Christmas Trivia You Probably Didn’t Know
We uncovered the little-known facts, origin stories, and secret symbols even the biggest holiday fans never realized.
The hidden meaning of Christmas
Christmas is many people’s favorite holiday, yet most don’t know exactly why we celebrate the way we do. So many of our Christmas symbols have origins in pagan or other religious traditions; so many of the foods we eat (or have heard of but haven’t actually tried) and the customs we follow have surprising histories as well. In the United States, our presidents set the tone for decorations and holiday celebrations, and today, although most Americans celebrate Christmas, it’s not always for the reasons you think. And as for the commercialization of Christmas, our current spending figures may surprise you. Read on to find out the history of favorite Christmas traditions, as well as unexpected Christmas info every holiday enthusiast should know.
The Bible does not actually state when Jesus was born
The Gospels leave specific dates and even seasonal references to Jesus’s birth out, but mention shepherds tending their flocks when Jesus was born. This leads some to believe that he was more likely an Aries (spring) than a Capricorn (winter) baby, as spring is the season when lambs tend to be born. Another Christmas story not in the Bible: that Jesus was visited by three kings. In the original writing, the wise men, or magi, came to see him some time after he was born; but a number or names aren’t specified. The number three probably came from the fact that there were three gifts given: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It used to be illegal to have Christmas dinner
Talk about a war on Christmas! The Puritans in England and the United States in the 17th century were not fans of the jolly celebration the holiday had started to become. They believed Christmas was frivolous, so they canceled it, literally: According to the United Kingdom’s official site Historical England, no one was allowed to go to a special church service or even prepare a holiday feast during this period. In the United States, the pilgrims set up the same rules, a piece of United States trivia your history teacher never taught you. A 1659 law from the Massachusetts Bay Colony states, “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way…every person so offending shall pay of every such offense five shillings.” Guess what? That’s not the only Christmas law you never knew existed.
We can thank Prince Albert for Christmas trees
Luckily those laws didn’t last forever, and people went on their merry way decorating for Christmas. But Christmas trees didn’t make their way into homes until the 19th century, when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, suggested they have one in Buckingham Palace. Although evergreens had been used for winter solstice celebrations since Roman times, German Christians are said to be the first to use them for Christmas decorations, in the 15th century, says History.com. But when the British people saw a drawing of the beloved royals’ Christmas celebration in the Illustrated London News in 1848, according to the BBC, they decided to adopt the German custom as well. Here’s how the royal family decorates its Christmas trees today.
President Harrison had the first White House Christmas tree
President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill designating Christmas a legal holiday for federal employees in Washington, D.C., in June 1870, says Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian at The White House Historical Association. But here’s one of the things you never knew about the White House Christmas tree: It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that a tree went up in the president’s abode. “President Benjamin Harrison brought the first Christmas tree to the White House in 1889,” Chervinsky says. “The first family placed the tree in the Second Floor Oval Room—now the Yellow Oval Room—which they used as a parlor and library. They decorated the tree with candles, toys, and ornaments for the Harrison grandchildren.”
Teddy Roosevelt objected to the White House Christmas Tree
Another president suspended the tree tradition—but his young son had other ideas. “According to legend, President Theodore Roosevelt was an avowed conservationist and forbid his family from bringing Christmas trees into the White House,” Chervinsky says. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and protected 230 million acres of public land. “Accordingly, he reportedly hated to kill trees just for decoration—but his children disagreed!” Chervinsky says. “His son Archie apparently smuggled a small tree into a closet in an upstairs sewing room and decorated it for the holidays.” While Roosevelt is the only president believed to have opposed Christmas trees, they were not a regular part of the holiday tradition until the early 20th century. “So many of the earlier presidents didn’t include Christmas trees in the White House, but not because of a moral objection,” Chervinsky says. Check out some of the most infamous White House Christmas trees.
Why the bright lights?
Historians have an explanation for this bit of Christmas trimmings. They note that celebrating the season with light is just a natural response to the dark days of December, part of many fascinating winter solstice traditions around the world. “If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong,” researcher Philip Shaw of Leicester University told LiveScience. So, pagan solstice traditions of fire and light evolved into holiday celebrations involving candles. In the Christian tradition, four candles are placed on an Advent wreath (more on this later), with one lit a week in anticipation of Christmas. In the Jewish faith, one candle on the menorah is lit every day of Hanukkah. Want to see even more? Plan a road trip through one of these best small towns for Christmas lights.
Candles in the window started in Colonial Williamsburg
According to Colonial Williamsburg, the modern tradition of putting one candle in each window started in the Virginia town—not in colonial times, but in the 1930s. Williamsburg historians put lit candles in the windows of the historic buildings that were open during Christmas, and tourists liked the golden glow so much that they started the tradition in their own homes. Electric candles then became popular in order to avoid the fire hazard of real ones. Avoid these other holiday decorating mistakes that could put your family in danger.
Wreaths have secret symbolism
Many theories exist as to why we hang wreaths at Christmastime, and all likely have some part to play in the tradition. In ancient Greece and Rome, laurel wreaths were given to victors of athletic competitions, and were also marks of honor, according to Time. In pagan solstice celebrations, the symbol of the circle may have represented the cycle of life and hopeful rebirth of spring. Christians also associate the wreath with Jesus’s crown of thorns, reports the New York Times; they later adapted the wreath for Advent. “The symbolism of the Advent wreath is beautiful,” wrote the Reverend William Saunders in the Arlington Catholic Herald. “The wreath is made of various evergreens, signifying continuous life…The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes the eternity of God.”
A fishy tradition
In parts of Eastern Europe, it’s customary to keep a live fish in your bathtub in preparation for the Christmas Eve feast. Why? Some suggest it’s because the carp is one of the oldest fish species and indispensable to the fishing industry in this part of Europe. Though mentions of carp dishes can be found as far back as the 17th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became widespread, as fish was a luxury, and most common folk ate predominantly non-meat meals. Not surprisingly, keeping live fish in the tub did not make our list of 15 old-fashioned Christmas traditions we should bring back.
Candy Canes: Originally white—and for bored kids
The first known candy cane was made in 1670, allegedly by a German choirmaster to help children endure lengthy nativity services. They were white and supposedly modeled after shepherds’ canes—although like many religion-themed myths surrounding the origin of candy canes, there’s no evidence of this, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The candy cane made its way to America in 1847, when a German immigrant reportedly decorated the tree in his Ohio home with the iconic candy. According to the National Confectioners Association (NCA), candy canes started being locally produced by Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia, in the 1920s; 30 years later, his brother-in-law invented a machine to mass-produce them. The NCA says today, 90 percent of candy canes are sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and are the number-one-selling non-chocolate candy in December. If you like holiday sweets, you’ll definitely want to refresh your memory of all the delicious Christmas candy that’s only available for a limited time.
Nutcrackers were good luck charms
Maybe your grandmother collected traditional holiday nutcrackers, which look like soldiers; and everyone knows the ballet in which one of these man-shaped gadgets becomes human on Christmas Eve. But how did nutcrackers come to be associated with the holiday, one of the Christmas traditions from around the world we follow today? A tool to open nuts is a necessity, and according to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington state, woodcarvers in Europe were creating them in the shape of people by the 15th century. According to the German Christmas Museum (Weihnachtsmuseum) in Rothenburg, Germany, the nutcracker’s association with Christmas may be due to needing the gadgets to cracks nuts, a common fall treat, for baking at this time of year.
German legend has it, says the BBC, that the traditional nutcrackers brought good luck. Carving kings, soldiers, or policemen also had a hidden political meaning, suggests the Weihnachtsmuseum: to mock those in authority. In the 19th century, Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet furthered interest in the decorative items, and they started being mass-produced in 1872 by the “father of the nutcracker,” German Wilheim Fuchtner. About 30 pieces are needed to make a wooden nutcracker, the Weihnachtsmuseum says. Another family who originally made the nutcracker in Germany, the Steinbachs, still makes them for holiday gifts today. The gingerbread man, too, has a storied history.
Originally, Santa was Sinterklaas
You might think you learned the truth about Santa Claus as a child, but you probably don’t know everything about his origin story. Santa Claus wasn’t always the red-suited, white-bearded man he is today: As explained in National Geographic, Saint Nicholas was a real person who lived in Greece in the fourth century, who was known for gift-giving and whose feast day happens to be on December 6.
Dutch children have long cheered the annual coming of Sinterklaas—known also as St. Nicholas—who sports a crimson miter and rolls into town on a steamboat filled with presents in mid-November. Then, he rides around on his mighty white steed Amerigo and distributes gifts. Over time, Sinterklaas’s image was transmuted into Santa’s, and Amerigo became a sled with flying reindeer.
A name popularized by Washington Irving
While there had been mention of “Santa Claus” in the American press dating back to 1773, Washington Irving is generally considered the first man to significantly transform the Dutch Sinterklaas into “Santa Claus.” In his book History of New York, he spoofed the gift-giving legend and portrayed Santa Claus as a pipe-smoking sailor in a green coat. Then, inspired at least in part by Sinterklaas and the history of St. Nicholas, author Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas, a.k.a. The Night Before Christmas. From this work came much of what we now associate with Santa Claus: the flying reindeer, his ample gut, and jolly laughter.
The elf behind the myth?
Speaking of Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one of the most hotly debated topics is whether Santa was actually conceived by the author as an elf. In the poem, he arrived with “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.” He’s also described as the sleigh’s “little old driver” and “a right jolly old elf”—maybe that’s how he could fit down the chimney!
Fun fact: Although the poem mentions Santa was dressed in fur, nowhere does it mention the fur was red. That addition came in the 19th century from illustrator Thomas Nast, who was largely responsible for popularizing our modern image of Santa—along with Coca-Cola, which used his likeness extensively in Christmas ads since 1931. These are the best Christmas towns in every state.
The origin of Christmas stockings
An old story dating back to the third century Byzantine Empire (today known as Turkey) suggests that St. Nicholas would throw coins down the chimneys of poor women who couldn’t afford dowries. The legend continues that the money would land in stockings that were hung over the fire to dry. Here are more origin stories of iconic Christmas traditions.
Why we send Christmas cards
Unlike other holiday traditions with somewhat nebulous origins, the Christmas card has a start date: 1843. In that year, Victoria and Albert Museum founder Henry Cole had cards printed to send to friends as a time-saving measure to answer all his mail around the holidays—and the idea caught on. As Victorian traditions tended to do, the custom of sending Christmas cards made its way to the United States, and eventually took off when Hallmark created its first Christmas cards in 1915. Today, according to the company, 1.3 billion cards are sent each year in the United States, with more than 2,000 designs by Hallmark. Now as for what to do with them, you can find pretty ways to display all those holiday cards.
The British light their Christmas dessert on fire
You may have heard of mince pies and Christmas pudding, but what exactly are they? “British Christmas food is a whole category unto itself,” says the didactic team at the language learning app, Babbel. “Yorkshire puddings, which consist of pancake batter, are shaped into small bowls to make the perfect vessel for copious amounts of gravy, which goes perfectly with the Christmas turkey.” Pudding is not the traditional custard dessert it is in America, and mince pies don’t actually contain meat anymore. “Consumed for the duration of the festive period in the United Kingdom, mince pies are made up of spiced fruit and encased in sugared pastry,” the Babbel team says. “After Christmas dinner, someone gets out the Christmas pudding—a boiled fruit cake doused in brandy. The tradition is to set fire to the brandy to heat it up, which can be quite alarming.” By the way, this is why we eat fruitcake during the holidays.
Nine in ten Americans celebrate Christmas—but not for the reason you think
Today, 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey—but the religious aspect of the holiday appears to be taking a backseat. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the many December traditions from different cultures that make up our modern holiday, only 46 percent of those surveyed said they observe Christmas as a religious, rather than cultural, holiday—down from 51 percent in 2013. Millennials are the generation least likely to celebrate Christmas religiously. And even though 56 percent of Americans said the religious part of Christmas is not as important in today’s society as it used to be, not many expressed they were upset about that. There are always new Christmas traditions to start this year.
Christmas shopping is up
If religion is a less important part of Christmas today, gift-giving seems to still be going strong. “We’re seeing nearly a quarter of consumers say they plan to spend more this year on holiday shopping than they did last year—statistics from the Discover Annual Holiday Shopping survey show that 24 percent of respondents plan to spend more, and the percentage is higher when you look at millennials,” says Meera Sridharan, Director of Card Programs at Discover. “More than a third of millennials—35 percent—say they plan to spend more this holiday season compared to last year. The survey also found that 35 percent of millennials will likely outspend other generations, such as baby boomers and Generation X, when they shop this year.” To help you with gift-giving, we created a list of 101 can’t-miss gifts for people who are impossible to buy for.
Here’s how people are buying gifts
Credit cards have been the top payment choice during the holiday season for three consecutive years, Sridharan says, with 42 percent of the Discover survey respondents said they plan to use credit cards to pay for most of their gift purchases. And credit card rewards points are a major incentive: 55 percent of respondents said earning points is a big reason to use plastic, up from 42 percent in 2017. People are always looking for savvy tips to save money on holiday shopping. Plus, mobile shopping is huge. “An overwhelming majority of millennials—73 percent—planned to use mobile devices to purchase gifts during this holiday season, compared to 32 percent of baby boomers,” Sridharan says. Every year, more people are shopping online, with more than a billion items shipped through Amazon Prime last year, according to the company.
This is our favorite Christmas song
Amazon also used its virtual assistant Alexa to gather lots of info about the way we (or at least those with the device) celebrate Christmas in America today. The most popular song request last year? Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” one of the 20 best-ever Christmas songs. The tune was also at the top of last year’s Billboard Holiday 100. Christmas music is still big in general: Alexa users listened to hundreds of millions of hours of holiday music in total. Plus, according to Amazon, eggnog and Moscow mules were the most requested drink recipes, and the most asked for holidays lights request was, “Alexa, turn on the Christmas tree.”
“Jingle Bells” wasn’t meant for Christmas
Going back to old-school holiday songs, one of the most famous Christmas tunes was actually written for Thanksgiving. James Lord Pierpont originally titled the song “One Horse Open Sleigh” and performed it at his church’s Thanksgiving service in the mid-19th century. Then, in 1859 the song was republished under the name “Jingle Bells.” We can’t imagine it any other way! This is the surprising history behind your favorite Christmas carols.