The Origins Of Popular Christmas Traditions And Symbols
Photo: Viggo Johansen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Origins Of Popular Christmas Traditions And Symbols

All holidays have particular traditions and rituals associated with them, and Christmas is no exception. What are the origins of Christmas symbols? Like the Christian communities that celebrate the holiday across the world, Christmas symbols have diverse and varied roots.

Many of the things we associate with Christmas initially had nothing to do with the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus. Instead, some of these symbols emerged from centuries-old European traditions to mark the winter solstice. A number of these pagan, pre-Christian traditions were repurposed and rebranded for the Christian holiday, like the pagan Christmas tree. Others were created over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

From the yule log's origin to the true origin of Christmas stockings and the history of Christmas ornaments, many holiday symbols' backstories are as surprising as they are complicated.

  • The Christmas Tree Was Initially An Ancient Winter Solstice Tradition
    Photo: Viggo Johansen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Christmas Tree Was Initially An Ancient Winter Solstice Tradition

    For millennia, diverse cultures - including ancient Egyptian and Celtic groups - celebrated the winter solstice with evergreens. Romans even used evergreen plants in their wintertime Saturnalia festival, the date of which roughly coincides with Christian Christmas.

    Christians adapted this pagan tradition to their own uses. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Germans had begun decorating indoor evergreen trees at Christmas. This tradition became popular outside of the region thanks to migrations to other parts of the world. In particular, Germans who married into the British royal family were said to have brought it across the English Channel.

    King George III's wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced the indoor Christmas tree to Windsor in 1800. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, further popularized it a few decades later.

  • Santa Claus Derived From The Benevolent Gift-Giver Saint Nicholas
    Photo: Michele di Baldovino / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Santa Claus Derived From The Benevolent Gift-Giver Saint Nicholas

    The white-bearded, North-Pole-dwelling Santa Claus of popular imagination traces his roots to an early Christian, Mediterranean saint. St. Nicholas of Myra was active in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries in what is modern-day Turkey.

    Nicholas was famously generous: He gave dowries to strangers and even brought pickled children back to life. Nicholas thus became a legendary gift-giver in Christian stories. Since his feast day falls on December 6 and embodies the spirit of giving, Nicholas became associated with Christmas - and eventually the modern-day Santa Claus.

    Dutch and German Christians in particular revered Nicholas and helped spread his popularity around the world.

  • Many Cultures Associated The Mistletoe With Fertility

    The parasitic and poisonous mistletoe may seem like an odd addition to Christmas traditions. Yet, communities across ancient Europe associated the mistletoe with fertility.

    Druids used mistletoe, an evergreen, in winter festivals. Mistletoes also appear in Norse mythology, and one story connects them to Frigga, goddess of beauty, love, and marriage.

    As symbols of fertility, mistletoes had connections to love and romance - and this association may have been enough for people to start kissing beneath them in the late 18th century.

  • Stockings Only Became Popular Due To A Story About Saint Nicholas
    Photo: Clement C. Moore / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Stockings Only Became Popular Due To A Story About Saint Nicholas

    The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings above fireplaces can be traced to a legend about an early Christian saint, the real-life St. Nicholas of Myra.

    As one story has it, Nicholas - known for giving gifts - climbed down a family's chimney one night and deposited money in their stockings, which they had hung up to dry above the fire. As Nicholas increasingly became associated with Christmas, so did the tradition of leaving stockings out for Santa Claus to fill.

  • Reindeer Were Popularized By The Meat Industry
    Photo: Souvenir Post Card Company / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Reindeer Were Popularized By The Meat Industry

    Reindeer were introduced as a food and fur source to Alaska in the 19th century. Carl Lomen - a businessman and photographer - thought reindeer could be a popular meat throughout the United States. 

    Lomen believed there was no better salesman for reindeer meat than Santa Claus, a man who - like reindeer - hailed from the snowy north. Lomen provided a fanciful backstory to explain why:

    Hit by the high cost of living, Santa Claus - whose herds in Alaska have increased to more than 325,000 animals - is now placing some of his choicest animals on the market, to secure funds to buy gifts for his sack, and also to supply the good people of these United States with an additional and welcome food product.

  • England's Queen Elizabeth I Popularized Shaping Gingerbread Into Decorations

    Recipes for gingerbread can be traced back to at least 2400 BCE in Greece - but gingerbread men and objects have a slightly more recent history. 

    It only seems to have been in the early modern era when gingerbread was formed into decorative shapes. Emperor Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire once requested that his likeness be made in the form of gingerbread in the 15th century. Queen Elizabeth I of England (who reigned in the 16th century) similarly commissioned her cooks to bake gingerbread in molds so that they resembled her courtiers and important dignitaries.

    Though Elizabeth is credited with popularizing gingerbread men, she was not responsible for gingerbread houses. They didn't become popular until the 19th century, after the Brothers Grimm brought the folktale of Hansel and Gretel to wider audiences.