The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

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From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd, when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. HANGING STOCKINGS

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings, ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. CAROLING

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. USING EVERGREENS FOR CHRISTMAS TREES

Photo of a man carrying a Christmas tree
Getty Images

Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British Royal Family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, 1 in 5 American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. THE COLORS RED AND GREEN

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. UGLY CHRISTMAS SWEATERS

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. LEAVING MILK AND COOKIES FOR SANTA

A photo of milk and cookies left for Santa Claus
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When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. THE A CHRISTMAS STORY MARATHON ON TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. YULE LOGS


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Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. ADVENT CALENDARS

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child featuring 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. EGGNOG

A photo of two glasses of eggnog
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It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called "posset," a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it to toast with.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that "nog" was short for "noggin," which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. MISTLETOE

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. CHRISTMAS CARDS

A photo of J.C. Horsley's first Christmas card
Getty Images

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

11 Novelty Socks That Make Perfect Stocking Stuffers

Good Luck Sock/OoohYeah/Amazon
Good Luck Sock/OoohYeah/Amazon

There’s no reason socks should elicit groans when they’re given as gifts for the holidays. If you know where to look, you can find ones that reflect the tastes and personality of the person you’re shopping for. In addition to being a form of self-expression, they're also practical. Chances are that nearly all of the loved ones on your list could use an extra set. We pulled together a group of fun and colorful novelty socks that are perfect for Star Wars fans, Disney villain lovers, hikers, and everyone in between.

1. Injinji Toe Socks; $12

Toe socks
Injinji / Amazon

Toe socks are more than funky-looking footwear. They also reduce blisters, wick sweat, and align the foot in a way that’s more natural than conventional socks. That’s why Injinji chose the style for its running socks. They’re great for working out, or just lounging around the house and feeling comfortable.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Seirus Heatwave Socks; $30

Heatwave socks.
Seirus Innovation / Amazon

When hiking in the dead of winter, even the thickest wool socks aren’t always enough to keep your toes warm. Seirus’s Heatwave socks use a high-tech design to trap the heat from your foot inside your shoes. The “kinetic heat return system” converts the energy you generate into heat that gets reflected back onto your body. They’re knit from a blend of spandex and polyester, so they can stretch to maximize the insulation of any size shoe.

Buy It: Amazon

3. Star Wars Starry Night Socks; $39

Star Wars Starry Night socks.
Amazon

This five-pack of socks reimagines your favorite Star Wars characters in a post-impressionist art style. Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Yoda, a Stormtrooper, and R2-D2 along with C-3PO are all represented against a swirling background reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Buy It: Amazon

4. Studio Ghibli Socks; $12

Studio Ghibli socks.
Amazon

If you know a Studio Ghibli fan that can’t pick a favorite movie, this sock pack is for them. Each pair in the set of four features characters from a different movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki, including Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro.

Buy It: Amazon

5. Christmas Sweater Dinosaur Socks; $10

Dinosaur socks.
Amazon

If you don’t think the person you’re shopping for would commit to wearing a full ugly Christmas sweater, buy them these socks. The festive apparel features dinosaurs like T. rex and Stegosaurus sporting knitwear for the holidays.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Takeout Sushi Socks; $20

Sushi socks in a box.
Amazon

The creative presentation of these socks makes them a great gift for the holidays. They come rolled like sushi and nigiri and are packaged in a classic plastic takeout box—fake green grass included. When they’re unraveled, the socks show off the patterns and color palettes of the sushi pieces.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Bob Ross Socks; $12

Bob Ross socks.
Amazon

Bob Ross’s “happy little accidents” saying originally referred to his painting, but it also makes for a sensible life philosophy. With these socks, wearers can carry the mantra—along with the artist’s glorious perm—on their feet wherever they go.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Stranger Things Socks; $7

Stranger Things socks.
Hot Topic

The striped design of these crew socks already makes them feel like they’re ripped right from the 1980s. The Stranger Things logo and the silhouette of Mike and Eleven on a bike, à la E.T., perfectly complements the retro style.

Buy It: Hot Topic

9. Smartwool Socks; $22

Smartwool socks.
Smartwool

All of the socks from Smartwool are made from Merino wool—a material that keeps feet dry, warm, and odor-free without compromising softness. Their socks are perfect for outdoors as well as staying comfortable in your day-to-day life. If you know the person you’re shopping for well enough, you can fill out a quick survey with their preferences for length, thickness, and outdoor activities to find the best socks for them.

Buy It: Smartwool

10. Disney Villain Socks; $15

Disney villain socks.
Hot Topic

This is the gift for your one friend who shrugs off the classic Disney heroes and instead embraces the company's villainous side. These socks feature the faces of classic evildoers like Ursula, Cruella de Vil, and Maleficent, along with each villain’s catchphrase. Five pairs are included in a pack.

Buy It: Hot Topic

11. Dreidel Dog Socks; $8

Dreidel dog socks.
Amazon

Celebrate this Hanukkah by giving the gift of cuteness. These socks, featuring a delightful combination of puppies and dreidels, come in blue or black.

Buy It: Amazon

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12 Turkey Cooking Tips From Real Chefs

To get a turkey this beautiful, follow the tips below.
To get a turkey this beautiful, follow the tips below.
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to cooking a juicy, flavorful turkey, the nation's chefs aren’t afraid to fly in the face of tradition. Here are a few of their top suggestions worth trying this holiday season.

1. Buy a Fresh Turkey.

Most home cooks opt for a frozen turkey, but chef Sara Moulton recommends buying fresh. The reason: Muscle cells damaged by ice crystals lose fluid while the turkey thaws and roasts, making it easier to end up with a dried-out bird. For those who stick with a frozen turkey, make sure to properly thaw the bird—one day in the fridge for every 4-5 pounds.

2. Buy a Smaller Bird—or Two.

Idealizing the big, fat Thanksgiving turkey is a mistake, according to numerous chefs. Large birds take more time to cook, which can dry out the meat. Wolfgang Puck told Lifescript he won’t cook a bird larger than 16 pounds, while Travis Lett recommends going even smaller and cooking two or three 8-pound birds.

3. Brine That Turkey.


Manuta/iStock via Getty Images

Brining a turkey adds flavor, and it allows salt and sugar to seep deep into the meat, helping it retain moisture as the bird cooks. You can opt for a basic brine like the one chef Chris Shepherd recommends, which calls for one cup sugar, one cup salt, five gallons of water, and a three-day soak. Or, try something less traditional, like Michael Solomonov’s Mediterranean brine, which includes allspice, black cardamom, and dill seed. One challenge is finding a container big enough to hold a bird and all the liquid. Chef Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Girl and the Goat recommends using a Styrofoam cooler.

4. Or, Try a Dry Brine.

If the thought of dunking a turkey in five gallons of seasoned water doesn’t appeal to you, a dry brine could be the ticket. It’s essentially a meat rub that you spread over the bird and under the skin. Salt should be the base ingredient, and to that you can add dried herbs, pepper, citrus and other seasonings. Judy Rodgers, a chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Café before her death in 2013, shared this dry rub recipe with apples, rosemary, and sage. In addition to a shorter prep time, chefs say a dry brine makes for crispier skin and a nice, moist interior.

5. Bring the Turkey to Room Temperature First.

Don’t move your bird straight from the fridge to the oven. Let it sit out for two to three hours first. Doing this, according to Aaron London of Al’s Place in San Francisco, lets the bones adjust to room temperature so that when roasted, it "allows the bones to hold heat like little cinder blocks, cooking the turkey from the inside out."

6. Cut Up Your Turkey Before Cooking.

This might sound like sacrilege to traditional cooks and turkey lovers. But chefs insist it’s the only way to cook a full-size bird through and through without drying out the meat. Chef Marc Murphy, owner of Landmarc restaurants in New York, told the Times he roasts the breast and the legs separately, while chef R.B. Quinn prefers to cut his turkeys in half before cooking them. Bobby Flay, meanwhile, strikes a balance: "I roast the meat until the breasts are done, and then cut off the legs and thighs. The breasts can rest, and you can cook off the legs in the drippings left in the pan."

7. Cook the Stuffing on the Side of the Turkey.

A traditional stuffing side dish for Thanksgiving in a baking pan
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Many chefs these days advise against cooking stuffing inside the turkey. The reason? Salmonella. "With the stuffing being in the middle, a lot of blood drips into it and if everything in the middle doesn't come to temperature then you're at risk," chef Charles Gullo told the Chicago Tribune. TV host Alton Brown echoed this advice, and writes that it’s very difficult to bring the stuffing to a safe 165 degrees without overcooking the bird. (You can check out some more tips to prevent food poisoning on Thanksgiving here.)

8. Butter Up That Bird.

No matter if you’ve chosen a dry brine, a wet brine, or no brine at all, turkeys need a helping of butter spread around the outside and under the skin. Thomas Keller, founder of The French Laundry, recommends using clarified butter. "It helps the skin turn extra-crispy without getting scorched," he told Epicurious.

9. Use Two Thermometers.

A quality meat thermometer is a must, chefs say. When you use it, make sure to take the temperature in more than one spot on the bird, checking to see that it’s cooked to at least 165 degrees through and through. Also, says Diane Morgan, author of The New Thanksgiving Table, you should know the temperature of your oven, as a few degrees can make the difference between a well-cooked bird and one that’s over- or under-done.

10. Turn Up the Heat.

If you’ve properly brined your meat, you don't need to worry about high heat sucking the moisture out, chefs say. Keller likes to cook his turkey at a consistent 450 degrees. This allows the bird to cook quickly, and creates a crisp shell of reddish-brown skin. Ruth Reichl, the famed magazine editor and author, seconds this method, but warns that your oven needs to be squeaky clean, otherwise leftover particles could smoke up.

11. Baste Your Turkey—But Don't Overdo It.

Man basting a turkey
Image SourceiStock via Getty Images

Spreading juices over top the turkey would seem to add moisture, no? Not necessarily. According to chef Marc Vogel, basting breaks the caramelized coating that holds moisture in. The more you do it, the more time moisture has to seep out of the turkey. Also, opening the oven releases its heat, and requires several minutes to stabilize afterward. It's not really an either/or prospect, chefs agree. Best to aim somewhere in the middle: Baste every 30 minutes while roasting.

12. Let It Rest.

Allowing a turkey to rest after it’s cooked lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat. Most chefs recommend at least 30 minutes’ rest time. Famed chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsey lets his turkey rest for a couple hours. "It may seem like a long time, but the texture will be improved the longer you leave the turkey to rest," Ramsey told British lifestyle site Good to Know. "Piping hot gravy will restore the heat."

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