Christmas Traditions

Christmas Traditions

Source: Reach PLC

Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without our many festive traditions.

But how many of us stop to think how they all began?

Here we look at the history behind many of our Christmas customs...


Tom Smith, a London sweet shop owner, invented the Christmas cracker. After spotting French bonbons wrapped in paper with a twist at each end in 1847, he sold similar sweets with a “love motto” inside. He then included a trinket and a bang. His Bangs of Expectation included gifts such as jewellery and miniature dolls. By 1900, he was selling 13 million a year


Ancient druids believed mistletoe could cure illness, aid fertility and protect against witchcraft.

The tradition of kissing underneath mistletoe originates from Scandinavia. According to a Norse legend, Loki, an evil god, made an arrow out of mistletoe and used it to kill Balder, the sun god.

The mistletoe repented and was planted on a tree so it could do no more harm. It became a symbol of love.


Before turkey took over, the popular Christmas dishes were goose and cockerel or, in the houses of the rich, peacock and swan. The turkey was introduced into Europe from the New World in the 15th and 16th Centuries and, because it was inexpensive and quick to fatten, it soon rose in popularity as a Christmas feast food.


In the 12th Century, French nuns, inspired by the legend of St Nicholas – who gave gold to the poor – began leaving stockings full of fruit, including tangerines, and nuts at the houses of poor people. The toe of the stocking would contain an apple for good health and the heel a tangerine because they were very rare and expensive.


We did not always exchange gifts on Christmas Day. In Roman times, they waited until New Year’s Day to hand out their pressies. But, as Christianity spread, people started giving on Christmas Day – despite efforts by church leaders to outlaw the practice. And the Victorians brought a renewed vigour to the tradition of giving gifts on the actual day itself.


The first mass-produced Christmas decoration, tinsel was made in Europe in the 1600s from sheets of silver alloy hammered until they were paper-thin, then cut into strips. It was designed to reflect the light from candles and fireplaces.


The custom of hanging fruit and baubles from green tree branches goes back to Roman times.

Then the decorations were used to symbolise the fruits of the Earth and the fiery sun.


The red-suited Santa we all know was created in 1935, by Haddon Sundblo, for a Coca-Cola advertising campaign. In previous lives, he was a thinner and paler character based on a 4th century Turkish bishop, St Nicholas, who became the patron saint of children. It was in Holland, where he’s known as Sinterklaas, that he earned his reputation for giving away Christmas gifts.


It was German evangelist Martin Luther who first decorated a fir tree in 1510. Queen Victoria’s German-born husband, Albert, brought the tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas to our shores in around 1840. Artificial trees were invented in the 1930s by the Addis Company, who manufactured them using spare machines in their toilet-brush factory.


The word ‘carol’ means dance or song of praise and joy and the first carols were pagan songs to celebrate the winter solstice. Carols were once sung during all four seasons but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has survived.


Holly and Ivy have been used to decorate homes since the 9th century because they symbolise everlasting life. The holly represents Christ’s crown of thorns and the berries his blood.

Ivy was also thought to protect a house against drunkenness, while holly was said to keep witches and tax collectors away.


Mince pies date back at least to medieval times – and possibly long before. They are descended from a huge pie, baked on Christmas Eve, containing chopped beef, suet, nuts, spices and fruit, of which whole, dried plums were an important constituent.


Christmas pudding, also called plum pudding – although it contains no plums – originated as a 14th Century ‘porridge’ of beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wine and mixed spices. By the 17th century the meat had gone. The pudding is traditionally stirred from east to west in honour of the Three Wise Men. A 10p piece can be stirred into it to bring luck to the finder.


The first Christmas cards were sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, head of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Too busy to write letters, he had an artist design 1,000 cards, illustrated with a festive scene on the front and printed with the greeting, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy

New Year to You”.