The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

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iStock

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
Getty Images

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
Getty Images

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.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
kieferpix/iStock via Getty Images

Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

25 Awesome Pet Halloween Costumes You Can Buy Right Now

Frisco
Frisco

As much fun as it is to dress up in a Halloween costume, it’s even more satisfying to throw one on your favorite four-legged companion. For one glorious day, you can turn your dog or cat into a vampire, a superhero, a Jedi, or even a taco, and it’s seen as completely normal. But picking out the right dog or cat costume can be difficult, especially with all of the choices available. Here, we’ve got 25 awesome cat and dog Halloween costumes you can get at Petco, Chewy, Target, and Walmart.

1. Wonder Woman Dog Costume

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Wonder Woman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Turn your pooch into an Amazonian warrior with this ensemble that carries the colors and familiar tiara of Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor sold separately.

Buy it: Petco

2. Superman Illusion Dog Suit

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Superman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Superpups won’t need a phone booth to dash into with this illusion suit that mimics that iconic transformation of Clark (Bark) Kent into Superman. (Note: Glasses do not have corrective lenses.)

Buy it: Petco 

3. Batman Dog T-Shirt

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

If your pet is low on patience when it comes to elaborate costumes, consider this minimalist approach. A Bat-symbol emblazoned on the back shows off support for vigilante justice.

Buy it: Petco 

4. DC's Batman Illusion Dog Suit

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Your doggo probably never got to know their parents, which is at least one thing they have in common with Bruce Wayne. Avenge Gotham with this padded costume that gives your pet better abs than yours.

Buy it: Petco 

5. Batman Dog Bandana

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

The Bat-logo stands out against a yellow background in this pup-friendly kerchief for dogs that prefer sleeveless attire.

Buy it: Petco

6. Superman Dog Bandana

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Superman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Is your heroic hound ready to cast off his glasses, quit his job as a newspaper reporter, and share his true identity with the world? This bandana is the classiest way to do it.

Buy it: Petco

7. Spider-Man Hoodie

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Spider-Man Dog Costume.
Marvel

While the debate over which Spider-Man did it best—Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, or Tobey Maguire—rages on, the clear winner is about to be your dog wearing this costume.

Buy it: Petco

8. Jack-o'-Lantern Dog Hoodie

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Pumpkin Jack o Lantern Costume.
Bootique

Because carving jack-o'-lanterns is hard, turn your pup into a “pupkin” instead with this easy pullover Halloween hoodie.

Buy it: Petco

9. Cookie Monster

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Cookie Monster Dog Costume.
Pet Krewe

The perfect outfit for the pooch who won’t take their eyes off your cookie even though they definitely can’t have chocolate.

Buy it: Petco

10. Toast of the Town

Best Halloween Costumes for Dogs.
Bootique

This oh-so-extra outfit is ideal for trendy millennial pets who know that the secret to happiness lies between two thick slices of avocado toast. The “Flaming Dawg Hot Sauce” headband is just icing on the cake … er, hot sauce on the toast.

Buy it: Petco

11. King Purrington

Get the best cat halloween costumes of 2019.
Bootique

Your cat doesn't need to dress like royalty to know they’re in charge, so let this king costume serve as a reminder to everyone else in the house. Just don't be surprised if your cat starts acting haughtier than usual after sporting a cape and crown for a few hours.

Buy it:vPetco

12. Lion Mane

Lion mane cat costume.
Pet Krewe

Halloween is a chance for your pet to look as ferocious as they feel all year long. But be warned: This lion mane costume will probably illicit more "awws" than screams.

Buy it: Petco

13. "Witch, Please!" Dog Hat

Witch hat dog Halloween costume.
Bootique

Spookiness, sassiness: This witch hat for dogs—complete with a lime-green wig and the words "Witch, please!" emblazoned on the band—has it all.

Buy it: Petco

14. Teddy Bear Dog Costume

Teddy bear dog costume for Halloween 2019.
Bootique

Your dog can become a bit more squeezable when you dress it up like a plush teddy bear—complete with little arms, legs, and ears.

Buy it: Petco

15. Dog & Cat Sombrero

Cat and dog sombreros for Halloween 2019.
Frisco

The best part about this sombrero for your cat or dog is that there’s no reason why you can’t strap it on their head even after Halloween is over. They may hate you for it, but the look on their face will make a great photo op (see above).

Buy it: Chewy

16. Cat Devil Costume

Cat devil costume for Halloween 2019.
Frisco

Every cat has a touch of evil in them, so indulge them this Halloween with the set of horns they've earned throughout the year.

Buy it: Chewy

17. Cat & Dog Vampire Cape

A dog dressed in a vampire Halloween costume.
Frisco

Simple but effective—turn your pet into an elegant count this Halloween with this red-lined black cape.

Buy it: Chewy

18. Taco Dog & Cat Costume

Taco dog Halloween costume for 2019.
Frisco

Your favorite pet dressed as your favorite food. Best of all, the entire taco costume comes in one piece, so you don’t have to worry about assembly being a hassle.

Buy it: Chewy

19. Dog or Cat Business Suit

Business suit dog costume.
Rubie's Costume Company

Chances are your pet will never have a high-powered office job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t dress the part. And don’t worry, the tie is attached to the costume, so your pup won't have to learn the Half-Windsor.

Buy it: Chewy

20. Skeleton Hoodie

Skeleton hoodie Halloween costume for dogs.
Hyde & EEK! Boutique

You really can’t go wrong with a classic like this skeleton hoodie. And with the ear holes in the hood, your pup will be comfy all Halloween long.

Buy it: Target

21. Ewok Dog Costume

Star Wars Halloween costumes for pets.
Rubie's Costume Company

Even the most jaded of Star Wars fans won’t be able to resist this simple costume that turns your dog into a fierce and fuzzy protector of Endor.

Buy it: Target

22. Jedi Robe

Star Wars Jedi Halloween costume for dogs.
Rubie's Costume Company.

A costume for a more civilized age, this Jedi pet robe is easy to slip on and adds a graceful elegance to any dog’s life. Just keep an eye on their paws—you don’t want to fall for that mind trick nonsense.

Buy it: Target

23. Jurassic World T. rex

Dinosaur Halloween Costume for Dogs.
Rubie's Costume Company

Cue the John Williams, because this T. rex costume is perfect for any dino-lovin’ Halloween freak out there. The kicker? The tiny arms, of course.

Buy it: Walmart

24. Yoda

Yoda Halloween costume for pets.
Rubie's Costume Company

You already know your pet is wise beyond its years, so slapping a Yoda costume on it is only natural. If you can’t fathom getting your cat or dog into the robe, you can opt for just the Yoda ears, too.

Buy it: Walmart

25. Blue Monster

Best dog and cat Halloween costumes.
Rubie's Costume Company

This Halloween, turn your pet into a furry beast—more so than usual. And if you don’t like the shock of bright blue hair, you can go for the pink version. It’s your money; embarrass your pup as you please.

Buy it: Walmart

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