was the first Christmas card sent? Why do decorate trees? The
origins of our favorite Christmas traditions have evolved over
decades and even centuries.
The Christmas season is far more rich in festivities and rituals than any
other tie of year. And every family celebrates differently.
There are lots of Christmas traditions that are practiced by a number of
countries all over the world during the holiday season. These
traditions can be as diverse as the culture and religious
practices of each and every country in the world.
Here, we take a look at the origins of some of the most popular
traditions, especially in America.
The Christmas Tree
In 16th-century Germany fir trees were decorated,
both indoors and out, with apples, roses, gilded candies, and
colored paper. The first reference of a fir tree decorated for
Christmas is at Riga in Latvia in 1510. In 1521, the Princess
Helene de Mecklembourg introduced the Christmas tree to
Paris after marrying the Duke of Orleans. There also is a
printed reference to Christmas trees in Germany, dated 1531.
Another famous reference, to 1601, is about a visitor to
Strasbourg, Germany (now part of France) who noticed a family
decorating a tree with "wafers and golden sugar-twists (barley
sugar) and paper flowers of all colors."
were used first in church plays at Christmas and were hung with
apples to symbolize a Paradise tree.
The Christmas tree was introduced to the United States by
German settlers and by Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the
Revolutionary War. In 1804, US soldiers stationed at Fort
Dearborn (Chicago) hauled trees from surrounding woods to their
The Christmas Tree was brought to England by Queen
Victoria's husband, Prince Albert from his native
The above famous Illustrated News etching
in 1848, featuring the Royal Family of Victoria, Albert and
their children gathered around a Christmas tree in Windsor
Castle, popularized the tree throughout Victorian England.
The custom of the Christmas tree spread quickly to the middle class, to
working people, and throughout the colonies. Brought to America
by the Pennsylvania Germans, the Christmas tree became popular
by the late 19th century.
Lighting and Decorations
Christmas tree originated in the upper Rhine region of Germany
and quickly spread to other parts of the world. The tree was
decorated with small candles, which lighted up the tree and also
made a very pretty sight.
This tradition of lighting up the tree with candles dates back to the
middle of the seventeenth century. From Germany, it caught the
fancy of East Europeans. Today, the whole world decorates
Christmas trees with lights and other decorative items.
Earliest Christmas tree lights were tiny candles fixed to
the tree branches with melted wax or pinned. Martin Luther
(1483 - 1546) is said to be the first to have decorated a
Christmas tree with candles to show children how the stars
twinkled through the dark night.
In the 1850s, German company Lauscha, based in Thuringia, began to produce
shaped glass bead garlands for Christmas trees. They also
introduced the Rauschgoldengel, the Tingled-angel, dressed in
pure gilded tin. The glass ornaments reached Britain in the
1870s, and North America around 1880.
Somewhere near 1880 candleholders were used. In 1882, ornaments were
complimented by electric Christmas lights. Edward Johnson,
a colleague of Thomas Edison, lit a Christmas tree with a
string of 80 small electric light bulbs which he had made
himself. By 1890, the Christmas light strings were
mass-produced. By 1900, stores put up large illuminated trees to
lure the customers. Small lanterns and glass balls to hold the
candles became popular between 1902 and 1914.
Christmas lights are also known as fairy lights or twinkle
lights. The small bulbs have different sizes and colors and can
have various shapes. The Christmas tree is now put up and
decorated around Thanksgiving and, in some cases, left up well
beyond Christmas day. Many family ornaments and lights are
handed down through generations.
Holly & Ivy
One of the most popular
Christmastime accoutrements, holly, has sharp edges, symbolic of
the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. The red
berries represent blood.
The evergreen English holly (Ilex aquifolium), the common holly of Europe,
cultivated also in North America, is closely associated with
Christmas tradition and has become one of the most popular
In Scandinavia it is known as the Christ Thorn.
Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows. This reminds
us that we need to cling to God for support in our lives.
In Germany, it is traditional that Ivy is only used outside and a piece
tied to the outside of a Church was supposed to protect it from
Mistletoe is a plant that grows on a range of trees including
willow, apple and oak trees. The tradition of hanging it in the
house goes back to the times of the ancient Druids. It was
supposed to possess mystical powers which bring good luck to the
household and wards off evil spirits. It was also used as a sign
of love and friendship in Norse mythology and that's where the
custom of kissing under Mistletoe comes from.
When the first Christians came to Western Europe, some tried to ban the
use of mistletoe as a decoration in churches, but many still
continued to use it! York Minster Church in the UK used to hold
a special mistletoe service in the winter, where wrong doers in
the city of York could come and be pardoned.
The custom of kissing under mistletoe comes from England. The original
custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of mistletoe
before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had
gone, there could be no more kissing!
The name mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words 'Mistel' (which means
dung) and 'tan' (which means) twig or stick!
The Yule Log
The word yule meant "infant" in the language of the Chaldeans,
who lived in the Middle East. The Germanic tribes of Northern
Europe, including the Anglo Saxons, celebrated "Yule-day" or
"Child's Day." The custom of the Yule log has been noted in
France and Italy as far back as the 1200s. It later spread
throughout Europe. On Christmas Eve, an enormous log would be
cut and placed in the hearth. The log would be sprinkled with
salt, oil, and mulled wine, and prayers said to protect the
house from the Devil and lightning.
In some regions, the daughters of the family lit the log with splinters
of the previous year's log. In other regions, the lady of the
house had the honor of lighting the log.
As iron stoves replaced giant hearths in the 1800s, Yule logs became
decorative, often being used as Christmas centerpieces and
decorated with evergreens and candles. Cooks began creating
pastry Yule logs, rolled cakes covered in chocolate or coffee
and decorated with sugared holly and roses.
Many find comfort by going to YouTube and watching a video of a Yule Log
burning for hours.
people, Christmas carols are synonymous with the holiday season
and can invoke the spirit of Christmas in even the most
Scrooge-like individuals. Originally, carols were religious
hymns written about the birth of Christ and the nativity.
Beginning with St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), carols
were sung in church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The oldest printed collection of Christmas carols was
published in 1521 by Englishman Jan van Wynkyn.
In recent history, carols have come to encompass not only the
nativity, but the Christmas season, and secular holiday
traditions, including reindeer, snowmen, Santa Claus, and
A few radio stations in every market completely alter their
regular format starting at Thanksgiving and play nothing but
Christmas and holiday songs through Christmas day. In Atlanta,
104.7 The Fish has been doing just that for years.
For Our Feature Story on "The Origins of 35 of
Your Favorite Christmas Classics."
patron saint of children and sailors, Saint Nicholas was
a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor. He was famous for
giving gifts to children. His feast day, December 6, became a
children's holiday in Holland, where he is known as Sint
Nikolaas. English colonists in New York (previously the Dutch
colony of New Amsterdam) called him "Santa Claus" because they
couldn't pronounce the Dutch name. The English began celebrating
the feast day on Christmas.
In the Netherlands and Germany, the Santa Claus figure often
rode through the sky on a horse to deliver presents to children.
The Santa Claus we all know and love - that big, jolly man in
the red suit with a white beard - didn't always look that way.
In fact, many people are surprised to learn that prior to 1931,
Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a
spooky-looking elf. He has donned a bishop's robe and a Norse
huntsman's animal skin. In fact, when Civil War cartoonist
Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly in 1862,
Santa was a small elflike figure who supported the Union. Nast
continued to draw Santa for 30 years, changing the color of his
coat from tan to the red he's known for today.
In 1931 the company began placing Coca-Cola ads in popular
magazines. Archie Lee, the D'Arcy Advertising Agency
executive working with Coke, wanted the campaign to show a
wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. So
Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon
Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus -
showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa.
For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's
1822 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly called
"'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). Moore's description of
St. Nick led to an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump
and human Santa. (And even though it's often said that Santa
wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa
appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.)
Our thanks to Coca-Cola for part of that research.
According to legend, a
kindly nobleman grew despondent over the death of his beloved
wife and foolishly squandered his fortune. This left his three
young daughters without dowries and thus facing a life of
The generous St. Nicholas, hearing of the girls' plight, set forth
to help. Wishing to remain anonymous, he rode his white horse by
the nobleman's house and threw three small pouches of gold coins
down the chimney where they were fortuitously captured by the
stockings the young women had hung by the fireplace to dry.
This led to the custom of children hanging
stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from
Saint Nick. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead
of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes
represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.
And so, St. Nicholas is a gift-giver. This is also the origin of
three gold balls being used as a symbol for pawnbrokers.
of bells had their origin in the pagan winter festivals and
celebrations. It was believed that the noise would drive away
the evil spirits. But using the bell just to ward off the evil
was not enough, later the bells started being used for other
purposes as well.
Tolling of bells by and large signifies any event, good or bad. Bells are
rung to announce to the world the birth of Jesus.
Bells are a vital part of any church either in the villages or in the
urban area. The young children of the olden times thought making
a noise was part of celebrating the birth of Christ. Using the
bells for merry making was an idea that caught on with the
Musical instruments were not affordable to many and Christmas bells made
the perfect substitute. Further, the bells could be taken with
the people to the church, they could be used for carols. Such
advantages made the bells popular quite quickly. Tolling of the
church bells informed the people of any event in the
native Mexican plant, poinsettias were named after Joel R.
Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico who brought the plant to
America in 1828. Poinsettias were likely used by Mexican
Franciscans in their 17th century Christmas celebrations.
One legend has it that a young Mexican boy, on his way to visit the
village Nativity scene, realized he had no gift for the Christ
child. He gathered pretty green branches from along the road and
brought them to the church. Though the other children mocked
him. His cousin Pedro tried to
cheer her up. 'Pepita', he said "I'm sure that even the smallest
gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy."
the leaves were laid at the manger, a beautiful star-shaped
flower appeared on each branch. The bright red petals, often
mistaken for flowers, are actually the upper leaves of the
From that day on, the bright
red flowers were known as the 'Flores de Noche Buena', or
'Flowers of the Holy Night'.
Poinsett was the first Ambassador from the
USA to Mexico in 1825. He had some greenhouses on his
plantations in South Carolina, and while visiting the Taco area
in 1828, he became very interested in the plants and sent some
back to South Carolina, where he began growing and sending them
to friends and botanical gardens.
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought as a
symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus.
The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white
leaves represent his purity. The Poinsettia is also the national
emblem of Madagascar.
Even though the Christmas
holiday is celebrated around the world, by many diverse people
groups and in various ways, there are some traditions that are
For instance, Americans tend to watch movies and special programs around
the Christmas holiday time. These special shows provide a chance
to relax and get in a holiday mood during what can be a
stressful time of year.
Lately, The Hallmark Channel has shown nothing but Christmas films for
the last three months of the year and actually has a
Christmas in July promotion showing them non stop for a few
weeks in summer. No thanks on that!
Some of the
favorites include "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Director
Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Christmas
Story," "Home Alone," "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty
the Snowman," "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," "Elf" and
"A Miracle on 34th Street." In addition to these older
films, Hollywood usually opens blockbuster films during this
time of year with hopes that Americans will be in the mood to go
to the movies. As you plan your holiday schedule, keep watching
these great movies, enjoy fire-side chatting, and continue
first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John
Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843
The custom of
sending Christmas cards started in Victorian England. Earlier,
some adults had written Christmas letters. But letters took time
to write; and people wanting to share season's greetings with
many others had a daunting task.
In 1843, British businessman Sir Henry Cole asked
artist John Calcott Horsley to print some Christmas
cards. One thousand cards were printed in black and white and
then colored by hand. The cards, which depicted a happy family
raising a toast to the recipient, were criticized for promoting
drunkenness. They sold them for the equivalent of a nickel
Christmas Cards appeared in the United States of America in the late
1840s, but were very expensive and most people couldn't afford
them. In 1851 Richard Pease, a variety store owner,
commissioned the first printed Christmas card in the U.S.
London printers Charles Goodall & Sons became the first to
mass-produce Christmas cards. In 1862 they created cards saying
"A Merry Christmas." Later, they designed cards with various
designs, including robins, holly, mangers, snowmen, and even
Little Red Riding Hood.
As printing methods improved, Christmas cards became much more popular
and were produced in large numbers. In 1870 the cost of sending
a post card, and also Christmas cards, dropped to half a penny.
This meant even more people were able to send cards.
It 1875, Louis Prang, a printer who was originally from
German but who had also worked on early cards in the UK, started
mass producing cards so more people could afford to buy them. Mr
Prang's first cards featured flowers, plants, and children. In
1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created
Hallmark Cards, who are still one of the biggest card makers
In the 1910s and 1920s, homemade cards became popular. They were often
unusual shapes and had things such as foil and ribbon on them.
These were usually too delicate to send through the post and
were given by hand.
The industry has grown to over $7 billion a year. But, that's
been on the decline. In the five years preceding 2013, US
greeting cards revenue fell 5% as customers shifted to digital.
Christmas Candy Canes
Candy Cane originated in Germany about 250 years ago. They
started as straight white sugar sticks.
A story says that a choirmaster, in 1670, was worried about the children
sitting quietly all through the long Christmas nativity service.
So he gave them something to eat to keep them quiet! As he
wanted to remind them of Christmas, he made them into a 'J'
shape like a shepherds crook, to remind them of the shepherds
that visited the baby Jesus at the first Christmas.
However, the earliest records of 'candy canes' come from over 200 years
later, so the story, although rather nice, probably isn't true!
The use of candy canes on Christmas trees made its way to America by the
Sometime around 1900 the red stripes were added and they were flavored
with peppermint or wintergreen.
Sometimes other Christian meanings are giving to the parts of the canes.
The 'J' can also mean Jesus. The white of the cane can represent
the purity of Jesus and the red stripes are for the blood he
shed when he died on the cross. The peppermint flavor can
represent the hyssop plant that was used for purifying in the
Around 1920, Bob McCormack, from Georgia, started making canes for
his friends and family. They became more and more popular and he
started his own business called Bob's Candies. Bob McCormack's
brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, who was a
Catholic priest, invented the Keller Machine that made turning
straight candy sticks into curved candy canes automatic! In
2005, Bob's Candies was bought by Farley and Sathers but they
still make candy canes!
Wreaths have been used as a decorative
sign of Christmas for hundreds and hundreds of years. Christmas
wreaths can adorn any part of your home, inside or out. In many
homes, this symbol of growth and everlasting life can be found
both inside and out. It is common to find a number of wreaths on
doors, over the mantle, or hung in windows.
The wreath is made of evergreens, most often pine branches or holly. They
can be real or artificial. But, an artificial one just doesn't
smell the same as a real wreath. It is decorated wit a variety
of items including pine cones, holly berries, fruits, and just
about anything you can imagine.
The wreath has significant meaning for the season. It's circular shape
represents eternity, for it has no beginning and no end. From a
Christian religious perspective, it represents an unending
circle of life. The evergreen, most frequently used in making
wreathes, symbolizes growth and everlasting life.
Holly branches have thorns. When used in a wreath it represents the thorn
on Jesus' crown when he was crucified. Bright red holly berries
symbolize Jesus' blood that was shed for us.
Today, it is sometimes hard to remember the real meaning of Christmas. We
get all caught up in the hype of Santa and his arrival. The
wreath over the hearth brings a warmth to our hearts as we stop
to reflect upon the true meaning of this very special day.
One of the main reasons we
have the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas,
is to remind us of the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men:
Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh.
Frankincense was a perfume used in Jewish worship and, as a gift, it
showed that people would worship Jesus.
Gold was associated with Kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the
King of Kings.
Myrrh was a perfume that was put on dead bodies to make them smell nice
and, as a gift, it showed that Jesus would suffer and die.
Christmas itself is really about a big present that God gave the world
about 2000 years ago - Jesus! One of the most famous Bible
verses, John 3:16, says: 'God loved the world so much, that he
gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may
not be lost but have eternal life.'.
All over the world, families and friends give presents to each other.
Most children around the world believe in a Christmas gift
bringer. It's often St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father
Christmas. In Germany they believe that it is the Christkind, in
Spain they believe it is the Wise Men and in Italy they believe
it is an old lady called Befana.
These presents are also left in different places! In most of Europe, the
presents are left in shoes or boots put out by the children. In
Italy, the UK and the USA presents are left in stockings, often
left hanging by a fire place. In many countries, presents for
friends and family may be left under the Christmas Tree. In the
UK, they are often opened on Christmas day morning with all the
Presents are opened on different days over the world as well. The
earliest presents are opened is on St. Nicholas' Eve on December
5th when children in Holland of ten receive their presents. On
St. Nicholas' Day (6th December) children in Belgium, Germany,
Czech Republic and some other European countries open some of
Children in the UK, USA and many other countries, such as Japan, open
their presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, December 25th.
The latest presents are opened on January 6th (a month after the
earliest). This is known as Epiphany and is mainly celebrated in
Catholic countries such Spain and Mexico.
One popular way of giving presents in groups such as clubs, school
classes and workplaces is to have a 'Secret Santa'. This is
where you pull the name of someone else in the group out of a
hat (or other container!). You then buy a present for that
person. When the presents are given out (often at a Christmas
party) each person is given their present but they have no idea
which person in the group bought it for them!