We Bet You Don’t Know: Origins of 5 Classic Christmas Traditions

published Dec 20, 2016
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(Image credit: Reagen Taylor)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Colorful lights on every street corner, the scent of pine filling the air, all kinds of holiday cheer being passed around. But do you ever find yourself wondering why we do the things we do in the holiday season? Where did all of these traditions come from? Well, pull up a chair and grab a mug of spiced cider (or, you know, mulled wine). We have five classic Christmas traditions to share—and how they got started.

Christmas Lights

Modern displays of holiday lights are a sure sign of the season’s start each year, but the practice has its roots in a tradition that would give any homeowner anxiety: using candles to decorate Christmas trees. The candles were always closely watched and accompanied by nearby buckets of water and sand, but the ever-present threat of fire made the eventual transition to lights that much more enticing. Thomas Edison’s partner, Edward Johnson, was the first to use electric lights as a holiday decoration and officially became the Father of the Electric Christmas Tree in 1882. A few decades later, outdoor lights entered the marketplace and before long the first outdoor Christmas light display was organized on Santa Rosa Avenue in Altadena, California.


This symbol of holiday romance was first associated with feelings of love in ancient Norse mythology, but by the 18th century stealing a kiss under the mistletoe was a tradition among British servants. The custom spread from there and it’s now considered bad luck to refuse a kiss beneath the mistletoe. Fun fact: Apparently, after the kiss, the couple is supposed to pull one of the berries from the plant. Once the berries have all been plucked, the mistletoe can no longer command kisses. In other words, choose your mistletoe bough wisely!

(Image credit: Laren Volo)

Gingerbread Houses

It turns out this tradition dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who used firmly-baked gingerbread for ceremonial purposes. Eventually the treat made its way to Europe, but could only be prepared by specially trained gingerbread guild members except during certain holidays — like Christmas. However, rumor has it gingerbread houses made their first appearance on the scene after the Brothers Grimm introduced Hansel and Gretel and German bakers used the tale for inspiration, sparking a holiday tradition that makes its gumdrop-accented appearance each year.

Holiday Wreaths

The contemporary custom of hanging a wreath on the front door of your home each holiday season is another tradition pulled from ancient history. As part of ancient Romans’ New Year’s celebrations locals wished each other good health by exchanging evergreen branches. The gifts, called strenae after Strenia, the goddess of health, were typically bent into a ring and displayed on doorways—a practice which now extends into the holidays and beyond.

Christmas Trees

First things first. Is there anything better than the fresh pine smell and bright lights of a Christmas tree? Still, it turns out the first Christmas trees were brought into homes for reasons other than holiday cheer and aesthetics. Ancient Norsemen believed winter’s short, cold days brought with them a whole host of malicious spirits and evils — and that evergreen boughs had the power to keep those spirits at bay. During the Winter Solstice they would bring entire evergreen trees, called Yule trees, into their homes to bless the inhabitants. Then, in 1848 the Yule tree—now called the Christmas tree—made its first appearance in England in the home of Princess Victoria and Prince Albert. Within two years, nearly every home in the country had its own Christmas tree for the holidays and the rest is history.

Which classic Christmas traditions are your favorite?