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Do You Know the History behind These 10 Christmas Traditions?

Do You Know the History behind These 10 Christmas Traditions?
For many people, the thought of Christmas conjures up the image of numerous festive traditions: baking cookies, exchanging gifts, decorating an evergreen, and drinking eggnog or cocoa. However, many of these traditions have had a surprising journey on their way to becoming a part of the modern American Christmas.

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  • 1. Santa Claus

    1. Santa Claus

    For most Americans, Santa has stronger associations with Christmas than Jesus does. For Christians, this is disappointing, since Christ’s birth is supposed to be the foundation for the holiday.

    However, legends about a mid-winter gift giver date back as far as the 3rd century. According to, Swiss and Germans told of a Kris Kringle, or “Christ Child” who gave gifts to good children. English children anticipated Father Christmas filling their stockings with treats, and the French Père Noël left gifts in shoes.

    A monk named St. Nicholas born around 280 A.D. seems the primary source of inspiration for Santa Claus. Nicholas was known for his kindness and generosity as he “traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick.”

    These legends eventually transformed into the Santa Claus seen in malls and on Christmas decorations, aided by Clement Clarke Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and cartoonist Thomas Nast’s depiction of a jolly, grandfatherly gift-bringer in red. 


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  • 2. Stockings

    2. Stockings

    St. Nicholas legends are also responsible for the tradition of filling stockings with gifts.

    According to Time Magazine’s website, “Legend says…an impoverished widower, devastated by the passing of his wife, could not afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters. St. Nick…dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which landed in the girl's stockings, hung by the fireplace to dry. (Or so the tale goes.)”

    Other sources, quoted in Wikipedia, note that sometimes oranges filled the stockings, representing gold balls instead of coins.

    Yet another theory claims that the stocking tradition originated in Scandinavian countries with the god, Odin (Yup, Thor’s dad) and his horse, Sleipnir. 


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  • 3. Christmas gifts

    3. Christmas gifts

    Gift giving used to take place on Saint Nicholas’s feast day (December 6th), but this tradition’s history is older than Nick himself.  

    Ancient Romans used to celebrate the winter solstice (in late December) with a holiday called Saturnalia, where they would exchange gifts, says Wikipedia.

    The custom continued and grew, and Christians appropriated it into their celebration of Christ’s birth.

    “The tradition of gift giving was reinterpreted and tied to the story of three Magi giving gifts to baby Jesus and together with another story, that of Santa Claus based on a historical figure of Saint Nicholas.”


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  • 4. December 25th

    4. December 25th

    Christians also appropriated the use of December 25th for Christmas.

    Christianity Today points out that Christmas wasn’t celebrated for three centuries, and when Christ’s birth was first commemorated, it was during Epiphany on January 6th.

    Numerous church leaders speculated about the time of Christ’s birth, producing theories in favor of May 20th, April 19th, and November 17th, among several others.

    Eventually, the church took advantage of existing Roman holidays on the 25th which anticipated the return of the sun and celebrated the birth of Mithras (“Sun of Righteousness).

    “Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.”


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  • 5. Christmas trees

    5. Christmas trees

    Christmas trees, as many Christians know, also originated in pagan worship.

    “In many countries,” says the History Channel, “it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.”

    According to Time Magazine, “While tree worship was common in pagan Europe, the modern Christmas tree originated with German Lutherans in the 17th century and spread… When Germany's Prince Albert came to England in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree with him. The royal family decorated it with small gifts, toys, candles, candies and fancy cakes, giving rise to the modern ornament. Eight years later, a photograph of the royal tree appeared in a London newspaper, and ownership of the green item became the height of holiday fashion in Europe and America.”


    Photo courtesy: Unsplash/Rodion Kutsaev

  • 6. Christmas tree lights

    6. Christmas tree lights

    Christmas trees have long been decorated with lights from candles, says Time Magazine. They symbolized the “light of Jesus.”

    However, candles were a fire hazard, so Edward Johnson, friend and colleague of Thomas Edison, presented the first electric string lights to the world in 1882. His creation involved “eight bulky, pear-shaped bulbs on a single wire,” a novelty too expensive and awkward to become popular.

    However, string lights and their cost grew significantly smaller in time, and “President Grover Cleveland…helped make the lights popular after he used them to light a Christmas tree in the White House in 1895.”


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  • 7. Advent Calendars

    7. Advent Calendars

    Advent calendars also used to be made from lights, in the form of candles, or sometimes from wooden blocks.

    “They first emerged,” says Time Magazine, “as another tool to focus on the reason for the season.”

    The Advent “season” refers to what Merriam-Webster defines as “the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting.”

    Eventually, Advent calendars were made of paper, and the doors “opened to Bible verses that tell the Christmas story.”


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  • 8. Nativity Scenes

    8. Nativity Scenes

    Nativity scenes, like stockings, got their start from a saint, but not Saint Nick.

    According to the Smithsonian Magazine, St. Francis of Assisi staged the first nativity scene in an Italian village in 1223. He brought live animals and a hay-filled manger to a cave and “invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about ‘the babe of Bethlehem.’”

    “Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe,” says the Smithsonian.

    “Later scenes began incorporating dioramas and life actors, and the cast of characters gradually expanded beyond Mary, Joseph and sweet baby Jesus, to sometimes include an entire village.”


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  • 9. Christmas caroling

    9. Christmas caroling

    The idea of going door to door singing Christmas songs to strangers is a bizarre and relatively recent tradition.

    “Medieval carols were liturgical songs reserved for [church] processionals in the 12th and 13th centuries,” notes Time Magazine.

    A separate tradition, wassailing (from the Old Norse “ves heill” which means “be well, and in good health”), involved going around to one’s neighbors wishing them health and good cheer.

    “The two traditions of singing and visiting first merged in Victorian England, as church carols began to merge with Christian folk music.”


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  • 10. Eggnog

    10. Eggnog

    Drinking eggnog is another Christmas tradition that many find bizarre (or even disgusting). Whether you love or hate the thick, spiced drink, you probably associate it strongly with the Christmas season.

    Time Magazine claims that the first eggnog was concocted at the Jamestown settlement in 1607, though it may have been derived from a “hot, milky ale-like drink” called “posset” from medieval Britain.

    “It's said the colonists called their mixture ‘egg and grog,’ the latter being a then-common term for any drink made with rum. The name was eventually shorened to ‘egg'n'grog’ and later, eggnog.”

    The expensive ingredients were “often used in toasts to prosperity and good health,” which is perhaps how the drink became a part of holiday cheer.


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    Publication date: December 11, 2017