The Origins of Christmas Traditions

Christmas Customs

Most people think Christmas day is celebrated on the 25th December, the world over.

Although December 25th (or the late afternoon/evening of December 24th) is the date when most people celebrate Christmas, there are some other dates as well!

Some churches (mainly Orthodox churches) use a different calendar for their religious celebrations. Orthodox Churches in Russia, Serbia Jerusalem, Ukraine and other countries use the old ‘Julian’ calendar and people in those churches celebrate Christmas on January 7th. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Ethiopia also celebrates Christmas on the 7th January (which is the 29th of Tahsas in their calendar).

Most people in the Greek Orthodox Church celebrate Christmas on December 25th. But some still use the Julian calendar and so celebrate Christmas on 7th January! Some Greek Catholics also celebrate on January 7th.

In Armenia, the Apostolic Church celebrates Christmas on January 6th.

Christmas Carols

If we take the dictionary definition, Christmas carols are “traditional songs that are sung just before Christmas that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ”. But look deeper, and you’ll find a long and fascinating history…

In 1928, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge’s Christmas Eve carol service was broadcast over the public airwaves for the very first time

The same year saw The Oxford Book of Carols – edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw –published, aiding the wide enjoyment of festive hymns throughout the population.

It’s generally accepted that one of the first Christmas carols ever to be recorded was the 129 AD ‘Angels Hymn

Around this time, Christianity-themed hymns started taking over the previous pagan songs celebrating Winter Solstice.

More and more slow, solemn hymns started to emerge in the fourth century, and by the 12th, songs referring to Nativity themes and creatures had emerged.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, one of the oldest printed carols is the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’, which dates from 1521. Apparently, it was traditionally heard annually at Queen’s College, Oxford as Christmas lunch was carried in.

‘Coventry Carol’ is a Medieval carol that endures in today’s Christmas programmes; and Renaissance composer, Victoria’s ‘O magnum mysterium’ remains popular. 

Other traditional carols thought to be from the Middle Ages include ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ and ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ – although the ‘God Rest Ye’ we know and love today is a Victorian setting 

Carols and their words continued to be disseminated, even in the 16th century when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans tried to Carols were being collected and printed widely by the 19th century. And in 1880, it’s believed the Christmas carol service was invented in Truro by an Edward White Benson, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury.


Holly & Ivy

Historically evergreen plants like holly, ivy and mistletoe were the only means of brightening up less affluent homes during the dark winter months. 

Christmas Cards

As with trees, candles and confectionary, it was the Victorians who introduced the time-honored tradition of sending cards to friends and family at Christmas time…

Before cards were exchanged, woodprints and etchings depicting important religious scenes had been shared at Christmas since the Middle Ages. Created by carving an image onto a wooden or metal plate, they were intricate and time consuming to create.

When Sir Henry Cole commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to design the first Christmas card in 1843, the concept was disapproved of by those who believed its imagery wasn’t in keeping with the season’s religious focus. Nevertheless, a thousand were printed then sold at his shop for one shilling each (a high price for the time) and the tradition was born. Until 1840, postage was too expensive for most, but thanks to the introduction of the penny post on January 10, cards became more accessible. After that the practice rapidly increased with 11.5 million cards being produced in 1880 alone.

Although photography emerged in the 1830s, due to the expense of the medium it wasn’t used to make cards until much later. Even then coloured images could only be created by hand painting the black and white prints, hence the limited colour palette.

In the winter of 1836 there was extremely heavy snowfall followed by similarly white winters in the 1840s and 50s. As a result Christmas

cards depicting snow scenes became fashionable in the late Victorian period.

Father Christmas, or some version of him, has existed since the 3rd century. Until the 1930s, he was depicted in blue and green as well as red. It wasn’t until an advertising campaign by a certain red themed drinks company that he became exclusively crimson suited.


Kissing Under The Mistletoe

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe started in ancient Greece, during the festival of Saturnalia and later in marriage ceremonies, because of the plant’s association with fertility. During the Roman era, enemies at war would reconcile their differences under the mistletoe, which to them represented peace. Romans also decorated their houses and temples with mistletoe in midwinter to please their gods.

There is also a Nordic myth concerning mistletoe, and it goes like this: The plant was sacred to Frigga, the goddess of love, but Loki, commonly known as the god of mischief, shot Frigga’s son with a spear or, in some telling’s, an arrow carved from mistletoe. Frigga revived her son under the mistletoe tree and decreed that anyone who stands under the mistletoe tree deserves not only protection from death, but also a kiss.

In Victorian England, kissing under the mistletoe was serious business. If a girl refused a kiss, she shouldn’t expect any marriage proposals for at least the next year, and many people would snub their noses at her, remarking that she would most likely end up an old maid.

Today, we take a much more light-hearted approach to the tradition. Although many couples simply just kiss when caught standing under it, there is actually a proper etiquette dating back to ancient times about kissing under the mistletoe. Linda Allen writes in Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants that the gentleman should pluck one white berry while kissing the lady on the cheek. One kiss is allowed for each berry.

It should be mentioned, however, that the plant contains toxic amines , and eating its berries can cause vomiting and stomach pain. In the past, mistletoe had been thought to be a cure for epilepsy and other ailments, but was proved false. In fact, mistletoe is probably more harmful than helpful: deaths have even been reported from drinking too much tea made from its berries.


Gift-giving has its roots in pagan rituals held during the winter. When Christianity folded these rituals into Christmas, the justification for bearing gifts was redirected to the Three Wise Men, the Magi, who gave gifts to the infant Jesus. But in early modern Europe, it also had its roots in Christmas begging. At that time, Christmas bore little resemblance to the family-centred holiday celebrated today. During the holiday seasons, bands of young men, often rowdy, would “wassail” from home to home and demand handouts from the gentry, says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas.” Christmas involved an exchange between the social classes.

  But when Christmas was domesticated in the 1800s in the United States, the recipients of gift-giving shifted from the lower classes to children, given by versions of Santa Claus. It was then that a marketing opportunity was created, bringing us to the Santa-in-the-shopping-mall phenomenon that we recognize today.

Christmas Trees

Long before the arrival of Christianity, northern Europeans used plants and trees to decorate their homes to celebrate festivals that coincided with the winter solstice. The Christmas tree that we recognize today, however, is a tradition that dates much later, to the beginning of the 17th century in Strasbourg. It was not until a visit by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Strasbourg – when he witnessed a Christmas tree first-hand and recorded it in his 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” – that the custom spread across Germany.

While German settlers did erect trees in Pennsylvania, they are not responsible for the mass acceptance of the tree in American society, says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas.” It was introduced in the United States in the 1830s by intellectuals pushing for ways to make Christmas less commercial and more rooted in tradition, he says. The first image of a Christmas tree printed in the US was in Boston in 1836. It is widely believed that a photo in 1848 of German Prince Albert and his wife, Queen Victoria, next to a Christmas tree led to its mass appeal on both sides of the Atlantic.

Father Christmas

The origins of Santa Claus trace back to what is now Turkey, to legends surrounding St. Nicholas, a monk. Revered for his kindness, he became known as the protector of children. But modern Santa, whose name is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” came later. At the turn of the 19th century, Christmas was a time of rowdy revelry. John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society who was attempting to tame Christmas, introduced St. Nicholas to the United States in the early 1800s. At about the same time, Washington Irving popularized the figure with his “A History of New York” in 1809 in which he mentions St. Nick 25 times. Santa’s modern “right jolly old elf” image comes from the 1822 poem “An account of a visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as ” ‘Twas the Night before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore.

Christmas Crackers

Christmas crackers are a traditional Christmas favourite in the UK. They were first made in about 1845-1850 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He had seen the French ‘bon bon’ sweets (almonds wrapped in pretty paper) on a visit to Paris in 1840. He came back to London and tried selling sweets like that in England and also included a small motto or riddle in with the sweet. But they didn’t sell very well.

Legend says that, one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became very interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half.

In 1861 Tom Smith launched his new range of what he called ‘Bangs of Expectation’! It’s thought that he bought the recipe for the small cracks and bangs in crackers from a fireworks company called Brock’s Fireworks.

Crackers were also nicknamed called ‘cosaques’ and were thought to be named after the ‘Cossack’ soldiers who had a reputation for riding on their horses and firing guns into the air.

When Tom died, his expanding cracker business was taken over by his three sons, Tom, Walter and Henry. Walter introduced the hats into crackers and he also travelled around the world looking for new ideas for gifts to put in the crackers.

The company built up a big range of ‘themed’ crackers. There were ones for bachelors and spinsters (single men and women), where the gifts were things like false teeth and wedding rings! There were also crackers for Suffragettes (women who campaigned to get women the vote), war heroes and even Charlie Chaplain! Crackers were also made for special occasions like Coronations. The British Royal Family still has special crackers made for them today!

Very expensive crackers were made such as the ‘Millionaire’s Crackers’ which contained a solid silver box with a piece of gold and silver jewellery inside it!

Cracker manufacturers also made large displays, such as horse drawn carriages and sleighs, for the big shops in London.

The Christmas Crackers that are used today are short cardboard tubes wrapped in colourful paper. There is normally a Cracker next to each plate on the Christmas dinner table. When the crackers are pulled – with a bang! – a colourful party hat, a toy or gift and a festive joke falls out! The party hats look like crowns and it is thought that they symbolise the crowns that might have been worn by the Wise Men.

Crackers are famous for their very bad jokes!

  1. “I got a Christmas card full of rice in the post today… I think it was from my Uncle Ben”
  1. “Why couldn’t the skeleton go to the Christmas party? He had no body to go with”
  1. “What do you call an old snowman? Water”

The world’s longest Christmas cracker measured 63.1m (207ft) long and 4m (13ft) in diameter and was made by the parents of children at Ley Hill School and Pre-School, Chesham, Buckinghamshire, UK on 20 December 2001. Now that would be one big bang!

The biggest Christmas cracker pull was done by 1,478 people at an event organised by Honda Japan at Tochigi Proving Ground, Tochigi, Japan, on 18 October 2009. Now that would be a lot of bangs!

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