Christmas is the most widely observed cultural holiday in the world and one with a variety of long-practiced customs. Here are nine things you should know about Christmas traditions.
1. Christmas trees – The tradition of bringing an evergreen tree into the house to be decorated is traced to Germany in the 1500s. The earliest Christmas trees were referred to as “paradises,” after the “paradise trees” used as part of plays held on the feast of Adam and Eve. As Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait explain, these trees were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today.
2. Christmas lights — Legend has it that the German Reformer Martin Luther was not only the first person to bring a Christmas tree into the house (not true), he was also the first to decorate it with lights (also probably not true). The story is that when Luther was walking home on a winter night he was overcome by the beauty of a fir tree and the stars shining around it. Unable to communicate the majestic scene to his family, he is said to have brought a tree into his home and decorated it with candle tapers to mimic the stars. This is claimed to be the basis for adding lights to modern Christmas trees. (While it’s an intriguing tale, there is no historical evidence it actually happened.)
3. Candy canes — Folklore says that candy canes for Christmas originated in Germany in 1670. A choirmaster of a cathedral in Cologne gave out candy during worship service to keep the kids quiet. He is said to have asked the candy maker to add a crook to the top of each stick to represent the shepherds who visited baby Jesus. The oft-told story that a Christian candymaker in Indiana made the candy cane to incorporate several symbols from the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ is an urban legend.
4. Christmas cards — The commercial Christmas card originated in London in 1843 when Sir Henry Cole, too busy to write letters, asked an artist friend to design a card with an image and brief greeting that he could mail instead. The artist, John Callcott Horsley, printed 1,000 cards and sold them at Felix Summerly’s Treasure House in London for a shilling each. Americans imported Christmas cards from England until 1875, when a German immigrant named Louis Prang, “the father of the American Christmas card,” created the first line of commercial Christmas cards in the States.
5. Christmas stockings — In the famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823)—the one that begins “Twas the night before Christmas”—stockings are mentioned while a Christmas tree is not. This is fitting since, throughout the 1800s, stockings were often more symbolic of the holiday than were Christmas trees. An article in The New York Times in December 1883 noted, “The stocking was for so many years so closely associated with Christmas that Christmas without stockings seemed inappropriately and insufficiently celebrated.” In contrast, the article says, “The German Christmas tree—a rootless and lifeless corpse—was never worthy of the day.” While no one knows how the tradition of hanging stockings truly arose, a popular legend is that Santa Claus heard about an impoverished family too proud to take charity. The father, recently widowed, was unable to provide a dowry for his three daughters, so Santa tossed three gold coins down the chimney that landed in the girls’ stockings hanging on the fireplace to dry. (Another version of the story says Santa gave three gold balls, which is where adding oranges or tangerines supposedly comes from.)
6. Eggnog — Eggnog is a drink that contains milk, cream, sugar, whipped eggs, some sort of an alcohol (brandy, cognac, rum, sherry, whiskey), and sometimes spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. Historians of food believe that it originated from the early medieval Britain “posset,” a hot, milky, ale-like drink. Because of the readily available supply of milk and eggs in American colonies, eggnog became a popular holiday drink.
7. Christmas carols — Since the 14th century, carols have been considered a form of popular religious song. While Christmas carols had begun to become popular after the Reformation, they became a particularly common genre in the 19th century with the publication of music books dedicated to Christmas songs. For example, in 1833 an English lawyer named William Sandys published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, which contained the first appearance in print of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Also during the Victorian era in England, the tradition of visiting people’s houses and singing—a process known as wassailing—was adopted for Christmas and became synonymous with “caroling.”
8. Advent calendars — In Middle Ages the Advent season became directly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas. Today, Advent lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas, though most Advent calendars start on December 1 and mark the 24 days before Christmas. The tradition of Advent calendars is believed to have started in the mid-19th century, when German Protestants made chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas. The first printed Advent calendar was produced in the early 1900s by a German named Gerald Lang. When Lang was a child his mother sewed 24 cookies onto the lid of a box and allowed him to eat one of them every day during the Advent period. Lang used this as the model for his own Advent calendar in 1908.
9. Christmas presents – In this short video, Ryan Reeves explains the history of gift-giving on Christmas.