The Surprising Origins of 5 Popular Christmas Traditions

There are a multitude of fun holiday customs that we have inherited from the generations before us. Have you ever wondered where some of these customs originated from? How did they evolve to be universally accepted Christmas traditions and when did they start? Here is the scoop on some of our most beloved traditions during this festive time of year. Hopefully, this additional background information will help you to see these traditions in a new light so you can better appreciate and enjoy them this year. Or at least, you can have more to talk about over Christmas dinner than the latest gossip from aunt Harriet’s bridge club.  

December 25th

The official day to celebrate Christ’s birth actually started out as the pagan holiday Saturnalia. This celebration was in honor of the pagan god of agriculture, Saturn, and usually occurred during the week of the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia’s festivities typically included lots of food, wine gifts that would be exchanged amongst friends and family. When Christian powers took over around the 4th century, church leaders decided to avoid the inevitable backlash that would occur if they got rid of the beloved holiday. Instead they repurposed the holiday customs to honor the birth of Christ as initiated by Pope Julius I in 350 A.D.  

Baked Christmas Ham

The tradition of having a baked ham at Christmas, also known as a Yule ham, started back in England during the Medieval times. Pagan tradition would roast a boar in the Norse god Freyer’s name as a way to ask Freyer to show favor in towards them in the new year. The tradition was later carried on by the Anglo-Saxons on the Isle of Britain, who integrated this tradition with their Christian beliefs. This custom became a part of the feast of Saint Stephen on December 26th, which eventually became a part of the Christmas festivities we know and love today.  

Red, Green & White: The Official Colors of Christmas

For the pagans, before Christianity became dominant in Britain, holly was an especially symbolic plant that was used in many festivities. The evergreen leaves represented eternal life. It also represented fertility for men, while the red holly berries represented fertility for women. When Christianity took hold, these festive colors maintained their prominence during the holidays, but their significance did slightly change. Green represented eternal life through Christ, while the red represented Christ’s blood as he died on the cross to save all of humankind. White was added later to represent peace.  

Kissing Under The Mistletoe

Throughout the Middle Ages, mistletoe had been associated with fertility and was hung up in houses during December because it was also believed to have the ability to keep evil spirits away during that month. It started showing up in Christmas festivities around the 18th century, when kissing under the mistletoe became a popular game amongst servants. It was said that a man could kiss any woman standing under mistletoe. If a woman refused him, they would then have bad luck. You also had to pick a berry from the mistletoe with each kiss. When the berries ran out, the kissing had to stop.  

Lighting The Christmas Tree

After Christmas trees became a part of holiday celebrations in Germany around the 17th century, people started decorating the trees with twinkling lights. Although, back then, they used candles that were lit from the fire of the Yule log. The idea was that the light from the candles and the Yule log would bring prosperity to you and your family in the new year. When Thomas Edison developed the light bulb in the 1800’s, people started using electric candles to light Christmas trees. The White House had its first Christmas tree lit with electric candles, as now is the tradition, in 1895.