The History of 10 Favorite Christmas Traditions
No Christmas celebration feels complete without a decorated tree, delicious cookies, and a rousing round of carols—probably because those traditions began hundreds of years ago.
The way we celebrate Christmas has changed over time. From baking Christmas cookies to drinking eggnog and kissing under the mistletoe, these are the humble beginnings of Christmas traditions that we know and love today. Want to learn more Christmas traditions? This is the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas carols.
Why we celebrate Christmas on December 25
As noted in our Christmas trivia, the reason Christmas lands on this date is a bit of a mystery. The Bible doesn’t specify the date of Jesus’s birth, and early Christians debated the topic for years. They first thought it was January 6, because April 6 was assumed to be the day Jesus died, and there was a corresponding belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception. But by the fourth century, they changed their minds to December 25. Some sources say this new date was purposely chosen to draw attention away from a pagan winter solstice ritual that fell on the same day. Others say that’s not true. All we know for sure is that regardless of the reason why, that date stuck. Learn more about why Christmas ended up on the day it did.
Why we bake Christmas cookies
If we can learn one thing from history, it’s that people have always celebrated winter holidays with good food. Ancient peoples gathered around the winter solstice to feast before cold weather wiped away their crops. Plus, the wine and beer that had been fermenting since the spring were finally ready to drink. Christmas replaced these solstice celebrations by the Middle Ages, but the feasting continued—with the all-important addition of desserts. Bakers brought out expensive ingredients like butter, lard, and sugar for such festive occasions, and they started experimenting with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Yum! Check out the best Christmas cookie from every state in America.
Why we put up a Christmas tree
Evergreen fir trees are universal winter decorations. Pagans displayed the branches as a reminder that spring would come again. Romans placed them around temples to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. But the first time the evergreen was used as a Christmas tree was either in Tallinn, Estonia, or Riga, Latvia (each city says it is the true home of the first Christmas tree). In the 16th century, German Christians brought the trees inside their homes as a symbol of everlasting life. When news spread that Queen Victoria had her German husband Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree in their palace, the practice suddenly became the height of interior design in England and America. This is how the royal families decorates its Christmas trees. Christmas decorations don’t have to be expensive, some cheap Christmas decorations look like they could be fit for a royal.
And why we put lights on it
Martin Luther is said to be the first person to put lights on a Christmas tree. Legend has it that he was walking through a forest one night and was moved by the beautiful stars shining through the trees. When he got went home, he recreated what he saw for his family by putting a tree in their living room and placing lighted candles on its branches. Check out the best small towns in America for Christmas lights that you’ll want to visit.
Why we build snowmen
The first documented snowman appeared in 1380, but mankind has probably been making snowmen for as long as there’s been snow. They were especially popular during the Middle Ages, when many lacked the proper resources or outlets for artistic expressions. So instead of trying to find traditional art supplies, they turned to snow—and there was plenty of it. Michelangelo was commissioned to build a snowman for the ruler of Florence! But not all snowmen were happy, jolly souls. Learn more about Christmas around the world by checking out these holiday traditions.
Why we drink eggnog
Eggnog doesn’t seem like a particularly elite drink, but that’s how it got its start. British aristocrats came up with the creamy concoction as a warm winter drink and added brandy and sherry to keep it from spoiling. Because the ingredients were so expensive, only the wealthy could afford to drink it. When it made its way to the American colonies in the 1700s, colonists subbed the pricey liquors for rum. At the time, rum was also called grog, so bartenders named the drink egg-n-grog. Later, it became eggnog, after the wooden “noggin” mugs the drink was served in. These are a few recipes for tasty holiday drinks you can make at your next holiday party. Make sure you also have some funny Christmas jokes up your sleeve.
Why we leave milk and cookies for Santa
This tradition hasn’t changed all that much since it began in medieval Germany. During Yule season, children left out food at night in hopes of getting presents from a different white-bearded guy—Odin, the all-powerful Norse god who traveled on his eight-legged horse Sleipner. The American custom we know today started during the Great Depression. Parents used it as a way to teach their kids that even when money was tight, they still had to be considerate of others and show gratitude for the blessings in their lives, even if Santa isn’t real. By the way, here are some things your mall Santa won’t tell you.
Why we kiss under mistletoe
Norse mythology creeps into Christmas traditions once again. According to legend, the gods used mistletoe to resurrect Odin’s son Baldur from the dead. So Baldur’s mother Frigg, the goddess of love, made the plant a symbol of love and vowed to kiss anyone who passed under it. In 18th century England, men were allowed to kiss any woman standing under mistletoe, and if the ladies refused, that meant bad luck. These are the surprising things you didn’t know were bad luck.
Why we sing Christmas carols
When Christians began replacing pagan winter festivals with Christmas, bishops across Europe requested certain hymns to be sung at Christmas services. Many composers wanted to write their own carols, but since they were always in Latin, they weren’t terribly popular. Then in 1233, St. Francis of Assisi started putting on Nativity plays, which included canticles that told the story of Christ’s birth. These were usually all in a language that audience members could understand, so they sang along. Since then, Christmas carols have always put listeners into the cheery holiday spirit. Check out our ranking of the all-time best Christmas carols.