The Secret History Behind These Timeless Christmas Traditions
Most annual practices aren't as culturally enmeshed as you're think.
Christmas traditions can seem as old as the holiday itself—rituals that go back centuries, stuff that’s just “always been that way.” But, as it so happens, much of what you’d readily associate with the holiday actually happens to be part of a crop of relatively recent developments.
From the color scheme of Santa’s digs to the practice of hanging stockings to even the Christmas tree itself, here are the surprising backstories of some of the most familiar Christmas traditions.
Evergreen Christmas Trees
A number of influences brought about the modern Christmas tree. Evergreens had been used in winter festivals going back to the time of Ancient Romans, who decorated them with streamers and ribbons for a Saturnalia, a six-day festival celebrating the God of Wealth. The trees were then often used in religious Mystery Plays during the Middle Ages and became especially popular in Germany as a symbol of the holiday.
Elaborately decorating them became more widespread throughout the 19th century, helped by moments such as the publication of a photograph in 1848 of an illuminated tree at Windsor Castle, which caught the interest of Americans and Europeans who wanted to follow the royal trendsetters. As William D. Crump explains in The Christmas Encyclopedia, “At the turn of the twentieth century, only one in five families in the United States sported a Christmas tree; by 1930, the custom was almost universal.”
Christmas Tree Lots
One of the main reasons it took time for Christmas trees to catch on in the United States is that, unless you lived in a wooded area, getting access to the trees was a serious challenge. This began to change in 1851, when Mark Carr, a logger living in the Catskill Mountains, read about the growing interest in the trees and packed up 36 balsams.
As the story goes, he hauled them by steamboat to New York City, set up shop in the now-defunct downtown Washington Market, charged a dollar for each, and sold out quickly. Thus, the modern Christmas tree lot was born.
Letters to Santa
“It’s impossible to say who wrote the first Santa letter, but it was almost certainly from the mythical saint, not to him,” writes Alex Palmer, in his book The Santa Claus Man, about the history of Santa letters and a New York City con man who answered them. “From the earliest conception of Santa Claus in the United States, parents used the voice of St. Nicholas as a means of providing advice and encouraging good behavior in their children.”
He writes that most early references to Santa letters, during the first decades of the 19th century, describe the advice and counsels of the mythical character. Soon kids started writing back, placing their letters on the fireplace, and, after postal service became more widespread, through the mail. Newspapers would publish and answer letters as well as local charity groups before the post office eventually stepped in and took over the responsibility of doing Santa’s work.
One of the earliest description of St. Nicholas in the United States, in Washington Irving’s satirical A History of New York, describes him, “jollily among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites.”
But it would be 14 years later, when Clement Clarke Moore published his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), that would firm up the idea of Santa having a sleigh—and one driven by reindeer, at that.
The act of going house to house to greet someone during the holidays goes back to at least the 15th century, as “wassailers” would travel to different homes, wishing one another well. But it wasn’t really until the 19th century that singing holiday songs became part of the fun, with those in Victorian England merging traditional church carols with Christian folk music.
“At that time, it was far from a Christmas tradition; festivals like May Day were deemed worthy of caroling, too, but the repertoire as well as early records of this are pretty unclear,” according to Time. “In the 19th Century, as Christmas became more commercialized and popular, publishers began churning out anthologies of carols, many which were ancient hymns, also circulating them in broadsheets.”
Red and Green
Red and green have always been components of Christmas, but it was fairly recent that they became the defining brand colors. According to Arielle Eckstut, co-author of Secret Language of Color, this was due to holly and Coca-Cola. The former, dates back to Romans’ winter solstice celebrations, “And just those beautiful bright red berries and those deep green leaves are the exact colors that we really come to think about when we think about Christmas,” she told NPR.
But a wide range of colors would appear on Victorian Christmas cards (Santa himself would wear blue, gold, and even green robes). It was Coca-Cola’s massive marketing push, beginning in 1931, which featured a red-and-white Santa at its center, that helped lock in these colors, and as Eckstut puts it, “This particular shade of red and green came to signify Christmas.”
Jolly Saint Nick
Though Coca-Cola deserves some of the credit for setting red and green as the colors of Christmas, it’s not correct to give the company credit (as many still do) for inventing the modern Santa Claus. The character as we know him today came about through a number of important influences, in which Coca-Cola played a comparatively minor role.
Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” weaved together the playful parts of the character with his benevolent, more religious aspects, and gave him many of character traits that we know today, from his reindeer to round size. But it was Thomas Nast, the popular illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, who helped create an image of the enormous, jolly character making toys in his workshop, and largely defined the character for decades to come. Successors of Nast, such as Norman Rockwell, put the finishing touches on the figure. Finally, marketers—most notably Coca-Cola—helped the character become more deeply enmeshed in American culture.
Many elements of modern Christmas are updated (or Christianized) takes on pagan traditions, with the “heathen” associations stripped away or papered over. Mistletoe is one of these. The stuff is associated with fertility and vitality going back centuries, due in no small part to the fact that it blossomed even during the coldest seasons.
“Just how it made the jump from sacred herb to holiday decoration remains up for debate, but the kissing tradition appears to have first caught on among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes,” Evan Andrews describes for History.com. Holiday revelers would pluck a single berry from the mistletoe, kissing each time until the berries were gone. A better known tradition became that men would be “allowed” to smooch a woman caught standing under the mistletoe. It should go without saying, though, that if you’re at a holiday party this season, you should do no such thing.
This is widely believed to have grown out of a European tradition of children leaving shoes with hay inside them outside their homes on St. Nicholas Day (December 5). St. Nicholas would take the hay for his donkey and replace it with coins or small treats for the kids to discover the next day. This is believed to have grown out of a story of St. Nick saving a trio of daughters from a life of sex work by paying their dowries—dropping gold balls down the chimney so they would land into the stockings that were hanging by the fire to dry.
By 1823, Moore wrote in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” of how the jolly saint “fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.” The use of stockings really took off in the late 1800s, as “a variety of stocking especially designed for the reception of Christmas gifts” was introduced. According to the New York Times, they were larger and more decorative than something a person would actually wear, which made the fireplace far more festive, and ensured the tradition would continue to today.
During the early 19th century, trees would usually be decorated with household items like apples and cookies, then paper ornaments and dolls. Retailers like FW Woolworth and his Five and Dime Shops helped popularize store-bought (and inexpensive) glass ornaments, often sourced from German factories where they were created by hand. To illuminate the trees, candles were the go-to option for decades, despite the fact that they would often cause fires.
By the turn of the 20th century, small lanterns and glass balls that could hold the candles became more widely available and affordable. Electric Christmas lights (first invented by Thomas Edison associate Edward H. Johnson) would follow suit, soon becoming the tree decoration of choice. And if you want to make your tree stand out among the rest, check out these 20 Genius Tricks for Making Your Christmas Tree the Envy of the Block.
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