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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 graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now ... 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

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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 COOKIES AND MILK FOR SANTA

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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 19th 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

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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

J.C. Horsley's first Christmas card. Getty

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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Yes, You Can Put Your Christmas Decorations Up Now—and Should, According to Psychologists
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We all know at least one of those people who's already placing an angel on top of his or her Christmas tree while everyone else on the block still has paper ghosts stuck to their windows and a rotting pumpkin on the stoop. Maybe it’s your neighbor; maybe it’s you. Jolliness aside, these early decorators tend to get a bad rap. For some people, the holidays provide more stress than splendor, so the sight of that first plastic reindeer on a neighbor's roof isn't exactly a welcome one.

But according to two psychoanalysts, these eager decorators aren’t eccentric—they’re simply happier. Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown told UNILAD:

“Although there could be a number of symptomatic reasons why someone would want to obsessively put up decorations early, most commonly for nostalgic reasons either to relive the magic or to compensate for past neglect.

In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of the childhood.

Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extend the excitement!”

Amy Morin, another psychoanalyst, linked Christmas decorations with the pleasures of childhood, telling the site: “The holiday season stirs up a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia helps link people to their personal past and it helps people understand their identity. For many, putting up Christmas decorations early is a way for them to reconnect with their childhoods.”

She also explained that these nostalgic memories can help remind people of spending the holidays with loved ones who have since passed away. As Morin remarked, “Decorating early may help them feel more connected with that individual.”

And that neighbor of yours who has already been decorated since Halloween? Well, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, homes that have been warmly decorated for the holidays make the residents appear more “friendly and cohesive” compared to non-decorated homes when observed by strangers. Basically, a little wreath can go a long way.

So if you want to hang those stockings before you’ve digested your Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead. You might just find yourself happier for it.

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11 Posters Worth Gifting This Holiday Season
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A good poster can make all the difference when it comes to decor. Posters are a cost-effective and fun way to add color, tie together a room, and show off the owner’s personality. If you want to help a loved one track down a poster that doesn’t look like it’s straight out of a college dorm room, here are 11 prints we suggest gifting:

1. 100 ESSENTIAL FILMS SCRATCH-OFF CHART; $35


Pop Chart Lab

Pop Chart Lab’s scratch-off prints are a fun way to put a personal touch on a room. The Essential Films edition serves as a ready-made must-watch list, with 100 incredible films—new and old. As your loved one watches, they can scratch off the gray squares of the poster to reveal the illustrations below. Once they're done, they’ve got a checkerboard visualization of great movies from Casablanca to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

2. RETRO PATENTS; $33 AND UP

A framed patent of the Nintendo Game Boy sits against a wall.
Retro Patents

Gadget-lovers will swoon over these patent illustration posters, which feature the original patent drawings submitted for now-familiar technology like handheld cameras, record players, Tamagotchi, Game Boys, and more. The black-and-white drawings are accompanied by the name of the inventor and the date of the patent. Many of them are limited editions, so make sure to grab ‘em before they’re gone.

Find It: Retro Patents

3. DINOSAURIA; $37


Pop Chart Lab

Your favorite paleontology fan will love diving into this encyclopedic poster of dinosaur types, which catalogs more than 100 types of dinos in hand-drawn illustrations. Painstakingly researched, the work classifies 700 genera of prehistoric creatures into a taxonomy that’s sure to make your beloved science nerd’s heart beat faster.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

4. REALLY BIG COLORING POSTER; $40

Two children lay on a giant coloring-book-style map of America
Great2bColorful, Amazon

Coloring books make great gifts for all ages, but coloring posters make even better ones. This giant, 5-foot-by-3-foot poster will keep your favorite young artist busy for hours filling in notable icons of all 50 states, from the Hollywood sign to the Statue of Liberty. And once they’re done, they have a colorful mural to put up in their room.

Find It: Amazon

5. SPACE GRAND TOUR; $22

Eight vintage-style travel posters advertising space destinations
JPL/NASA

Get excited for the future. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed these out-of-this-world prints, creating futuristic tourism posters for celestial destinations that, for the most part, humans have yet to reach.They’re part science geekery, part vintage travel homage, and the poster versions are the perfect gift for any future astronaut. Of course, they’re so pretty that even the least physics-inclined people on your gift list will still appreciate them.

Find It: Amazon

6. BETWEEN THE WORDS; $63

A spiral of punctuation on a poster that reads ‘Moby Dick; Or, The Whale.’
Nicholas Rougeux

Nicholas Rougeux’s Between the Words posters are minimalist takes on visualizing classic literature. Instead of trying to encapsulate the story, he focuses on what’s between the words: the punctuation. Each poster depicts every punctuation mark—in order—used in well-known books like Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Separated only by chapter markers, the punctuation marks spiral around a central illustration. Sticklers for good grammar will love exploring the dense punctuation patterns of books like A Tale of Two Cities and Ulysses, designs that provide a whole new insight into the writing techniques of famous authors.

Find It: Zazzle

7. “I LOVE” CITY MAPS; $21 AND UP


Jordan Sondler

Help your favorite urbanite show their city pride with New York-based illustrator Jordan Sondler’s whimsical maps of places like Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Available in several different base colors, they divide major American metropolises into neighborhoods dotted with illustrated versions of iconic local architecture.

Find It: Minted

8. SKIES ABOVE CUSTOM STAR CHART; $130

A framed poster that reads 'Natalie and Morgan' with a star chart above in dark blue
Asterism Labs, Etsy

Baltimore-based data designer and former astrophysicist Katie Peek specializes in custom star charts that put a unique spin on a special day. They can highlight what the night sky looked like on the day of a wedding, a birthday, or during the last solar eclipse, customized to where the event took place. You can also ask her to commemorate the celestial view from any other time and place using her custom algorithms.

Find It: Etsy

9. PLEATINGS PRINT; $53

A graphic print shows gray shapes with lines running through them
Dry Studios

These abstract posters from the Stockholm-based Dry Studios are designed to create art using natural light in your house. The folded paper casts shadows when the sunlight hits them, turning the poster into changing graphic scenes throughout the day. They come in two different color schemes, one warm and one cold, to mimic the color change between day and night.

Find It: Dry Studios

10. LAW & MOORE MOVIE POSTERS; $12 AND UP

Three framed posters sitting on a table
Law & Moore, Etsy

The designers at Law & More specialize in pop culture posters that put a unique spin on beloved movies and TV shows from all genres, from Rocky to Stranger Things to Mary Poppins. Designed like vintage book covers, each features a minimalist illustration of the film along with the name of its creators. Whether you’re shopping for a James Bond aficionado or a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll be able to find a classy poster to show off their entertainment tastes.

Find It: Etsy

11. CONSTITUTIONS OF CLASSIC COCKTAILS; $37

A beige poster features a circular visualization of cocktail ingredients
Pop Chart Lab

Perfect for in the kitchen or near the bar cart, this infographic is a cheat sheet for becoming a mixology master. It illustrates how to throw together 60 different classic cocktails, organizing them by the type of liquor used to make them. Your favorite cocktail party host can use it to learn how to make a proper Rob Roy or Old Fashioned, or to help guests decide what they want to drink: just pick a base alcohol and go from there.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

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