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Christmas Traditions and Where They Came From

Baking cookies and leaving some for Santa, decorating Christmas trees, hanging wreaths on our doors. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if these traditions were naught. But have you ever wondered where and how these traditions came about?

Many of these traditions date back to the pagan celebrations and the winter solstice in Europe and slowly brought over to the United States and the rest of the world. But as you may know, the very beginning of Christmas has multiple theories and different cultures asserting the tradition as theirs.

But over the years, as cultures blend together, the festival is no longer exclusively celebrated by Christians but celebrated by various cultures and religions!

So here’s a quick rundown on how your favorite Christmas traditions came about.

1. Gingerbread houses

“They saw that the house was built of bread, roofed with cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.” It is widely believed that this excerpt from Hansel and Gretel was published and popularized in Germany in the early 1800s, and it was what inspired German bakers to create the gingerbread house as we know it today.

Though they’re not usually made to taste as great as gingerbread cookies as it’s more appreciated as a decorative piece, it’s completely edible. During Christmas time, gingerbread houses can be seen taking over Christmas markets and family kitchens.

Interestingly, you can find a small medieval town in the South of Germany called Dinkelsbühl, where it is often thought of as a real-life depiction of gingerbread houses.

2. The Nutcracker

The classic Nutcracker. It’s during Christmas when the dolls with soldier-like appearances in their uniforms and broad smiles are found everywhere, kicking off the Christmas decorating season. The Germans believed that these nutcracker dolls dating back to the 13th century bring good luck and represent power and strength.

The famous ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and composed by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s classic named The Nutcracker is also loosely based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s fantasy story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, where a young girl befriends a nutcracker-doll that comes to life on Christmas Eve and goes to battle against an evil Mouse King.

3. Santa’s Milk and Cookies

There are many versions of the story about where this tradition originated from. Among the many began in Europe with the grand feast of a third-century bishop, Saint Nicholas. Children who couldn’t stay up for the feast would leave treats for Nicholas and other attendees who traveled from afar. The children would wake up to a gift in exchange for their kindness overnight in the morning.

Another theory traces back to the Great Depression when most were faced with economic hardship. The tradition of giving milk and cookies to Santa was started to teach children about the importance of giving back to show gratitude for their gifts.

In other parts of the world, children leave different foods like rice pudding in Denmark, a pint of beer in Ireland, and a cup of coffee in Sweden. How neat!

4. Christmas Cookies

If there’s something consistent throughout history, it’s that shared love for food brings everyone together. In the past, people gathered to feast before the winter cold froze their crops and drank wine and beer that had been patiently fermenting.

Later on, when sugar and butter were introduced in our lives, bakers started experimenting with those ingredients and spices. Eventually, they came up with the buttery soft, melt-in-your-mouth Christmas cookies we all love today. The first Christmas cookies were claimed by the Germans, who believed their Weihnachtsplätzchen to be the first of Christmas baking.

Fun fact: “cookie” comes from the Dutch word “koeptje.”

5. Stars

Sitting atop Christmas trees, illuminating the street lights, and present in every Christmas gift wrapper, the Star of Bethlehem, also known as the Christmas Star, remains one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas.

Despite the Star of Bethlehem only appearing once in the Bible, this symbol is mainly associated with the story of the wise men and the birth of Jesus. 

Stars also represent the symbol of light and hope. Something we all need inside of us to get through the darkest days, especially when seasonal depression kicks in.

6. Wreaths

Nothing is more inviting than a door with a Christmas wreath hung on it. It just sparks the joy of festivity. The evergreen Christmas wreath represents the promise of a spring’s rebirth and is often decorated with red holly leaves and berries representing the crown of thorns and blood of Christ.

The tradition is believed to go all the way back to the 16th century, but today, wreaths come in more than the classic red holly and come in all varieties, including ones for other seasons!

7. Christmas Trees

Staying green all throughout the dead of winter, the modern Christmas tree decked out in tinsels, ornaments, and baubles can be traced back to the 16th century when Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer, decorated trees with lights. It’s the wide belief that he was dazzled by the brilliant stars in the night sky and tried to recreate what he saw using trees and lighted candles.

Now, Christmas trees are a staple in every Christmas celebration. But before the custom was adopted by various cultures across the world, Christman trees were seen as a symbol of paganism and not acceptable in American society.

Fun fact: The tallest Christmas tree was a Douglas fir standing tall at 221 feet! It was erected at the Northgate Shopping Center in Seattle, Washington, in 1950.

8. Kissing Under The Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe by belchonock, 123RF.

Mistletoes were firstly known for their great mythical and medicinal powers. The Greeks would use the leaf evergreen with its waxy, white berries as a cure for all sorts of medical miracles. But how did kissing under the mistletoe come about? In 18th century England, men were allowed to kiss any woman standing under the mistletoe, and if the ladies refused, it meant bad luck.

There was a saying that if two kiss under the mistletoe, a wedding must soon follow. It’s safe to say that it’s great that that tradition has since been left in the past. 

Merry Christmas!

The question of how Christmas traditions came about isn’t always clear-cut. At the end of the day, as long as these traditions are ones you enjoy and remind you what Christmas is all about. Who knows, you can even create your own unique Christmas tradition and pass it down for generations!


Usher in the New Year’s with these amazing goals! Need inspiration for your Christmas content? Check out our guide on how to choose the right Christmas photos for clicks!


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