Every family has their share of strange holiday traditions unique to their own households and likely passed down through the generations — but even widely practiced year-end customs like putting up the Christmas tree or white elephant gift exchanges have their own sometimes-forgotten, oft-surprising origin stories. Why did folks start wearing ugly sweaters as a way to commemorate the holidays? When did the odd-but-delightful tradition of listening to groups of strangers caroling door-to-door begin? And what’s up with the “Christmas pickle”? Here, we’ve rounded up 12 common holiday traditions and traced them back to their genesis, in hopes that the next time you’re told to down a tall glass of eggnog, you’ll know why.
Ugly Christmas Sweaters
Ah, the ugly Christmas sweater. Now an ironic-yet-nostalgic mainstay of the holiday season, the ugly Christmas sweater is one of those traditions that forces even the coolest fashion kids to raid their parents’ closets in search of itchy, unbecoming outerwear. According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book: The Definitive Guide for Getting Your Ugly On, two Canadians are actually responsible for the phenomenon that feels as American as apple pie (fitting, since apple pie isn’t even American in the first place). The book credits Vancouver residents Chris Boyd and Jordan Birch as the two young men who threw the first-ever ugly Christmas sweater party in 2002. In an interview on Canadian TV, Boyd and Birch explained that they were hoping to put on a “cheesy, feel-good, festive party, and the sweaters were a main ingredient of that.” In the years since, hipsters and hip, fun-loving bosses alike have jumped on the bandwagon, creating a wholesome custom perfect for revelers of all ages (as well as a booming industry of purposefully hideous knitwear).
White Elephant Gift Exchanges
There are a lot of different names for this most rambunctious of holiday games: “Yankee Swap” or “Dirty Santa,” for instance. Regardless of what you call it, though, you’ve likely taken part in some iteration of the White Elephant gift exchange, which involves giving, exchanging, and stealing items to the merriment — and sometimes indignation — of everyone involved. Legend has it that the game’s origins can be traced back to the King of Siam (now Thailand), who used to gift his enemies with a literal white elephant. The reasoning behind this unlikely present? White elephants were notoriously difficult to care for and would eventually drain the owner financially, so the “gift” was actually a super passive aggressive way to tell someone off. This particular anecdote was even mentioned in The New York Times in 1873, but author Rita Ringis debunked the legend in her book Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art, and Reality, writing that there was no factual basis to this legend, meaning that the actual origins are likely far less dramatic.
Eggnog and Candy Canes
If you’re over the age of 12, the appeal of drinking hundreds of calories in one sweet, milky beverage or cracking a tooth on a cane-shaped stick of pure sugar may only sound appealing during the holidays, when everyone knows calories don’t count. (If you’re under 12, though, this probably sounds appealing all year round.) Eggnog and candy canes are as emblematic of the holidays as a turkey is to Thanksgiving, but the origins of these sweet treats are a bit fuzzier than one might imagine. Eggnog, for example, is much-debated among culinary historians; the one thing they do agree on, however, is that it likely originated from an early medieval drink called the “posset,” which was a milky, ale-like drink, served warm. The drink only became associated with the holidays once it was brought over to the States in the 18th century.
Candy canes, meanwhile, are rumored to have originated in Germany in the 1600s, when choirmasters at the famed Cologne Cathedral would hand out sugar sticks to their choir boys to keep them from being chatty during the Living Crèche (or Live Nativity) ceremony. The bent cane is believed to either have been a nod to the candy’s religious origins or a more practical solution for those who wanted to hang the sweets on their Christmas trees. Interestingly, the original candy canes were all-white; it wasn’t until production was automated around the turn of the 20th century that the iconic red stripes and peppermint flavoring were added (likely for increased marketability).
As with so many things Christmas-adjacent, gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century. Gingerbread itself had of course been around for much longer than that: Rhonda Massingham Hart, the author of Making Gingerbread Houses, noted that the first known recipe for gingerbread came from Greece in 2400 B.C. Gingerbread houses, however — those miniature homes made with cookies for walls and frosting for roof tiling — became popular around the same time the Brothers Grimm wrote their story about Hansel and Gretel and the witch’s house in the forest made entirely of sweets. But according to PBS, it’s unclear, still, whether gingerbread houses became popular because of the fairy tale or if the fairy tale included a memorably edible home because of how popular gingerbread houses were at the time.
Singing for strangers is a thing humans have been doing for quite some time: back in the 12th and 13th centuries, medieval minstrels would often go door to door performing as a form of entertainment all year round. But it wasn’t until centuries later that it would come to be associated specifically with Christmastime. The earliest Christmas carols evolved out of Nativity plays started by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, and were mostly religious in nature. The carolers themselves weren’t always welcome by the neighbors whose houses they sang at, however. According to a 2011 Salon article, the tradition took a turn for the worse in the 17th century, when carolers would sometimes demand food and drink, or even threaten violence in their lyrics. For a time, Puritans banned not only caroling but Christmas itself: luckily for us — today’s carolers are quite a bit less confrontational.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Sneaking in a kiss under the mistletoe is as Hallmark as it gets. And the history behind the practice is, fittingly, also super classic — mythology-classic, in fact. According to legend, the Norse god Baldur was killed by a sprig of mistletoe; he had woken up that morning afraid that every plant and animal species was out to get him, so his loving mother and wife went out to ask every plant and animal to leave him alone. The women forgot to ask mistletoe, however, and a sprig of the evergreen ultimately killed him. His mother, the goddess Frigga, wept tears that turned into white berries on the mistletoe. She was able to revive him, and in celebration, Frigga proclaimed mistletoe the plant of love. The ancient Druids, Greeks, and Romans all also believed that mistletoe could restore fertility, likely due to the fact that the plant remains green and hardy even in the worst winter weather. And so, the practice of smooching under the mistletoe was born.
The holidays are all about sharing in communal cheer, and bundling up to go see the neighborhood Christmas light displays is often a big part of many families’ holiday agendas. Edward Hibberd Johnson, a good friend of Thomas Edison’s, was the man who came up with the brilliant idea to string a bunch of lights together; the first displayed Christmas tree stood tall in New York in 1882. (The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, now a longtime tourist attraction, was first erected in 1931.) It’s believed that the first outdoor public Christmas holiday display was organized by Frederick Nash and the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce in Altadena, California, in 1920. Now known widely as “Christmas Tree Lane,” the display exemplifies the best and most extravagant version of what neighborhoods around the country share every year.
Even though displaying a tall evergreen tree indoors in the month of December is most often associated with Christmas, the practice of celebrating nature in the dark months of winter actually predates Christianity’s claim on the holiday icon. The ancient Egyptians and Romans used greenery in their homes as decoration to celebrate winter festivals as a way to show triumph over death, but it was the Germans who started the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it — lights, ornaments, and even strings of popcorn. The widely held belief is that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, was the first person to introduce lighted candles to the tree. The tradition carried over to America by German settlers in the 1830s, and though Americans initially scoffed at the odd idea, they finally adopted the tradition several years later after an illustration of Queen Victoria and her kids gathered around a Christmas tree reached the States.
The Elf on the Shelf
Elves have been a part of holiday lore for as long as Santa Claus has been in the picture (which is a long, long time) but the viral success of the Elf on the Shelf has a decidedly shorter history. The polarizing holiday tradition —parents either love or hate taking part — began in 2005 after the publication of The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition by former stay-at-home mom Carol Aebersold and her adult daughter Chanda Bell. The mother-daughter duo wanted a way to memorialize their own longstanding family tradition of having an elf (in their case, an elf named Fisbee) fly around the house every night in the month or so leading up to Christmas, appearing in different rooms each morning. And so they wrote a book together, and sold it with an actual elf doll. Initially, the venture sold modestly, with thousands of copies sold at local trade shows and markets. But in 2007, Hollywood actress Jennifer Garner was photographed carrying an Elf on the Shelf box around in NYC, and the rest is history: as of last November, more than 13 million elves have found homes around the world.
The thing to know about fruitcake is that it’s not just a cake that contains fruit. A fruitcake has to specifically contain dried or candied fruit, and often also has nuts or alcohol baked in. The result is a super dense, oft-joked-about dessert that is notoriously gifted and regifted during the holidays, due in large part to its durability. The first fruitcake recipe traces back to ancient Rome and included pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, honeyed wine, and raisins. During the Middle Ages, fruitcakes added more sugared and preserved fruit as well as nuts. When the ingredients for fruitcakes became more of an indulgence in the 18th and 19th centuries, they became a traditional cake served at weddings in England. American colonists added liquor to their fruitcake to help preserve it, but even that brandy boost couldn’t help the loaves from eventually falling out of favor. It’s a mystery how fruitcakes came to be associated with just the holiday season these days, but their bad rap in the States may be just because they are so dense and heavy (cue jokes about using it as a paperweight or doorstop). Now, even if a fruitcake is given in genuine goodwill, for many people, it’s fodder for their next white elephant exchange.
One of the most beloved holiday stories of our time is The Nutcracker — the musical scores, stunning ballet performances, and memorable set decorations are the epitome of holiday tradition glam at its finest, whether the performance is in a school auditorium or at a regal, highbrow theater. The ballet is based on the 1816 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, and features music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It premiered on December 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was, incredibly, only performed for the first time outside of Russia in 1934, in London. It didn’t reach the United States until a decade later when it was performed by the San Francisco Ballet, and by the 1960s it became standard holiday viewing. Today, the story of Clara’s encounter with her brave nutcracker come-to-life has been adapted by major studios, dance companies, and high schools around the country, and the iconic music of The Nutcracker Suite plays on rotation at radio stations as often as anything Bing Crosby ever sang.
Finally, a Christmas tradition without German origins. The Christmas pickle is an American tradition that was once believed to have originated in Germany, which seems plausible given that so many other holiday customs have found their way to the United States that way. (Also, knowing that Germans famously love both Christmas and pickles.) In actuality, the Christmas pickle was most likely the result of a marketing gimmick. In the 1880s, Woolworth stores received imported German ornaments shaped like pickles — glass-blown fruits and veggies were commonplace — but they needed to find a way to sell these particular, peculiar baubles. American salesmanship got to work, and an origin story emerged: parents would hide the green glass ornament within the tree on Christmas Eve, and the first child to find it would either get to open presents first or receive a special treat. Just like that, they were out of their pickle — and Christmas pickles became a pretty big dill.