the mix, rather than replacing what came before.

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    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks for sharing anyway!

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 3 years ago from Oz

      Not sure what attracted me to this hub in May? Maybe I'm hankering for some xmas pudding. Well written. Voted up and interesting.

    • Christine Ballano profile image

      Christine 3 years ago from New Port Richey, Florida

      Thank you for comment on my Hub.. You are right remembering the reason why we celebrate is first and foremost. It started with Jesus

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks Better Yourself! Getting HotD on Xmas Day was a nice unexpected present.

    • Better Yourself profile image

      Better Yourself 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Great and interesting hub! Christmas for me is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and spending time with loved ones. I enjoyed learning a few things about holiday traditions that I didn't already know, Thanks for sharing and Congrats on HOTD!

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks lindagdd!

    • Lindagdd profile image

      Linda 3 years ago from California

      Very interesting hub JohnMello :)

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks neilcook!

    • neilcook profile image

      Neil Cook 3 years ago from United States

      Wow! What a great overview and explanation of Christmas! I love it!

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks KenDean, I appreciate your sharing! And merry Christmas to you too...

    • KenDeanAgudo profile image

      Kenneth C Agudo 3 years ago from Tiwi, Philippines

      Wonderful and beautiful hub. I know you have put time on making this awesome hub. merry christmas :)

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks for the positive feedback. And merry Christmas!

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      Celiegirl 3 years ago

      Thanks JohnMello

      for covering this so well, inspiring especially since lots of the information is being obscured by the commercialism.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 3 years ago

      You are more than welcome !

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks torrilynn. Glad you found it interesting!

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 3 years ago

      I never knew the colors that are used to represent Christmas had meaning. Red= cranberries Green=Trees thanks for this information and the for the information of the meaning of Christmas. Voted up.

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thank you Anita Anne Asra. Appreciate your sharing!

    • Anita Anne Asra profile image

      Opulentus Akhila Suri 3 years ago from Hyderabad

      Very interesting Article JohnMello!

      Voted up!

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Many thanks Mike. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 3 years ago from London

      Really interesting hub John!!

      Voted up

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks Kathleen Cochran. You can't beat the real thing...

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      In the first years of email I tried sending Christmas Cards electronically. It's just not the same. Still love to see those envelopes in the mail from friends I only hear from during the holidays. Facebook has changed that to a great extent, but still love displaying those cards during the season.

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks KoraleeP. I agree, and it's interesting how Christmas means different things to different people. Glad you liked my Hub!

    • KoraleeP profile image

      Koralee Phillips 3 years ago from Penticton British Columbia Canada

      Interesting and well-written Hub :). It's always cool to find out how and when traditions originated. I know that the Turkish people (in Istanbul) are very proud of their connection to Santa Claus. I have been to Istanbul 4 times, and once we were there just before Christmas. The landscape looked just like it does here just before Christmas.

      The older I get, the less I care about presents for myself. It's all about family, and the excitement of watching kids open their gifts.