History

The true origins of your favorite Christmas traditions

It’s almost that time of year again when we travel from near and far to spend time with friends and family for the holidays. Even if you’re not a big fan of the Christmas season, you’re probably familiar with some of the more well-known traditions such as Christmas trees, yule logs, eggnog, and gift-giving. But where did these traditions come from? Hold onto your hats because Christmas is one of many Christian holidays with an origin that’s going to surprise you.

Christmas trees

Rows of trees outside
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One of the most iconic symbols of the Christmas season is, of coure, the tree. Early Christians decided to “borrow” an ancient pagan holiday known as Saturnalia, and thus, they borrowed other symbols and incorporated them into Christian celebrations. The classic Christmas tree is yet another item the Christians borrowed from pagan religions. In particular, the Romans were fond of fir trees during Saturnalia. And as Saturnalia gave way to Christmas, the fir tree continued to be used.

Christmas stockings

Family room decorated with Christmas tree and stockings
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We don’t know about your house, but many people start their Christmas Day celebrations by opening their stockings for little gifts. This is one tradition that is firmly rooted in Christianity. There are competing origin stories for Christmas stockings — some of which are controversial. But of them, the most popular include one that also serves as the origin story for a more secular Christmas symbol — Santa Claus. We won’t give that one away because Santa is also on this list. But the other story centers on a wealthy man and his daughters and their recent bad luck that left them poor. Naturally, the father was worried that his daughters wouldn’t be able to marry well. As luck would have it, St. Nicholas passed through their town and tossed three big bags of gold coins down the man’s chimney — and those bags magically fit perfectly in the daughters’ stockings that were drying by the fireplace.

Santa Claus

A gloved hand picking up a chocolate chip cookie with a glass of milk on the side
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While Santa Claus has some improbable qualities, he is based on a real man. If we go back in time to the third and fourth century, you’ll also find the origin story for a famous Catholic saint, Saint Nicholas. Incidentally, he has his own celebratory day, December 6. But more importantly, the real Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop who later became the Bishop of Myra (a town in Greece). The real Nicholas was nothing like the jolly plump Santa Claus that most of us imagine.

The real Saint Nicholas lived during a time when Christianity was still a bit of a fringe religion and when those who overtly practiced it could be persecuted. Because he defied the local laws against Christianity, Saint Nicholas was imprisoned until he (and other Christians) were freed by Constantine. However, during his time as a bishop, he was known for his generosity and his defense of vulnerable groups. And that persona led to his sainthood as well as the fact that he is often considered the patron saint of nearly everyone.

Gift giving

Stack of classy Christmas gifts wrapped in colored paper with twine string and other festive decoration
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It would seem like Christmas and gift-giving go together like peanut butter and jelly. But it turns out that of all the traditions we most closely associate with the holiday, exchanging gifts is a fairly modern invention. The next time you participate in a Secret Santa gift exchange, give Queen Victoria a shout out. Prior to the mid-1800s, gift giving was considered a distraction from the real reason for the season — to celebrate Jesus Christ. But during Queen Victoria’s reign, she routinely gave gifts to her husband and children at Christmas. And the queen was so influential that her subjects also began to enjoy gift exchanges.

Mistletoe

Traditional bundle of mistletoe wrapped with string and a red ribbon hanging against a wooden backdrop
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What could be more romantic than stealing a smooch under a bit of mistletoe? This classic lover’s twist on Christmas has been brought to you by the Celtic Druids. Yes, again, here’s another Christmas tradition borrowed from pagan culture. The Druids valued mistletoe because it was a symbol of fertility. No one really knows how mistletoe made the jump from a pagan to a Christmas symbol, but we do know that mistletoe was first popularized as a Christmas accent in English households during the 18th century.