Holiday History: The Origins of 3 Christmas Traditions

Celebrated in more than 160 countries by over two billion people around the world, Christmas is the biggest date on the calendar for many people. In the United States alone, 90 percent of the population celebrates Christmas, with a third of Americans recognizing December 25 as a cultural holiday instead of a religious holiday. Even in countries that aren’t typically Christian, Christmas decorations and traditions are observed. Christmas celebrations have been happening in one form or another for nearly two thousand years, but how much do you know about the history of the customs that you participate in each year?

1. Christmas Day

As you probably already know, Christmas was intended to honor the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger to a virgin mother. Nobody can say with any certainty when exactly Jesus was born, but the first recorded mention of December 25 as Christ’s birthday came in 336 AD. At the time, birthdays weren’t celebrated like they are today, which is why it took over three hundred years for Christmas to be recognized. There are a number of theories, some religious and some practical, suggesting why December 25 was chosen as the date. Early religious scholars calculated that since Christ died on March 25, he was also conceived on March 25, according to the Jewish belief that great men lived whole, non-fractional lives. Hence, Jesus must have been born nine months later on December 25.

In an early Christmas sermon, St. Augustine posited that Jesus decided to be born on the shortest day of the year for symbolic reasons. A more practical theory for the designation of December 25 as Christmas Day suggests that the date was chosen to establish a Christian alternative to holidays being celebrated by other cultures and religions around the same time, such as the Jewish Festival of Lights, the German Yule Festival, and the Winter Solstice. The Roman feast of Saturnalia – held on December 17 of the Julian calendar and extending to December 23 – was particularly influential on developing Christmas traditions like exchanging gifts, hanging decorative wreaths, and making merry for days on end.

2. Christmas Tree

Perhaps the ultimate icon of the holiday season is the Christmas tree. Every year, families around the world put up a tree and adorn it with beautiful decorations to prepare for the big day. Symbolizing eternal life, evergreens have been revered by many cultures throughout history, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews who used trees, wreaths, and garlands in their customs and traditions. Tree worship was also a component of Scandinavian culture and European pagan rituals, and the tradition survived the conversion to Christianity as trees were erected in December to ward off evil and provide a perch for any birds that remained in the winter. The first person to place lighted candles on an evergreen tree was Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther, and the first recorded depiction of a Christmas tree was discovered on a German keystone sculpture from 1576.

The Christmas tree tradition first appeared in North America in 1781 when a Hessian general and his wife held a Christmas party – featuring a fir tree adorned with fruits and candles – while they were stationed in the Province of Quebec. As the 19th century rolled on, Christmas trees became commonplace in the United States, but the tradition really caught on in the 1850s after a woodcut depicting the British royal family surrounding their ornate tree was reproduced in America. As the quirky custom exploded in popularity in the 20th century, people went out to the woods or to a commercial Christmas tree lot and brought home a real tree, usually a variety of fir or pine, to decorate with their families. These days, for the sake of convenience, you probably have an artificial tree you pull out of the basement each year. If you’re in the market for a new artificial Christmas tree, there’s a wide selection available, as you can see at Xmastree Express.

3. Christmas Stockings

A beloved Christmastime activity for children everywhere is the hanging of stockings, preferably by the chimney with care, in the hopes that Santa Claus will fill the empty vessels with presents when he visits. While there is no definitive origin for this unusual tradition, the legend of Saint Nicholas includes a tale about a poor father who didn’t have enough money to provide a dowry for his daughters to get married. Owing to his kind and generous disposition, St. Nick took it upon himself to lend a hand by secretly tossing a sack of gold through the window or down the chimney, where it landed in a stocking that was hung to dry by the fire. Once word got out, children began leaving out their stockings hoping to receive similar bounties.

Of course, if a child has misbehaved during the year, custom dictates that they are left a lump of coal in their stocking. The origins of this practice aren’t exactly clear, either, but every culture has their own mythical gift-giving character – such as Sinterklaas and La Befana – and they have all been known to leave “gifts” of onions, garlic, salt, or twigs for those on the naughty list. So, unless your bad seed was a budding chef, they would hopefully learn their lesson and reform in time for next year. An offshoot of the Saint Nicholas legend is his companion, Krampus, a devilish creature who would punish unruly rugrats in a variety of ways from swatting them with sticks and whips to eating, drowning, or delivering them straight to Hell.

As you can see, the Christmas season certainly has its share of unusual customs that have become normalized over the years. At its heart, the holiday is all about getting together with family and friends and celebrating the spirit of the season, and that’s something that will never change.