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11 holiday traditions and their surprising origins

Christmas gift boxes with decorations
Christmas gift boxes with decorations.
svetlana kolpakova, 70190715

When it comes to modern American Christmas traditions, it may seem obvious that we have Victorian Era holiday rituals to thank. However, many traditions came from ancient cultures and were later adopted by Christians who adapted the traditions to celebrate Christ’s birth. Below is a list of common holiday traditions and their surprising origins.

Information for the article was found at History,, Smithsonian Magazine, Mental Floss,, Claus Net, The New York Times, among other sites.

Christmas tree

Stock photo

The origin of the first Christmas tree is widely contested. Several events throughout history led to the Christmas tree as we know it today.

Both the ancient Egyptians and Romans used greenery in their homes to celebrate winter festivals and the triumph of “life over death,” according to People appreciated plants that stayed green throughout the cold, dreary winter months.

However, residents of the Baltic cities of Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia, both claim they were home to the first official Christmas tree. claims that records from 1441 from Tallinn reported that a tree was brought into the town square for a dance, though the word for tree could have had other meanings such as mast. In 1510, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of bachelor merchants, set up a decorated tree in Riga’s town center to celebrate the winter solstice.

According to Times of Malta, the two countries still playfully argue this point. In 2010, Tallinn’s mayor sent a Christmas tree to the mayor of Riga, congratulating him on the 500th anniversary of its Christmas tree and reminding them that Tallinn was celebrating the 569th anniversary of its Christmas tree.

According to History, Martin Luther may have been the first to add lights to a Christmas tree. He came up with the idea after admiring the stars glittering through the pine trees. He decided to bring home a tree and added candles to create a similar effect to share with his family.

The Christmas tree was popular in Germany in the 1800s, and German immigrants to America brought the tradition with them. However, it didn’t become a set holiday tradition in the United States until the London Illustrated News published an illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children surrounding a Christmas tree, according to History. Wanting to keep up with their British neighbors, Americans quickly adopted the tradition.


In the 1800s, the United States' ambassador to Mexico, Joseph Poinsett, was intrigued by a vibrant, red flower blooming in the southern part of the country. Missionaries called it the Nativity plant because it bloomed during the Advent season. Poinsett, who was also a botanist, introduced the flower to the United States, according to the University of Illinois.

According to, a popular Mexican Christmas legend tells the story of Pepita, a poor girl who wanted a gift to give to the Christ child at Christmas Eve mass. All she had to offer was a small bouquet of weeds. However, her cousin assured her that what she gave would be enough. As she presented the bouquet, a Christmas miracle occurred. The weeds magically transformed into beautiful, red poinsettias.


Wreaths are a tradition steeped in symbolism. says that early Germanic peoples made evergreen wreaths during the winter months to remind them that warm weather would return. Christians later adopted this tradition and used the circular wreath as a symbol of everlasting life through Christ. According to The New York Times, wreaths made of holly, known for its sharp, pointy leaves, reminded early Christians of the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Later, people would light wreaths during the Advent season to celebrate Christ as the light of the world, according to Slate.


Johnny Carson may have said it best when he called it “the worst Christmas gift.”

“There is only one fruitcake in the entire world,” he said. “And people keep sending it to each other.”

Despite widespread hatred of it, the fruitcake was not always as despised as it is today. In fact, in the 1800s, before the age of refrigeration, fruitcake was popular for its long shelf life. It could be brought overseas and still remain edible.

How Stuff Works says fruitcake’s origins date back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who placed a version of fruitcake in tombs when a relative died. The Romans also ate a version of the cake that they often took with them to the battlefield. It continued into medieval times and was even outlawed for a short time in 18th century Europe for being “sinfully rich," according to What's Cooking America. In the Victorian Era, fruitcake was a staple for tea parties. Smithsonian said it wasn’t until it began being mass-produced to be gifted that fruitcake began to fall out of favor.

According to Mental Floss, the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, has hosted fruitcake tosses in the past. Participants built catapults and cannons for the event and even destroyed a computer by chucking fruitcake at it.


Caroling has medieval origins dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries when minstrels would go door to door performing for people.
Caroling has medieval origins dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries when minstrels would go door to door performing for people.
Adobe Stock

Caroling has medieval origins dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries when minstrels would go door to door performing for people. However, the songs didn’t necessarily have to do with Christmas and were performed year-round. According to, the earliest Christmas carols evolved out of Nativity plays that started in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi. The carols were religious in nature but often told of made-up events.

In Victorian England, the traditions of singing holiday carols and traveling door to door finally combined and caroling as we know it today was born. In the 19th century, Christmas became more a more widely commercialized holiday and caroling became more popular as more sheet music was printed, according to Time.


According to legend, the original St. Nicholas, while traveling from village to village, heard about a merchant who had fallen on hard times and couldn’t afford dowries for his three daughters. St. Nicholas knew the man would never accept money, so he threw three sacks of gold down the family’s chimney. The sacks landed in the daughters' stockings that were drying by the fireplace, according to Since then, children began leaving stockings by the fireplace in hopes that St. Nicholas would leave them presents too.


Historians believe eggnog descended from the medieval drink, posset, and continued to evolve throughout the years. Posset was made out of a mixture of ale, hot milk, spices and other liquors, according to Later, eggs were added to the mix. Experts believe that “nog” comes from the word noggin, a wooden cup used in pubs, according to It was quite popular in colonial America and George Washington even had his alcohol-heavy recipe for the drink. According to Time, eggnog was used for toasts to good health and good fortune since all of the ingredients were expensive at the time. Eggnog retains its popularity today and pops up in recipes from eggnog ice cream to eggnog cheesecake.


Mistletoe’s history is rooted deeply in mythology. According to History, the plant was known throughout history for its healing properties even though today we know it to be moderately poisonous (don’t leave it anywhere your pets can get to it).

The tradition of hanging mistletoe in homes could have come from several places. The ancient Druids believed the plant restored fertility, possibly due to the fact that it bloomed even during the winter. Furthermore, according to legend, the Norse God, Baldur, was killed when he was pierced with a sprig of mistletoe. Smithsonian says that Baludur woke up that morning afraid that every plant and animal species was set on killing him. His mother and wife went to every plant and animal and got them to promise not to harm Baldur.

However, according to legend, they forgot to ask mistletoe. The gods managed to resurrect Baldur from the dead. Out of joy, his mother, Frigg, the goddess of love, made mistletoe the plant of love and promised to kiss anyone who stood beneath it. It's no surprise that Americans associate mistletoe with kissing.

Christmas cards

The very first official Christmas card was invented by Englishman Sir Henry Cole in 1843.
The very first official Christmas card was invented by Englishman Sir Henry Cole in 1843.
Provided by Clinton Whiting

According to, nearly 2 billion Christmas cards are sent every year. The very first official Christmas card was invented by Englishman Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole, who was too busy to write individualized Christmas greetings to each of his relatives one year, commissioned his artist friend, John Callcott Horsley, to illustrate a scene with a short message on the back. Horsley printed 1,000 of these cards. The scene on the card showed a holiday celebration and read "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you." The scene caused a bit of an uproar when people realized that it shows a child being given wine. This went against the temperance movement in England at the time, which discouraged underage drinking, according to Smithsonian.

Later in 1874, American Louis Prang opened a shop in Boston that sold a line of Christmas cards, according to Lifeway. His business took off and ended up producing 5 million cards every year, making it so Americans didn't have to order Christmas cards from overseas.

Rudolph story

According to, in 1939, The Montgomery Ward, a Chicago department store, asked its copywriter, Robert May, to create a coloring book for children. May, who had been teased as a boy, wrote about a reindeer who was teased for his unusual red nose but ultimately found acceptance when Santa discovered he could lead the sleigh through the fog on Christmas Eve. The book received almost instant popularity.

Unfortunately, not long after, May’s wife got cancer and passed away, leaving him with medical debts and a young daughter to care for. Montgomery Ward eventually gave May the rights to Rudolph so that he could publish it and make some money. May’s brother-in-law, a musician, set the words to music. Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has since become one of the most beloved Christmas songs.

The Christmas pickle

It is unknown exactly how this holiday tradition came to be. According to popular belief, it started out as a German tradition. Parents would hide a pickle Christmas ornament in their Christmas tree and the first child to find it received an extra present. However, further research revealed that many Germans had never even heard of a Christmas pickle before. So this “tradition” may have simply been born of an American marketing ploy, according to

However, additional origin stories about the Christmas pickle are a bit darker. County Fair Pickles tells the Civil War story of a German immigrant who was captured by Confederate soldiers. Starving to death, he begged the soldiers for a pickle as his last request. A soldier took pity on him and granted his last wish. However, the pickle gave the man the strength to survive. When he returned home, the man put a pickle ornament on his Christmas tree to remember his good fortune.

Another account comes from medieval Spain. According to Claus Net, two boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays stayed at an inn for the night. The inn keeper, an evil man, trapped the boys in a pickle jar and left them to die. According to legend, St. Nicholas discovered the boys and magically freed them by tapping the barrel with his staff.

Santa Claus

Ed Asner plays a role he's tackled several times, Santa Claus, in "Saving Christmas," now on DVD and streaming sites.
Ed Asner plays a role he's tackled several times, Santa Claus, in "Saving Christmas," now on DVD and streaming sites.

Experts and historians don’t know too much about the original St. Nicholas, though there are many stories and myths about his life. says he was born in Turkey somewhere between 200 A.D. and 300 A.D. and was orphaned at a young age. However, he inherited a fortune from his wealthy parents and purportedly traveled giving much of it away to those in need. According to Christianity Today, St. Nicholas was chosen by the people of Myra to be their bishop. He was jailed for a time due to the persecution of Christians but was released with many other religious people when a new emperor came into power. He is remembered today for his generous spirit.

In the 1800s, cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. He popularized the image of the portly man in red who many children recognize as Santa Claus today, according to The New York Times.