The Origins of Christmas Traditions

Christmas. It’s the time of year where so many people have ‘traditions’.

Whether it be decorations, presents, carols, the gathering itself, christmas stockings, gingerbread houses or other Christmassy treats, or more … there’s usually an element of tradition to it. So let’s see where these traditions started!

I wouldn’t say that I’m really a traditionalist, but there are certain things that ‘make’ Christmas, Christmas for me. Things such as having a Christmas tree, sending out cards to friends, having a roast lunch, and my mum’s “polish sausage” which is actually a chocolate mint thing, rolled up like a sausage … sounds weird, but it is YUMMY!

While Christmas is long associated with Christianity, when you look back there’s a definite mix of Christian and non-Christian origins of traditions.

“Yuletide is the old or poetical, name for the Christmas season, and has been held as a sacred festival from time as a memorial – long before the advent of Christianity – by numerous nations of the earth. The births were celebrated, then, of Buddha by the Chinese, or Horus, son of Isis, by the Egyptians, and of Ceres, Bacchus and Hercules by the Greeks. Druids, various Indian tribes, the ancient Mexicans, Persians. Romans, and Scandinavians, all held some sort of religious celebrations during the period of winter solstice, occurring in the northern hemisphere towards the end of December.”

The following description of Christmas traditions was reported in the West Australian newspaper, 24 December 1929, with a few additions (with links) added in as needed.


Evergreen decorations have been used since ancient times when the great feast of Saturn was held in December and the people decorated the temples with such green things as they could find. The Christian custom is the same transferred to Him who was born in Bethlehem on the first Christmas Day. The holly or holy-tree is called Christ’s thorn in Germany and Scandinavia, from its use in church decorations and its habit of putting forth scarlet berries at Christmas time.

The custom of Christmas-trees laden with gifts comes from Germany and has origin in obscure Scandinavian and Egyptian legends. The Christmas tree was introduced into England by the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria, in 1840.

The Christmas box was a small gratuity given to servants, retainers, etc., on Boxing-Day (the day after Christmas Day). In the early days of Christianity boxes were placed, in churches for promiscuous charities, and opened on Christmas Day. The contents were distributed next day by the priests, and called ‘the dole of the Christmas box,’ or the ‘box money.’ It was customary for the heads of houses to give small sums of money to their subordinates ‘to put into the box’ before mass on Christmas Day. Somewhat later, apprentices in England carried a box round to their masters’ customers for small gratuities. The custom died out gradually after 1830.

Christian carols are sung in commemoration of the song of the angels to the shepherds of the nativity. In olden days the bishops with the clergy used to sing carols and play games on Christmas Day. The earliest Christmas hymn, Corde natus ex parentis, ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten,’ still sung in the Church of England, was written by a Spanish Christian poet, born at Saragossa in the 4th century. The popular German Christmas songs date from the 11th century, and Christmas carols generally from the 13th century. The hymn Adeste fideles. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’ was composed as late as the 17th century, by John Reading.

The custom of the Christmas stocking comes from Belgium.
[ed. The more common theory is that is started with Saint Nicholas from Turkey, who threw bags of gold coins down the chimney of a wealthy businessman who had gone broke. You can read all about that here]

Santa Claus hails from Holland.
[ed. Again St Nicholas who was born in 280AD at Myra, near current-day Turkey, seems to be the origin of this legend and tradition, you can read more about that here].

French children range their shoes on the hearth-stone on Christmas Eve for the Christ-child to fill with toys or sweets.

In Denmark and Sweden the Christmas box or gift is known as julklapp. The delivery of the julklapp is peculiar. Small presents are wrapped first in fringed tissue paper, then done up in common brown paper, and sometimes wrapped in strips of cloth until round like a ball, covered with a thin layer of dough and browned in the oven, finally pinned up in a napkin, tied in white wrapping paper and tied with pink string. Other gifts are enclosed in labelled bundles of hay, rolls of cotton or wool, with inner wrappings variously as sorted. Julklapps are delivered early on Christmas morning after a loud knock at the bedroom door, by hurling the packages on to the sleeper’s chest. Later in the day they may be landed in someone’s lap after a sharp tap at door or window. In short, the julklapps’ may come from any and every direction when least expected, and surprise and excitement is thus kept up from early morn until late at night on Christmas Day.

The Polish custom is for the children of a household to search for their Christmas gifts which have previously been hidden in all manner of places about the home.

Christmas cards, which have gone through the post annually in millions for many years, and their popularity shows no sign of waning are only a modern institution. The first genuine Christmas card ever entrusted to the care of the Post Office was sent in 1844 by W. E. Dobson, R.A., who has a friend from whom he has received certain courtesies for which he desired to show appreciation. The time was Christmas, so he made a sketch symbolising the spirit of the festive season and posted it to his friend. It was done on a piece of Bristol-board about twice the size of the modern letter-card, and from this small beginning rapidly sprang the custom responsible for the development of a vast industry for the manufacture and distribution of Christmas cards. [Extract from The West Australian, 21 December 1923, pg 6] [ed. there is also reports of the first Christmas card appearing in 1843, which you can read about here].

Christmas pudding (sometimes known as plum pudding) is a type of pudding traditionally served as part of the Christmas dinner in the UK, Ireland and in other countries where it has been brought by British emigrants. It has its origins in Christian medieval England.  It was not until the 1830s that the mix of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices, all topped with holly, made a definite appearance, becoming more and more associated with Christmas. More information on this here.


What are your Christmas traditions?

One Response to “The Origins of Christmas Traditions”

  1. crissouli says:

    Congratulations! I have included your blog/s in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thanks, Chris
    (You might like to check Always Interesting… to see if you are included there)

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