The Fascinating Origins of 10 Favourite Christmas Traditions

No Christmas celebration feels complete without a decorated tree, stockings hung by the chimney, and a rousing round of carols. But where did each of those cherished holiday traditions come from?

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Calendar marking December 25
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Why We Celebrate Christmas on December 25

The reason Christmas lands on this date is a bit of a mystery. The Bible doesn’t specify the date of Jesus’s birth, and early Christians debated the topic for years. They first thought it was January 6, because April 6 was assumed to be the day Jesus died, and there was a corresponding belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception. But by the fourth century, they changed their minds to December 25. Some sources say this new date was purposely chosen to draw attention away from a pagan winter solstice ritual that fell on the same day. Others say that’s not true. All we know for sure is that regardless of the reason why, that date stuck.

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Christmas cookies
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Why We Bake Christmas Cookies

If we can learn one thing from history, it’s that people have always celebrated winter holidays with good food. Ancient peoples gathered around the winter solstice to feast before cold weather wiped away their crops. Plus, the wine and beer that had been fermenting since the spring were finally ready to drink. Christmas replaced these solstice celebrations by the Middle Ages, but the feasting continued—with the all-important addition of desserts. Bakers brought out expensive ingredients like butter, lard, and sugar for such festive occasions, and they started experimenting with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.

Here are 60 of our best-ever Christmas cookie recipes.

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Christmas tree
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Why We Put Up a Christmas Tree

Evergreen fir trees are universal winter decorations. Pagans displayed the branches as a reminder that spring would come again. Romans placed them around temples to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. But the first time the evergreen was used as a Christmas tree was either in Tallinn, Estonia, or Riga, Latvia (each city says it is the true home of the first Christmas tree). In the 16th century, German Christians brought the trees inside their homes as a symbol of everlasting life. When news spread that Queen Victoria had her German husband Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree in their palace, the practice suddenly became the height of interior design in England and America.

This is the best time to buy a Christmas tree in Canada.

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Christmas traditions
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And Why We Put Lights On It

Martin Luther is said to be the first person to put lights on a Christmas tree. Legend has it that he was walking through a forest one night and was moved by the beautiful stars shining through the trees. When he got went home, he recreated what he saw for his family by putting a tree in their living room and placing lighted candles on its branches.

Add more festive flair to your tree with these easy DIY holiday decorations.

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Toddler building a snowman
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Why We Build Snowmen

The first documented snowman appeared in 1380, but mankind has probably been making snowmen for as long as there’s been snow. They were especially popular during the Middle Ages, when many lacked the proper resources or outlets for artistic expressions. So instead of trying to find traditional art supplies, they turned to snow—and there was plenty of it. Michelangelo was commissioned to build a snowman for the ruler of Florence!

No snow? Cozy up indoors with the best Christmas movies of all time.

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Eggnog with cinnamon
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Why We Drink Eggnog

Eggnog doesn’t seem like a particularly elite drink, but that’s how it got its start. British aristocrats came up with the creamy concoction as a warm winter drink and added brandy and sherry to keep it from spoiling. Because the ingredients were so expensive, only the wealthy could afford to drink it (of course, anyone can make eggnog nowadays with leftover egg yolks). When it made its way to the American colonies in the 1700s, colonists subbed the pricy liquors for rum. At the time, rum was also called grog, so bartenders named the drink egg-n-grog. Later, it became eggnog, after the wooden “noggin” mugs the drink was served in.

Don’t miss these hilarious Christmas stories shared by our readers.

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Milk and cookies
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Why We Leave Milk and Cookies for Santa

This tradition hasn’t changed all that much since it began in medieval Germany. During Yule season, children left out food at night in hopes of getting presents from a different white-bearded guy—Odin, the all-powerful Norse god who travelled on his eight-legged horse Sleipner. The American custom we know today started during the Great Depression. Parents used it as a way to teach their kids that even when money was tight, they still had to be considerate of others and show gratitude for the blessings in their lives.

Find out what Christmas was like during the Great Depression.

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Christmas carolers
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Why We Sing Christmas Carols

When Christians began replacing pagan winter festivals with Christmas, bishops across Europe requested certain hymns to be sung at Christmas services. Many composers wanted to write their own carols, but since they were always in Latin, they weren’t terribly popular. Then in 1233, St. Francis of Assisi started putting on Nativity plays, which included canticles that told the story of Christ’s birth. These were usually all in a language that audience members could understand, so they sang along.

This is the oldest Christmas carol. (No, it’s not “Silent Night”!)

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Christmas stockings
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Why We Hang Stockings

You can thank Ol’ Saint Nick for those treats in your Christmas stocking. According to legend, St. Nicholas heard about a widower who was worried his three daughters would never marry because they were so poor. He found out where the family lived and snuck down their chimney that night. He saw the girls’ socks drying over the fireplace, filled them with gold coins, and disappeared. When the girls got up the next morning, they realized they finally had dowries to get married.

Read more about the origins of hanging stockings at Christmas.

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Kissing under the mistletoe
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Why We Kiss Under Mistletoe

Norse mythology creeps into Christmas traditions once again. According to legend, the gods used mistletoe to resurrect Odin’s son Baldur from the dead. So Baldur’s mother Frigg, the goddess of love, made the plant a symbol of love and vowed to kiss anyone who passed under it. In 18th century England, men were allowed to kiss any woman standing under mistletoe, and if the ladies refused, that meant bad luck.

Now that you know the story behind these favourite Christmas traditions, find out 13 fascinating facts about Christmas in Canada.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest

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