Where Did Different Christmas Traditions Come From?

Figure 1. Santa likely has his origin from Saint Nicholas but other traditions that may also be pre-Christian influenced the concept.

Christmas has many traditions in different countries around the world. Some of the more well known in the Western world include hanging stockings on the fireplace, putting lights outside, telling children that Santa is on his way, and many others, including foods and drinks such as Eggnog. Where did many of these traditions come from? The story, for some, is they derived from periods long before Christmas began, but for other traditions, they are more recent.

Some Well Known Traditions

Perhaps among the best-known traditions for many of us is Santa Claus or Father Christmas in some countries. Saint Nicholas is the most likely historical inspiration for Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas was a bishop well known for giving gifts to children in the 4th century in Myra, Turkey.

However, other religions and cultures influenced traditions and elements surrounding Santa Claus. Wodan, an important Norse/Germanic god, is an inspiration for several aspects of Santa Claus. Wodan would ride in the sky during the period of Yule which is somewhat similar to Christmas. Santa's reindeer live in and around the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia like Wodan. The god also had a long white beard. Santa Claus is, in essence, a Turkish/Germanic/Nordic hybrid.

In 1809, Washington Irving's History of New York merged different traditions of the English Father Christmas and Dutch Sinterklaas that had developed over time to give a more modern version of Santa Claus. What made modern Santa Claus was the 1821 poem that is now know to us as 'The Night Before Christmas,' which characterizes the figure, describes his reindeer, and gives the story of him dispersing presents to children (Figure 1).[1]

Figure 2. Christmas trees were first decorated with candle lights.

Christmas lights derive from the use of candle lights on Christmas trees, which was popular among Germany families as early as the 18th century, although in pre-Christian Germany decorating trees was also common in Germany. Initially, lights were candles, and it was only in the late 19th century (the 1890s) that Christmas trees were decorated with electrical lights. Grover Cleveland was the first president to use electricity to light a Christmas tree in the White House.

However, Christmas lights began to spread outside of the tree by the 1940s and 1950s, as the production of lights became cheaper and new forms of lights were developed. Initially, decorations focused on mantles and edges of houses, but soon this spread to other areas.[2]

Christmas trees also have a likely pre-Christian link or influence, as in European and Near East cultures, where trees were sometimes seen as sacred, especially evergreen trees that remained green in the winter months. They were also celebrated at the time of Yule, which was a pre-Christian northern European celebration around the time of Christmas.

The modern Christmas tree, however, may derive from the 15th century, when guildhalls in towns in Latvia and Germany began to put decorated trees in public places for people to enjoy and symbolize Christmas. The Protestant Reformation may have inspired the idea of putting a Christmas tree in the home, and this symbol became associated with Protestants. Alternatively, nativity scenes were used more commonly by Catholic families instead of trees. (Figure 2).[3]

Christmas carols are perhaps among the most ancient traditions. Songs around the time of the Winter Solstice were sung by different pre-Christian societies worshiping in this period. After their conversion, Christian missionaries wanted to replace these songs with songs related to Christ. The first Christmas hymns and carols developed perhaps as early as the 2nd century AD, when a hymn called Angel's Hymn was ordered to be sung by Pope Telesphorus.[4]

Putting stockings on a fireplace could have begun as early as Saint Nicholas' time, in the 4th century, but the stories are uncertain, where he is said to have hung presents on stockings for people. However, in the early 19th century in Europe, children increasingly began to use their socks to hang their presents in. Soon people began to create special Christmas stockings or socks that would then be used to place presents within.[5]

Christmas Foods and Drinks

The origin of eggnog is unclear, but the best records indicate that English aristocracy or wealthy landowners would drink a drink similar to eggnog, which contained milk, eggs, and sherry during the time of Christmas to celebrate prosperity in the previous year and the years to come. Eggnog had ingredients that were well beyond the means of most people so the drink was meant to be a toast to prosperity by the wealthy.

In the US colonies, it began to become popular during the 18th century when wine and other liquors were taxed, but rum was not. Thus, rum began to be a popular alcoholic addition to the egg and milk mix.[6]

The fruitcake in a modern usage was used as early as the 19th century in Victorian England, where it became popular with the royal family and then the tradition spread to British society and culture, eventually arriving in the US. The tradition, however, may stem from at least the Roman period, when a plum, raisin, and nut recipe is known to have existed, perhaps used in times of celebration.[7]

Christmas pudding likely started its origin as a savory food in England in the Medieval period that included stuffing the meat and pudding into a stomach of a sheep used to wrap the finished product. In the 18th century, plum began to be used to help make it a sweet dish to be made before Christmas and then served on Christmas day. It may have become popularised in Christmas as King George I was described as requesting a pudding made for Christmas and the use of a plum pudding during that time helped associated the pudding with Christmas in subsequent years.[8]

Other Traditions Around the World

Mulled wines are popular in many European countries around Christmas, including Glühwein in Germany. The Romans brought wine with them in much of Europe, and this tradition influenced Medieval cultures that began to brew spices within their wines. They also heated wines during winter to keep people warm, and with Christmas being in a cold month, the use of mulled wines began to be associated as Christmas drinks in Medieval cultures at least by the 14th century.[9]

Krampus is a mythical figure portrayed often in the Christmas period as a horned animal that punishes children for misbehaving. It is used still in Central European cultures such as Austria. In many cases, he is displayed as someone similar to the devil. The symbolism and story go back to pre-Christian traditions of a creature punishing people for misdeeds, which was then subsequently kept and used in the Christmas story of a creature punishing children.[10]

The Yule Lads is a popular story that may derive from ancient folklore in Iceland and northern Europe. The story tells of either fun-loving or sometimes mischievous young men who go around pulling pranks on people. In the 1930s, the Yule Lads were made popular again as part of the Christmas time tradition in Iceland and pulling pranks around Christmas has been associated with the Yule Lads.[11]


The Christmas period is a fascinating time of many different traditions and practices, some we hold in common with many others while others are specific to certain countries and cultures. Many traditions have pre-Christian roots, but others are either modernized or fully developed during Medieval or later periods. Christmas has long inspired creativity and fun; often this is seen as welcome relief in cold and dark countries during the winter season.


  1. For more on Santa Claus and his origins, see: Urban, C. W. (2011). Nicholas: the Fantastic Origin of Santa Claus. Booklocker.com, Inc.
  2. For more on Christmas lights, see: Iwamasa, R. T., & Fay, P. (2006). The history of the Christmas figural light bulb: a companion guide to antique Christmas figural light bulbs (1st ed). Midland, Mich: RTI Pub.
  3. For more on Christmas tree origins, see: Farmer, J., & Friar, J. H. (2010). O Christmas tree: its history and holiday traditions. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
  4. For more on the history of caroling, see: Collins, A., & Hansen, C. (2003). Stories behind the great traditions of Christmas. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, pg. 46.
  5. For more on the tradition of using Christmas stockings, see: Johnes, M. (2016). Christmas and the British: a modern history. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, pg. 92.
  6. For more on eggnog, see: Staib, W., Yun, M., & Wolkow, D. (2013). A sweet taste of history: more than 100 elegant dessert recipes from America’s earliest days. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.
  7. For more on the fruitcake, see: Leach, H. M. K., Browne, M., & Inglis, R. M. (2011). The twelve cakes of Christmas: an evolutionary history, with recipes. Dunedin, N.Z: Otago University Press.
  8. For more on Christmas pudding, see: Ysewijn, R. (2016). Pride and pudding. Murdoch Books.
  9. For More on mulled wines, see: Da Silva, Z. S. (2017). The herb in history, mysteries and crafts. Cambridge Scholars Publishing
  10. For more on Krampus, see: Ridenour, A. (2016). The Krampus and the old, dark Christmas: roots and rebirth of the folkloric devil. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.
  11. For more on Yule Lads, see: Herman, H. (2015). The legend of the Icelandic Yule Lads. Outskirts Press.