13 Christmas Traditions With Origins You Won't Believe Are True
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but who decided what Christmas looks like in the first place? Who's bright idea was it to chop down a tree and prop it up in the living room? Who decided mistletoe was a good excuse to smooch?
We needed answers, so we found them. These Christmas tradition origins are way more entertaining than we expected.
The exact origins of Christmas pickles are a little hazy. In case you missed this tradition altogether, it's an American Christmas tradition that usually works like this. On Christmas Eve, parents hide a green pickle ornament among the rest. The first child to spot the pickle wins the privilege of opening the first gift Christmas morning.
The tradition stemmed from an advertising tactic by the Woolworth's company in the late 1800s. They imported ornaments from Germany, and upon receiving some unusual pickle-shaped ornaments, they had to dream up a gimmick to sell them. Even if Christmas pickles started as a money-making scheme, it's turned into a memorable tradition.
Yule logs come in a couple of different forms. A yule log can either be an actual fire log or a cake shaped like one. Either way, the practice was born in ancient Norway, which, as you might know, is absolutely frigid in winter months. Winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, with warmer days to come. Back then, the Norse believed the sun was a wheel of fire that rolled toward and away from the Earth. The yule log symbolized the joyous return of the sun.
It used to be a whole tree that was slowly burned over 12 days, but that wasn't the most practical tradition to adopt. Americans made their own spin on the tradition in 1966 when a New York news station broadcasted a loop of a fireplace for three hours with Christmas music playing in the background. The tradition was continued ever since.
Baked yule logs made of chocolate cake are an even tastier tradition. The key to making a good one is not to overcook the cake so that it doesn't crack when it's rolled up.
Would you believe that candy canes weren't originally cane-shaped at all? They started out as candy sticks at an exhibition in Massachusetts in 1837. They were plain white, but red stripes were added a few years later. They weren't called candy canes until 1866, and they had no association with Christmas until the 1870s. That's when people started flavoring them with peppermint and wintergreen, whereas before, they just tasted like sugar.
They were popularized as a Christmas treat in the 1920s by Bob McCormack, a candy maker who started his own business. His brother-in-law invented a machine to curve the candy canes during production, and the rest is history. They remain the most popular Christmas candy other than chocolate.
Red and Green
The origins of the official colors of Christmas, red and green, are mostly botanical. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was celebrated around the same time of year. To decorate, the Romans lit candles and hung boughs of evergreen plants, including pine, ivy, holly and mistletoe.
These festive plants symbolized the eventual return of spring and represented good luck for the new year. The green branches and red berries were later used in Christmas celebrations in Europe.
Aside from Christmas trees, poinsettia flowers are the most recognizable living symbols of the holiday season. It wasn't always that way, however. The plants are native to Central America, and they didn't arrive in the United States until a botanist, America's first ambassador to Mexico, brought them back in the 1820s. His name was Joel Roberts Poinsett, giving the plant its American name. In other cultures, they're known as the Easter flower, the flame leaf flower and even the lobster flower.
They didn't become a widespread tradition until a century later when a horticulturist from California donated poinsettias to TV stations. By the 1980s, they were among the most popular potted plants sold in the U.S.
Christmas trees have a similar origin story to the colors of Christmas. Even before the rise of Christianity, evergreen plants were treasured in the winter months. They symbolized life, vitality, health and protection from evil. People decorated their homes with boughs from ever \green trees for centuries, but the Germans' Christmas tradition of bringing entire trees inside didn't start until the 1500s. It was then that Christians began decorating indoor trees.
Many believe the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther was responsible for adding candles to the trees to represent stars. Whoever came up with that idea, we're relieved we now have electric lights on our trees instead of festive fire hazards.
Mistletoe was a Celtic tradition before it was ever a Christmas one. The notes of romance come from the mistletoe's ability to bloom even during icy winters. The Druids saw that as a symbol of life and fertility, inspiring couples to kiss under it.
Funnily enough, the plant is actually parasitic, stealing nutrients from the trees it grows on. We're going to pretend we don't know that when we hang a bundle up this year.
The tradition of Christmas stockings comes from the legend of St. Nicholas. As the story goes, a nobleman lost his fortune while he mourned the tragic loss of his beloved wife. He and his three daughters were living in poverty, and the young women couldn't get married without dowries to offer. St. Nicholas tossed pouches of gold coins down the chimney, falling into the stockings that were hung up by the fire to dry.
Whether or not the story is true, it became firmly cemented in the culture of Christmas. Dutch children used to leave wooden clogs by the fire with an offering of straw for Santa's reindeer. According to tradition, an orange left in one's stocking symbolizes the gold left by St. Nick, while an apple means the recipient has been on their best behavior all year. And, of course, everyone knows what coal means.
Queen Elizabeth I was known for decorating gingerbread cookies around Christmas time, but gingerbread houses are really a German Christmas tradition from the 1800s. It became popular after "Hansel and Gretel" was published in 1812.
Despite the story's rather grim plot, the practice of decorating spiced biscuits shaped like houses took off. Buying prepackaged kits is a lot easier, but handmade gingerbread houses can become more like works of art than childish decorations.
'The Nutcracker' Ballet
The origins of "The Nutcracker" aren't mysterious, but many of us buy tickets to the ballet without knowing how the tradition began. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the score in the late 1800s, and it was first choreographed and performed in December 1892 in Tchaikovsky's native city of St. Petersburg, Russia.
It made its way to England in 1934 and, to the U.S., in 1944, where it was performed by the San Francisco ballet. The ballet's whimsical setting and storyline captured the hearts of Christmas revelers across the country, and by the 1960s, it was an annual family tradition.
Ugly Christmas Sweaters
Thank the Canadians for this goofy Christmas tradition. It's been a thing in Canada since the 1980s, but it really took off as a party theme in Vancouver in the early 2000s.
Now, it's a multimillion-dollar business, with sites like Tipsy Elves offering a variety of unappealing options for merrymakers to pick from.
Leaving Cookies and Milk for Santa
The tradition of whipping up a batch of Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies and setting it out for Santa with a big glass of milk is completely an American Christmas tradition. It began in the 1930s in the middle of the Great Depression.
Parents were trying to put on a brave face and teach a deep lesson: that showing gratitude for what we have is important, even if we don't have much. Every Christmas gift was treasured, and nearly a century later, the tradition has held out.
If there's any Christmas tradition that should be outlawed, it's eggnog. The sinfully scrumptious beverage combines eggs, cream, sugar, spices and often rum, and who really just has half a cup of the stuff? Top it off with whipped cream and worry about New Year's resolutions later because people have been all over this tradition since the 13th century.
It likely originated in Britain during medieval times. "Posset" was a popular beverage made with milk, eggs and sherry. These were foods only the wealthy had access to, so eggnog came to symbolize wealth and good fortune. Rum replaced sherry when American colonists continued the tradition, as rum was cheaper. George Washington also had a favorite recipe if you want to give it a try.
Pro-tip: Try making it yourself if you've only tried the store-bought version. It's not even close to the same thing.
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