The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

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 as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
arlutz73/iStock via 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, one in five 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

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

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

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

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 that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
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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 for toasting.

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

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.

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were now free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here's what you should know about the historic event and celebration.

1. Enslaved people had already been emancipated—they just didn’t know it.

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. So technically, from the Union's perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.

2. There are many theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

News traveled slowly back in those days—it took Confederate soldiers in western Texas more than two months to hear that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Still, some have struggled to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom, leading to speculation that some Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories include that the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or that the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. But the real reason is probably that Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war.

3. The announcement actually urged freedmen and freedwomen to stay with their former owners.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, said:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

4. What followed was known as “the scatter.”


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Most freedpeople weren't terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as "the scatter,," when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

5. Not all enslaved people were freed instantly.

Texas is a large state, and General Granger's order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. Freedom created other problems.

Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners weren't too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freedpeople tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. "They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them," a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.

7. There were limited options for celebrating.

A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
2C2KPhotography, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When freedpeople tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed "Emancipation Park." It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

8. Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades.

It wasn't because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom—but, as Slate so eloquently put it, "it's difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides." Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People's March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

9. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Texas deemed the holiday worthy of statewide recognition in 1980, becoming the first state to do so.

10. Juneteeth is still not a federal holiday.

Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it's still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn't pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.

11. The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

a mock-up of the Juneteenth flag
iStock

Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting "new star" on the "horizon" of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

12. Juneteenth traditions vary across the U.S.

As the tradition of Juneteenth spread across the U.S., different localities put different spins on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with oral histories and readings, "red soda water" or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Some states serve up Marcus Garvey salad with red, green, and black beans, in honor of the black nationalist. Rodeos have become part of the tradition in the southwest, while contests, concerts, and parades are a common theme across the country.