Christmas is the most widely observed cultural holiday in the world—and one with the most variety of customs and traditions. Here are five facts about common customs you should know about:
1. Christmas trees – The tradition of bringing an evergreen tree into the house to be decorated is traced to Germany in the 1500s. The earliest Christmas trees were referred to as "paradises," after the “paradise trees” used as part of plays held on the feast of Adam and Eve. As Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait explain, these trees were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today.
2. Christmas lights — Legend has it that the German Reformer Martin Luther not only the first person to bring a Christmas tree into the house (not true), he was the first to decorate it with lights too (also probably not true). The story is that when Luther was walking home on a winter night he was overcome by the beauty of a fir tree and the stars shining around it. Unable to communicate the majestic scene to his family, he is said to have brought a tree into his home and decorated it with candle tapers to mimic the stars. This is claimed to be the basis for adding lights to modern Christmas trees. (While it’s an intriguing tale, there is no historical evidence it actually happened.)
3. Christmas stockings — In the famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823)—the one that begins “Twas the night before Christmas”—stockings are mentioned while a Christmas tree is not. This is fitting since, throughout the 1800s, stockings were often more symbolic of the holiday than were Christmas trees. An article in the New York Times in December 1883 noted that “the stocking was for so many years so closely associated with Christmas that Christmas without stockings seemed inappropriately and insufficiently celebrated.” In contrast, the article says, “the German Christmas tree—a rootless and lifeless corpse—was never worthy of the day…” While no one knows how the tradition of hanging stockings truly arose, a popular legend is that Santa Claus heard about an impoverished family too proud to take charity. The father, recently widowed, was unable to provide a dowry for his three daughters, so Santa tossed three gold coins down the chimney which landed in the girls’ stockings that hanging on the fireplace to dry. (Another version of the story says Santa gave three gold balls, which is where adding oranges or tangerines supposedly comes from.)
4. Christmas carols — Since the fourteenth century, carols have been considered a form of popular religious song. While Christmas carols had begun to become popular after the Reformation, they became a particularly common genre in the nineteenth century with the publication of music books dedicated to Christmas songs. For example, in 1833 an English lawyer named William Sandys published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, which contained the first appearance in print of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", "The First Noel", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Also during the Victorian era in England, the tradition of visiting people’s houses and singing—a process known as wassailing—was adopted for Christmas and became synonymous with “caroling.”
5. Christmas presents – In this short video, Ryan Reeves explains the history of gift-giving on Christmas.