Christmas traditions keep the ghosts of Christmas’ past alive. We all have memories of a favorite Christmas or Christmas tradition. When a new family begins, each person brings their own favorite traditions to the home, and a new set of Christmas traditions is formed. Discover the history behind 9 of your favorite Christmas Traditions.
My favorite of our Christmas traditions is hard to pick, but I would say there are two favorites for me. Listening to our vinyl Christmas records while we decorate the tree and then sitting with just the tree lights on while we sip something hot and listen to the records while we talk and enjoy the tree.
Ever since the boys were born, I gave them a new ornament every year to represent something special from the year in their lives. Our tree is covered in memories. When the boys left to begin their own families, I let them pick as many of their ornaments as they wanted to put on their own trees. J and I do this as a couple each year as well.
My second favorite is watching our favorite Christmas movies. Two weeks leading up to Christmas, we would start watching through our family list of favorite holiday movies. We’d have finger foods and our favorite beverages and enjoy laughing and crying together. OK, mostly I cried, but hey, I was the only girl then so I could get away with it!
On Christmas Eve, watch our favorite, Patrick Stewart’s “A Christmas Carol.” We watch with the tree lights on, half of us drinking hot chocolate and the other half drinking egg nog. We still enjoy both of these Christmas traditions even when it’s just us two.
This year without seeing either of the boys for the holidays, I’ve been a little nostalgic. While I was thinking about Christmas traditions, I found myself wondering about the history behind some of the most well-known traditions. The histories are interesting and I thought you might enjoy them too.
This year, without seeing the boys for the holidays, I’ve been a little nostalgic. While I was thinking about Christmas traditions, I found myself wondering about the history behind some of the most well-known traditions. The histories are interesting and I thought you might enjoy them too.
In This Article
I like to think the tradition of gift-giving started with the 3 wise men giving their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to baby Jesus. Since this is about Christmas traditions, I would say this is a great place to start.
Saint Nicholas is known for being the person Santa Claus is based on. The stocking-stuffing tradition can be traced back to his giving gifts to children in the 4th century. In those days, children who were 10 years of age usually had to work to help support their families.
St Nicholas loved children so he gave them homemade food, clothes, and helpful gifts. Yes, for those of us who received an orange in our stocking, he started this tradition. Of course, in those days, an orange would have been a very rare treat in that part of the world.
We always put an orange in the boys’ stockings and I didn’t know why until now. We did it because we always got one in our stockings growing up.
According to most records, he saw the children’s stockings hanging, yes boys wore long stockings in those days and decided to leave presents in them because he needed a place where the children would be sure to find them. Children began to hang stockings up hoping that Saint Nicholas would happen by on Christmas night.
The Christmas Wreath
The wreath has been used as a symbol of power and strength dating as far back as ancient Greece. Harvest wreaths seem to be a likely predecessor to our modern variety hanging on most front doors. Since evergreen wreaths symbolized persistence and everlasting life, they were often used in funerals.
The Christmas Tree
Today, we decorate an evergreen tree either live or artificial. We put lights, ornaments, tinsel, popcorn, candy canes, paper chains, all kinds of decorations on it. Each tree is a reflection of the family who puts it up. Our ancestors always used a “real” tree and often decorated it with edibles.
The first recorded evidence of a decorated Christmas tree comes from German craftsman guilds during the Renaissance. After the Protestant Reformation, trees enjoyed a surge in popularity. It was not long after the Reformation when most Europeans began using Christmas trees with special decorations to adorn them.
Straight white candy sticks were one of the decorations. During the 17th century, craftsmen created the white sticks of candy in the shape of shepherds’ crooks at the suggestion of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
The National Confectioner’s Association says that in 1847, German immigrant August Imgard used the candy cane to decorate a Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio. More than 50 years later, Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia made candy canes as treats for family and friends. McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Keller, invented a machine in the 1950s to automate the production of candy canes causing an explosion in its popularity.
Growing up I was told the candy cane’s symbolism was the color white represents Christ’s purity, the red the blood He shed, and the presence of three red stripes the Holy Trinity. Whether this is the original design of Mr. McCormack or not, I don’t know.
When the boys were growing up we always put candy canes on the tree. I still like to put a few on there just for old times sake.
The first Christmas carols are said to have come from France, Germany, and Italy in the 13th century. These carols were enthusiastically sung at community events and festivals. The modern practice of going door-to-door caroling likely has something to do with the root word for carol, “carole” or “carula” which both mean a circular dance.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that absorbs nutrients from the branch of a live tree but since there isn’t much live greenery during this time of year, mistletoe with its white berries was happily included in their decorations. It was commonly hung at Christmas time and remained hung all year until it was replaced by a fresh piece the next Christmas.
How mistletoe became associated with kissing is hard to discover. This Christmas tradition was first recorded in 16th century England. Mistletoe causes diarrhea and stomach pain when ingested yet it somehow is every romantics’ favorite piece of Christmas decoration. Hmmm….
Poinsettias are a favorite for many among Christmas traditions. They were named after Joel R. Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico who brought the plant to America in 1828.
One legend says a young Mexican boy, on his way to visit the village Nativity scene, realized he had no gift for the Christ child. He gathered green leafy branches he found along the road and brought them to the church. The other children mocked him, but when the leaves were laid in the manger, a beautiful star-shaped flower appeared on each branch.
Sir Henry Cole is credited with creating the first Christmas card. As the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley for the first illustration during the Christmas season of 1843. The card featured three panels. The center panel depicted a family enjoying Christmas festivities and the card was inscribed with the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”
Christmas (or Plum) Pudding is the traditional end of the British Christmas dinner. However, I don’t know anyone who makes it quite like it was made back then.
Christmas pudding originated as a 14th-century porridge called ‘frumenty’. It was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines, and spices. This would often be more like soup and was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for Christmas feasting.
By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavor with the addition of beer and spirits. It became the customary Christmas dessert around 1650. By Victorian times, Christmas puddings had changed into something like the ones included in Christmas traditions today.
The custom of burning the Yule Log goes back to before medieval times. It was originally a Nordic tradition. Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, such as Germany.
The Yule Log was originally an entire tree. The dead tree had been carefully chosen and hewn down in preparation for the festivities. There was a great ceremony involved in bringing the Yule Log into the home.
The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room! The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been carefully stored away. Once lit, the log was slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was considered important that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands.
In the Christmas traditions of France, the whole family helps to cut the log down and a little bit is burnt each night. If any of the log is left after Twelfth Night, it’s kept safe in the house until the following Christmas.
You can read and listen to two Christmas stories my grandparents shared in our Voices of Heritage series.
Do you celebrate with any of these or do you have Christmas traditions of your own you want to share with us?