The Origins of Our Christmas Traditions

It’s time for my favorite holiday of the year! I absolutely love Christmas, as my past blog posts about the holiday might have indicated. I love Christmas trees, I love gift-giving, I love getting together with family to celebrate the holiday. Which is why it surprised me to realize that as long as I have been doing this, I have never written about where our most popular Christmas traditions came from. Well, let’s fix that.

Where did Christmas trees come from?

Winters in Europe, especially northern Europe, tend to be cold and snowy. This should come as a surprise to nobody. Having said that, one thing that anybody who lives in a place that gets snowy, cold winters can tell you is that, after a while, you come to miss the warmth and greenery of spring, and can’t wait for it to arrive. So, ancient Europeans would take the boughs off of pine trees and use them as evergreen decorations in their homes.

According to legend, though, it was Martin Luther that came up with the modern idea of the Christmas tree. The story goes that as the man who kick-started the Protestant Reformation was wandering through the piney woods in Germany on route to an important sermon, he looked up and saw the night sky shining through between the trees, and it reminded him of the wonder of God’s creation. This inspired him to bring a pine tree into his own living room and decorate it with lit candles so his family could see what he saw.

Seems pretty dangerous to me…

Christmas trees were brought to America by German immigrants in the 19th century. However, they didn’t become popular until something happened across the pond in England. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German prince, and the two of them adopted the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in Buckingham Palace, and that popularized the practice across the British Empire, which helped it to become popular in America as well.

A little side-note: the ancient European practice of decorating with pine branches in the winter may also have combined with the ancient Roman practice of putting wreaths on the door to celebrate an important victory to give us the Christmas wreath, though it may also have originated as a variation of another German tradition, the Advent wreath. This is a wreath laid on a table or mantle with four candles sticking out of it. The idea is that each week, as you count down to Christmas, you light one of the candles. On Christmas Eve, you put a bigger candle in the middle of the wreath and light it to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Why do we give gifts on Christmas?

I have mentioned this before on this blog, but the early Christian church liked to time Christian festivals to occur right around the same time as pre-Christian pagan festivals so that converts to the faith would have an easier time adjusting to their new religion. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival honoring Saturn (hence the name). One of the most important aspects of Saturnalia was the exchange of gifts. Children would get toys, while adults would get everything from clothes to tools to books, just like today. Sometimes, these gifts would be accompanied by poems, sort of like a modern greeting card.

Showing love for those you care about by giving something of yourself is exactly the sort of thing that is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, so it seems like incorporating gift-giving as a part of the celebration of Christmas was a natural move for the early church to make.

What is up with mistletoe?

This parasitic vine was believed by the ancient Druids to have magic anti-evil-spirit powers, and was widely used in pagan Britain as a decoration for that reason. Early Christian missionaries tried to ban the practice, but failed, as the plant was just so popular and so important to British culture. In medieval England, it was a common practice for young lovers to kiss under a mistletoe plant and pick a berry from it. The idea was that once the last berry was picked, you couldn’t kiss under the plant anymore. It was also once common to burn mistletoe after Christmas was over as a way to ward off Satan in the new year. Although ceremonies using mistletoe got far less elaborate over time, the practice of hanging the plant from the ceiling during Christmastime has managed to survive to this day.

Why do we eat candy canes?

By contrast, the practice of eating candy canes is a far more recent tradition, only dating back to the mid-18th century. Originally all-white, the red stripes were added in the early 20th century to symbolize their peppermint flavor. Many have attempted to assign a religious significance to their shape – either that it is in the shape of a shepherd’s cane in honor of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in the manger, of that it is in the shape of a “J” for Jesus – though all of these meanings were later additions. It seems likely the first candy cane makers just liked the shape and thought it was festive.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the origins of some of our most popular Christmas traditions. At last. Check that one off the list!