The origins of Christmas traditions

Traditions have a long, and often unexpected, history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 5:48pm

As we teeter on a chair to put the star on the top of the tree, or get up bleary-eyed to start the turkey at five in the morning on Christmas Day, let's pause for a moment, grab another chocolate Santa to nibble on, and find out how all these Christmas traditions came about.

The date

Christmas was assigned to December 25 in Roman times, as a way to entice the pagans who were already enjoying the Roman holiday of Saturnalia - a week of living it up that ran from December 17-23 - to convert to Christianity. The date became officially recognised as Christmas Day, the birthday of Jesus Christ.

Once the Christians had nabbed December 25, it seems like they had to compromise a bit, as everyone wanted to carry on celebrating the week-long holiday as before, by indulging in sexual depravity, and running naked through the streets.

The tree

The Christmas tree is usually a pine or fir tree, and this tradition can be traced as far back as 16th century Germany. Some take it even further, saying that pagans used to worship trees, so again the Christians used this as a way to entice them into their religion. Early trees were decorated with edibles such as dates, nuts and apples, and later with candles, which were the first form of illumination.

This tradition continues in northern Europe, but has been largely replaced in other European cultures - and in Hong Kong - with strings of electric lights. Decorations include baubles, tinsel, baked ornaments, and an angel or a star perched on the top of the tree, which signifies the star of Bethlehem.

Natural trees are beautiful, although there is concern over how environmentally sustainable they are. Many pull out a plastic tree from the box that's been stuck on top of the wardrobe all year.

Santa Claus

Santa is based on St Nicholas, an early bishop with a cult following, whose bones were brought to Italy. He also fills up children's slippers with goodies in Germany and elsewhere on December 6.

But Santa Claus (the name comes from Sinterklaas, which is what the Dutch call him), the rotund, jolly, red-faced, red-cloaked, white-bearded globetrotter with reindeer and elves at the North Pole, is a more recent phenomenon.

He was helped along the way by a 19th-century cartoonist, and then - of all things - Coca-Cola advertisements back in the 1930s. That is when the image of Father Christmas that we know today was established. So if anyone complains about the commercialisation of Christmas, you can annoy them by telling them that Santa Claus was originally a commercial.

The meal

Many countries celebrate Christmas with a turkey, which is usually roasted. The traditional Western European meal is a roast turkey with stuffing, mashed/roasted potatoes, and vegetables. Prior to the turkey being introduced to Western Europe, people would eat goose or cockerel, and even peacock and swan, if they were wealthy.


Usually containing a silly joke, paper hat and small toy or puzzle, crackers were invented by London sweet shop owner Tom Smith in 1847. Smith's "Bangs of Expectation" included the trinket and the bang that we are familiar with today. Crackers would have made children in Western Europe in the '60s and '70s familiar with plastic toys that were "Made in Hong Kong".


Kissing under a sprig of mistletoe can be a fun and romantic thing to do with one's significant other, or a horrifyingly embarrassing thing to do with a boss or colleague when drunk at an office party. The custom is said to be of Scandinavian origin. Mistletoe itself has a dark cultural history: in Norse mythology, the mischievous god Loki used it to kill Balder, the god of truth.


The origins of this lead back to St Nicholas, who inspired some 12th-century French nuns to fill stockings with fruit, nuts and other items, and give them to the poor. They included a tangerine, which would have been a very exotic and expensive item in those days.

Today, oranges, tangerines, and satsumas, which all have orange skins, still feature as stocking fillers.


The use of tinsel goes back many more years than you might expect. Today, it's made of plastic, and it comes in myriad colours. But back in the 16th century, tinsel was made from silver alloy, which was cut into strips and hammered into thin bits. That took a lot of effort. Baubles were originally fruit.

Greeting cards

Christmas cards have always been a way to catch up with friends and relatives. The man who established this tradition was civil servant and inventor Henry Cole, who was in charge of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

He sent the world's first commercially produced Christmas card in 1843 - he didn't have time to write letters, so he got a printer to produce a stack of cards with a festive picture on the front and a greeting inside. Today, more people are using e-cards, so the postman's toil is considerably less than it was.

Mulled wine

Guess what, it's those Victorians again. Some of the Christmas traditions that we know today became commonplace in the Victorian era. The Victorians were not the first to give presents, but they certainly hyped it up, much to the consternation of church leaders, who felt Christmas was becoming about greed.

Mulled wine, in both alcoholic, and non-alcoholic versions, became a welcome winter warmer around this time. Usually made of red wine served hot with spices, raisins, cinnamon, vanilla pods, it's drunk at Christmas and Halloween.


A dense pudding originally made with suet and served with custard or brandy butter that can be a bit heavy after Christmas fare. Traditionally, it has a good dose of brandy poured on top, and hides a piece of old British currency called a sixpenny bit. Since Britain's decimalisation got rid of the sixpence, a 10 pence piece has been used.

Christmas pud is also known as plum pudding, although usually doesn't have any plums in it. It originated in the 14th century, when it included meat along with fruit and raisins. The meat component disappeared after a few hundred years.


These were originally songs of praise to celebrate the Winter Solstice. But they have become songs sung by choirs in churches, and by well-wishing visitors to your door, who are often raising money for charity. In which case, you have to stand there smiling politely until they've finished singing.