The fascinating history behind 16 common Christmas traditions

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Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Andrew Burton/ Getty
  • Christmas is a holiday full of traditions.
  • From using an advent calendar to eating fruitcake, these traditions have origins all over the world.
  • Many of today’s most popular Christmas traditions date back to ancient times.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

From counting down the days of December with an advent calendar to decking out a tree in decorations and lights, Christmas is a holiday that’s full of traditions.

While Christmas means something different for everyone who celebrates, many classic holiday traditions are shared all over the world. Since many traditions date all the way back to ancient times, Christmas today wouldn’t be the same without the history that made the holiday what it is.

Keep reading for the origins of 16 common Christmas traditions.


Hanging stockings was popularised by a beloved Christmas poem.

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Christmas stockings hanging by the fire. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

The tradition of hanging stockings on the fireplace can be traced back to a story of a widowed man who was worried he could not provide for his three daughters, according to Smithsonian Magazine. St. Nicholas heard about the family’s hardships and filled the daughters’ stockings, which were drying by the fire, with gold coins.

The popularity of the tradition, however, can be attributed to Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” from 1823.

A line from the classic poem reads, “[St. Nick] fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”

From then on, it was a common practice for children to hang their stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve in the hopes that Santa Claus would fill them with presents.


The tradition of sending Christmas cards began in England.

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A selection of Christmas cards. AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach

Whether you print your own cards featuring a family photo or write simple notes to friends and family, chances are, you’ve sent out a few Christmas cards in your lifetime.

Today, Christmas cards act as a year-in-review for people to catch up on what their friends and family have been up to, although the tradition has a long history.

During the Christmas season in England in 1843, Sir Henry Cole decided that he wanted a way to send a holiday greeting to his friends without having to write individual letters, according to Smithsonian Magazine. He had 1,000 illustrated cards printed with the words, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You” with space for personalisation. This was the beginning of the Christmas card, which isn’t too far off from what we do today.


The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree can be traced back to Germany and the UK.

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A decorated Christmas tree. Education Images/Getty Images

Evergreen trees, which are commonly used as Christmas trees today, have long been thought to be lucky since they remain green even in the dead of winter.

The modern Christmas tree can be traced back to German Lutherans in the 17th century, and they were first seen in the US in Pennsylvania in the 1820s (when many Germans immigrated), according to Time.

Queen Victoria and Germany’s Prince Albert popularised the tradition when a sketch of their family sitting beside a decorated Christmas tree was published in the Illustrated London News in 1846, according to History.

By the late 1800s, Christmas trees had caught on in the US and were often decorated with both homemade ornaments and ones imported from Germany.


The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from Celtic legend.

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Mistletoe. Oleksandr Rybitskiy/Shutterstock

The tradition of kissing under mistletoe has been popular for centuries, although it dates back to an old Celtic legend.

The plant, native to Great Britain and other parts of Europe, is historically believed to bring good luck, according to Time. Kissing under a mistletoe plant became a holiday tradition during the Victorian era, as doing so was thought to lead to marriage.


Eating fruitcake for special occasions dates back to the 18th century.

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Fruitcake. Shutterstock

According to the New York Times, fruitcake dates back to a food enjoyed by ancient Romans called satura – a mix of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts, and raisins held together with honey.Some speculate that this dish was invented as a way to preserve fruit.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, fruitcake gained popularity as a dish for special occasions in the 18th and 19th centuries, when its ingredients were expensive and harder to come by, making it a rare delicacy.

Today, people love to hate fruitcake, but it remains a classic part of Christmas cuisine.


Going caroling has roots in Medieval times.

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Carolers. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Bundling up and singing popular Christmas songs has long been a tradition during the holiday season.

Many religious carols date back to Medieval times, as does the practice of travelling from neighbour to neighbour to wish them good health.

The tradition as it relates to Christmas, however, can be traced back to the 19th century, according to Time. Songbooks with catchy Christmas tunes became popular as the holiday became more commercialized.


Hiding a pickle in the Christmas tree is reportedly a German tradition originally.

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A Christmas pickle hangs next to other ornaments. William In Prague/Shutterstock

Weihnachtsgurke, also known as Christmas Pickle, is a popular tradition in the US. As the New York Times reported, it’s long-believed to have got its start in Germany, though few people there have heard of it. It is said that the tradition began in Germany in the late 1900s, when Germany popularised glass ornaments, though it is more likely that it was a marketing stunt invented by those importing glass decorations from Germany.

As part of the tradition, parents hide the easily camouflaged green pickle-shaped ornament on Christmas Eve, and the first child to find it in the morning will have good luck throughout the new year.


Decorating Christmas cookies is a tradition related to ancient winter solstice celebrations.

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Christmas cookies. Alex Wong/Getty

Decorating Christmas-themed cookies and setting them out by the fireplace for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve is a classic holiday tradition, at least in the US.

Before today’s sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, and gingerbread, ancient civilizations celebrated the winter solstice with desserts. By the Middle Ages, Europeans ate cookie-like desserts made with cinnamon, nutmeg, and dried fruit ingredients that are still often used in Christmas cookies today.

One of the most classic Christmas cookies, the Gingerbread man, was first introduced by Queen Elizabeth I of England who used a mould to shape traditional ginger-flavored cookies.


Modern advent calendars are based on the Christian practice of advent leading up the Christmas.

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A DIY advent calendar. phBodrova/Shutterstock

Advent calendars are now commonly used to count down from the beginning of December until Christmas Day, but they have roots in the Christian tradition of Advent, which dates back more than 1,600 years, according to Time.

Meant to prepare Christians for the coming of Christ, people used to fast before the “Christ-mass.” In more recent history, many advent calendars focus on the non-religious aspects of Christmas and countdown from December 1 to 25 with a small gift each day.

Today, there’s no shortage of options for advent calendars, from DIY gift bags to boxes filled with chocolate treats or even wine.


Department store holiday windows are one of New York’s most quintessential Christmas traditions.

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Macy’s holiday windows. Mario Tama/Getty

Festive window displays at department stores have been a staple of the holiday season in New York City since the 1870s.

The tradition originated with Macy’s, which implemented an art installation-like display instead of traditional advertisements for their holiday products.

Today, people wait in line for hours to see the famous holiday windows, which feature unique designs, from selfie-taking snowmen to portrayals of classic Disney films.


The Elf on the Shelf started in the 1970s as a Georgia family’s tradition.

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Elf on the Shelf is so popular there’s a balloon of the character in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. James Devaney/Getty Images

Whether you love or hate it, the Elf on the Shelf has worked its way into the homes of thousands, if not millions of people across the world.

The phenomenon started as a whimsical tradition Carol Aebersold used to excite her twin daughters and son about the holidays, according to HuffPost. Aebersold moved an elf ornament to a different spot of the house each night and told her kids the elf was magically flying back to the North Pole each night.

“We loved it,” Aebersold’s daughter Christa Pitts told HuffPost. “It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

In 2004, Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell wrote a poem about the mischievous character that turned into a storybook; the next year they launched a company and introduced the rest of the world to their family tradition. Ever since the little elf has inspired some elaborate photo shoots and even popped up on the International Space Station.


The tradition of giving children presents on Christmas in the US dates back to the early 1800s.

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Presents under the Christmas tree. Medios y Media/Getty Images

Though gift-giving partly emerged as a result of the commercialization of Christmas, Paul Ringel of The Atlantic explains that the tradition started in the early 1800s as a result of the New York City wealthy trying to appease the poor.

Citing historian Stephen Nissenbaum’s book “The Battle for Christmas,” Ringel explains that during the agricultural offseason around Christmas time, poor citizens would demand food and drink from the wealthy and party in the streets.

To quell the rich’s fears that this partying would also lead to workers asking for time off, a group of men named the “Knickerbockers” invented a new set of traditions inspired by traditional Dutch celebrations that emphasised celebrating the winter holidays at home. This led to the official recognition of celebrating Christmas thanks to one Knickerbocker, Clement Clarke Moore, reading his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) in 1823.

Ringel writes that the invention of this Santa Claus coincided with the burgeoning American toy industry in the 1820s. Combine this with the mass industrialisation and urbanisation of cities, and the middle class’ aspirations to treat their kids to the life of the wealthy, and exchanging gifts was born – though, Nissenbaum acknowledges the exchange of homemade gifts during the 1700s.

The article also debunks the myth that people give gifts to honour the three wise men from the story of Jesus’ birth. Ringel writes that there is “no broad historical precedent exists for this link.”


The first reenactment of the nativity scene was in the 13th century.

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A dress rehearsal for the Wintershall Estate’s 2019 nativity play in Bramley, Surrey. Aaron Chown – PA Images/Getty Images

The nativity scene is a popular lawn decoration in the US and is performed annually at churches across the world. But the US didn’t popularise the nativity scene.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the first nativity scene in 1223, according to a 2013 Slate article. Citing “The Life of St. Francis of Assisi,” the article explains that Pope Honorious III granted St. Francis permission to set up a manger with an ox and a donkey in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited villagers to hear him tell the story of Jesus’ birth.


The Christmas cracker is a Victorian-era tradition celebrated in the UK.

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A Christmas cracker. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Readers in the UK are no strangers to the Christmas cracker but for Americans, this one might be a head-scratcher. The cracker is like a Christmas piñata: When pulled on both ends, it pops open, typically revealing a paper crown, a small joke card, and some type of toy.

Professor Julie Coleman at the University of Leicester explains that the cracker was invented in the 1840s by a London candy maker named Tom Smith. Inspired by the decoratively wrapped candies he saw during a trip to France, Smith attempted to do the same but experienced a lacklustre reception.

Once he put his sweets in a tube that made a “bang” when pulled open, they became a hit and were adopted around the world, according to Coleman.


The Christmas Yule log cake is believed to have been enjoyed since the European Iron Age.

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A Yule log cake. etorres/Shutterstock

Some people like to celebrate the holidays by watching a Yule log burn on the TV, others enjoy eating a Yule log.

History.com hypothesizes that the cake – which is a sponge cake filled with cream, frosted with chocolate buttercream or ganache, and decorated to look like a log – has been around since the early 1600s.

During the Iron Age, Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans gathered to celebrate the winter solstice by burning logs decorated with holly, pine cones, or ivy. Once Christianity was invented, History writes, families likely burned their own logs in their fireplaces and used the hearths to bake log-inspired cakes. Parisians reportedly popularised the cake in the 19th century and it is now enjoyed around the world.


Waiting for Santa Claus to deliver presents is a tradition that varies all over the world.

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Santa Claus. Andrew Burton/ Getty

In the US he’s Santa Claus, in France he’s Père Noël, and in Finland, people celebrate the Yule Goat. All over the world, there are many different interpretations of St. Nicholas.

The oldest legend of St. Nicholas dates back to 280 AD in modern-day Turkey, according to History.com. As the story goes, a monk named St. Nicholas was generous and kind, giving away his wealth to those in need. In the Christian church, his feast day is celebrated on December 6, although the secular version of St. Nick comes around on December 24.

Turkey even claims to have recently fond St. Nicholas’ crypt.