The Origin of Beloved Christmas Traditions

Christmas is arguably the most famous and widely celebrated holiday in the world. This festive holiday has the ability to bring families and entire communities together to join in the spirit of joy and giving. Whether you are lacing up some ice skates to fly across a rink, singing Christmas carols in your neighborhood, or exchanging gifts with your loved ones, the Christmas season’s many traditions make the holidays a cherished time of year. However, have you ever thought about where all of these celebrated traditions and customs came from? Your family may be surprised to know how old their favorite Christmas traditions are, and how they have evolved over time.

  • The Christmas trees we know today actually originated in the 17th century with the German Lutherans, and spread to Pennsylvania in the 1820s when they began immigrating to the United States. The first modern Christmas tree appeared when Germany’s Prince Albert took one to England in 1840, when he was to wed Queen Victoria. The royal family decorated the tree with small gifts, candles, fancy cakes, and toys, which served as predecessors to the modern-day ornament. After a photograph of the royal tree appeared in the London newspapers in 1848, English families began decorating their own Christmas trees.
  • Surprisingly, the roots of Christmas caroling had little to do with the holiday. Caroling can trace its origins to the 12th and 13th centuries, with church processionals singing liturgical songs. Currently popular Christmas carols like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” and “The First Noel,” were actually written around the Victorian era.
  • Can you believe that kissing under the mistletoe was a tradition created by the ancient Celts, who believed that plants possessed the ability to bring good luck, increase fertility, heal wounds, and ward off evil spirits? This reverence for plants was later adopted by Victorian era romantics that believed kissing under mistletoe would lead to marriage. Now, you kiss under the mistletoe only if you are caught there!
  • Hanging stockings over the fireplace is a tradition based more on legend than fact. Legend has it that the original Saint Nicholas — who traveled around bringing gifts and joy to the needy — visited a town and heard of a poor widower who was unable to provide a dowry for his three daughters. Knowing the man was too proud to accept help, Saint Nicholas dropped gold coins down his chimney, which landed in the girls’ stockings that were left by the fire to dry. This story created the pathway for the tradition of leaving stockings by the fireplace, with kids eagerly awaiting gifts and candy in them on Christmas Day.
  • Some of the most beloved Christmas traditions revolve around food and beverages. Fruitcake made its debut in the 16th century when it was discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in large quantities of sugar solution. Since sugar was cheap, it allowed the American colonies to ship fruits to Europe without spoiling. Over the next few centuries, various types of fruits and nuts were added into the mixture that began taking a cake-like form. In 1913, Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia — two of the most famous American bakeries at the time — began selling and shipping mail-order fruitcakes. Thus, the tradition of gifting fruitcakes was born. Eggnog is a traditional holiday favorite every year. This beverage’s history is older than the United States itself, as the first batch of eggnog is believed to have been created in 1607, in Jamestown colony.

Despite being a famous American holiday, many Christmas traditions ironically trace their roots to foreign lands. While the origins of these customs had specific religious and cultural meanings at the time, they have evolved into favorite Christmas traditions that are practiced by the masses. In learning about the origins of these practices, it is amazing to see how Christmas has truly brought people from all walks of life closer together.

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