6 Christmas Traditions: Where Did They Originate From

By Katy Thornton / November 30, 2020

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions. We all know the story of Christmas – when Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to give birth to baby Jesus, son of God – which makes it a predominantly Christian holiday. However, Christmas has become something entirely different and is celebrated by people all over the world, religious or not. Every household has their own niche traditions they whip out every December, but in this article I’m going to discuss where the most famous Christmas traditions originated from. 

1. Eating Turkey

Christmas traditionsTurkey is a staple in Christmas dinner for meat-eaters, but why do we eat turkey and not chicken or beef? This choice is credited to King Henry VIII, who is historically recorded to have been the first to have turkey on Christmas Day. In 1526, turkeys were brought into Britain and they were often eaten in place of chickens or cows because they needed them for eggs and milk. Although King Henry VIII had turkey on Christmas day in the 16th Century, it wasn’t until the mid 1950s that this became popular practice in other households. Until then, they tended to eat goose. Turkeys are also much bigger than other poultry, considered family size, which makes one bird ideal to feed several people. 

If you’re vegan or vegetarian however, check out our 5 Christmas dinner ideas that don’t involve meat!

2. Santa Claus 

Christmas traditionsThis man has many names: Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, but the image probably in your mind, regardless of the name you attach, is a fat man in a red suit with a big white beard. Believe it or not, he does originate from a real person, a monk called St Nicholas hundreds of years ago. He was known to be kind and compassionate, particularly to children, hence where the legend of Santa comes from. There’s a common misconception that the modern day depiction of Santa comes from a Coca-Cola campaign in the 1930s, and though these images did help, the first drawings were by Thomas Nast. If you want to take a closer look at Santa’s history, and why he is one of our most beloved Christmas traditions, you can read more here

3. Christmas Carols

carol singers 1509618332OHIChristmas carols and their origins are harder to track – they are an oral tradition that have been passed down for centuries. They are most famously credited to Saint Francis of Assisi, who, in the 13th Century, incorporated singing carols or more joyous hymns, as Christmas is a time of celebration. Before this they used to sing more sombre hymns, but singing carols and going door to door has become a cheerful tradition. As Buddy the Elf would say, “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” 

4. Exchanging Presents 

christmas presents 595850 1280Although gift-giving isn’t everything, it is a large part of Christmas day, particularly for children. What’s better than a jolly man from the North Pole delivering presents via the chimney? This is one of those Christmas traditions that is as simple as being accredited to the original nativity story. When Jesus was born in the manger, the Three Wiseman brought him the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to celebrate the birth of God’s son, and so the tradition of exchanging gifts has lived on.

5. Christmas Trees

Christmas tree at night It is believed that the Christmas tree tradition began in Germany. Christmas trees, which are typically evergreens, have always been a special symbol even before they were attached to a religious holiday. These trees, true to their name, stay green all year around, so during the colder months, when the other trees would grow bare, they served as a reminder for regrowth. From the 16th Century, Christians in Germany would decorate their homes with evergreens over the Christmas period, and Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer, went on to light up his tree with candles. In the centuries since, the use of a Christmas tree as a decoration over the holidays has spread, which you can read more about here

6. Advent Calendars 

download 4We have a whole article about advent calendars called The Uncovered History of the Advent Calendar, so I’ll give you the short version here. Advent calendars began as far back as 1851; they are effectively a way of counting down the days from December 1st until Christmas. Originally people would make chalk strokes to count the days, which then evolved into hanging pictures of the nativity scene. Today, the most common styles of advent calendars are the ones filled with chocolate. 

What are your favourite Christmas traditions? Let us know in the comments below!

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About the author

Katy Thornton

Katy is a Creative Writing graduate from UCD who freelance writes and is currently working on her debut novel.

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