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The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

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From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd, when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. HANGING STOCKINGS

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings, ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. CAROLING

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. USING EVERGREENS FOR CHRISTMAS TREES

Photo of a man carrying a Christmas tree
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Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British Royal Family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, 1 in 5 American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. THE COLORS RED AND GREEN

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. UGLY CHRISTMAS SWEATERS

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. LEAVING MILK AND COOKIES FOR SANTA

A photo of milk and cookies left for Santa Claus
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When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. THE A CHRISTMAS STORY MARATHON ON TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. YULE LOGS


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Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. ADVENT CALENDARS

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child featuring 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. EGGNOG

A photo of two glasses of eggnog
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It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called "posset," a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it to toast with.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that "nog" was short for "noggin," which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. MISTLETOE

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. CHRISTMAS CARDS

A photo of J.C. Horsley's first Christmas card
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Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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What's the Story Behind Cinco de Mayo?
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Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is recognized around the country as a time to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage. Like a lot of days earmarked to commemorate a specific idea or event, its origins can be a little murky. Who started it, and why?

The holiday was originally set aside to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The two had gotten into a dispute after newly-elected Mexico president Benito Juárez tried to help ease the country’s financial woes by defaulting on European loans. Unmoved by their plight, France attempted to seize control of their land. The Napoleon III-led country sent 6000 troops to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town en route to Mexico City, and anticipated an easy victory.

After an entire day of battle that saw 2000 Mexican soldiers take 500 enemy lives against only 100 casualties, France retreated. That May 5, Mexico had proven itself to be a formidable and durable opponent. (The victory would be short-lived, as the French would eventually conquer Mexico City. In 1866, Mexican and U.S. forces were able to drive them out.)

To celebrate, Juárez declared May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, to be a national holiday. Puebla began acknowledging the date, with recognition spreading throughout Mexico and in the Latino population of California, which celebrated victory over the same kind of oppressive regime facing minorities in Civil War-era America. In fact, University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista cites his research into newspapers of the era as evidence that Cinco de Mayo really took off in the U.S. due to the parallels between the Confederacy and the monarchy Napoleon III had planned to install.

Cinco de Mayo gained greater visibility in the U.S. in the middle part of the 20th century thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, a political movement promoted by Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933, which encouraged friendly relations between countries.  

There’s a difference between a day of remembrance and a corporate clothesline, however. Cinco de Mayo was co-opted for the latter beginning in the 1970s, when beer and liquor companies decided to promote consumption of their products while enjoying the party atmosphere of the date—hence the flowing margaritas. And while it may surprise some Americans, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite as big a deal in Mexico as it can be in the States. While Mexican citizens recognize it, it’s not a federal holiday: Celebrants can still get to post offices and banks. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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