The history of Christmas, plus 10 festive facts you might not know
For many, Christmas is a time to uphold traditions. But where did they come from? Discover the history behind ‘the most wonderful time of the year’…
Ever wondered about the origins of the cherished traditions that make Christmas so special? Explore the stories behind our modern festivities in our historical guide – from the earliest winter celebrations to the man responsible for putting the ‘crack’ in crackers.
How did Christmas begin?
Long before Christianity, people have gathered to celebrate in the darkest days of winter. Early Europeans slaughtered their cattle to sustain them through these harsh months, and enjoyed the fresh meat along with alcohol that had fermented during the year.
The Christian festival we know today didn’t begin until the fourth century. Despite its celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ, Pope Julius I didn’t base his choice of 25 December on Jesus’s date of birth. This is because the Bible doesn’t actually tell us when he was born.
Rather, this midwinter choice was due to older festivals being held in the winter, which increased the chances of this new annual event – Christmas – being embraced by a wider population.
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Who invented Santa Claus?
The creation of Santa Claus is often linked to Coca-Cola, thanks to their commissioning of the illustrator Haddon Sundblom in 1931. Sundblom produced an image of a man with ruddy cheeks, a white beard, and a red suit – and so the Santa we imagine today was born.
However, inspiration for our jolly visitor predates this modern depiction by centuries. The legend can be traced back to a monk named St Nicholas, who lived around AD 280 in Lycia, now part of modern Turkey. He was known for his generosity towards the poor and infirm, and was later declared the patron saint of children by the Catholic Church.
In the Netherlands, St Nicholas, known as ‘Sint Nicolaas’ or ‘Sinterklass’ (hence our name ‘Santa Claus’) is still celebrated on 6 December, the anniversary of his death. On the evening of 5 December, Dutch families commemorate this day by leaving a shoe out overnight, in hope that it will be filled with sweet treats and gifts by morning.
What is the history of the Christmas tree?
The tradition of decorating trees in the home was mostly contained to Germany until the late 1700s. Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, is credited with adding candles to tree branches in attempt to re-create the night sky indoors.
It’s commonly believed that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, introduced the Christmas tree to England in 1840. Though, the first recorded Christmas tree was erected by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, in December 1800. By the mid-19th century, Christmas trees had become a popular staple amongst the middle classes, adorned with candles, homemade decorations, confectionary, and gifts.
How old are Christmas carols?
Vocal traditions during midwinter pre-date Christianity, with people singing, dancing and feasting to keep spirits high during the cold months. The earliest carols were often sung in a circle and accompanied by a dance, although these have since faded into obscurity.
Other carols originate from songs that weren’t originally associated with Christmas.
“One popular 16th-century song was the carol we know today as Deck the Halls,” Alexandra Coghlan told HistoryExtra. “Back then it was a favourite Welsh song, originally titled Nos Galan. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it acquired Christmassy words and became part of our own festivities. In its earliest form, Deck the Halls was just a folk song, but one with some rather naughty words.”
Why do we hang stockings on our fireplaces?
The origin of Christmas stockings can also be traced back to the benevolent monk St Nicholas. Legend has it that he dropped a bag of gold down a chimney to aid a household in need, and the gift landed in a stocking hung to dry on the fireplace.
- Read more | Welsh Christmas traditions through history
In 1822, minister Clement Clarke Moore penned the famous Christmas poem An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, now known for its opening line, “Twas the night before Christmas”. This poem went one step further than the original legend and depicted St Nicholas flying on a reindeer-driven sled to deliver toys by entering through the chimney, solidifying the character's connection with gift-giving.
What are the origins of the Christmas wreath?
The earliest known record of Christmas wreaths can be traced back to Germany in 1833. A clergyman in the Lutheran church lit a candle in a wreath each Sunday during Advent. As he did so, he would narrate the nativity story from the Bible.
Did you know?
“Wreath” originates from a Germanic word “writhian” which means “to twist”.
Over time, this religious custom spread to domestic use. Families created their own wreaths – typically made from evergreen branches – and adorned them with small candles, which would be lit one by one on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. This process symbolised the coming of the ‘Light of the World’ and the hope and anticipation of Christ’s birth.
In the later 19th century, wreaths adopted a slightly different form. The candles were replaced with ornaments, berries, pinecones and bows, resulting in the more decorative pieces we recognise today. They also became known as ‘welcome rings’, hung on front doors during the festive season.
When did we begin sending Christmas cards?
The first recorded Christmas card was sent in 1611 by German physician Michael Maier to King James I of England and his son, the Prince of Wales. It read:
“A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter the new auspicious year 1612.”
Though this was the first known festive correspondence, the concept of mass-produced cards wasn’t introduced until centuries later, in 1843. Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant, requested his friend, John Callcott Horsley, to illustrate a card for him. One thousand copies of the final product were printed, and an advert to purchase these cards detailed:
“Just published. A Christmas Congratulation Card: or picture emblematical of Old English Festivity to Perpetuate kind recollections between Dear Friends.”
In the 1870s, advances in publishing made sending Christmas cards like this affordable for the masses.
Who created the Christmas cracker?
It was London confectioner Tom Smith who first introduced the world to the Christmas cracker, in his attempt to boost sales of the French bonbon – a sugar-almond wrapped in paper with a twist at both ends.
Smith’s addition of a ‘love motto’ added an element of surprise to the treat. Yet, its evolution didn’t stop there. Later, he enlarged the packaging and replaced the bonbon with a small gift.
However, the true explosion of excitement arrived in 1847 when Smith first patented the festive ‘crack’ that would provide its name. This mechanism was perfected in the 1860s.
Why do we kiss beneath the mistletoe?
There are many opinions on where the practice of kissing beneath the mistletoe might come from. One derives from a Viking myth of Frigg – the goddess of motherhood and marriage, and her son Balder. A doting mother, she cast a powerful spell to make sure no plant grown on Earth could be used as a weapon against her son.
The god Loki, envious of Balder’s invincibility, realised that one thing had escaped Frigg’s notice: mistletoe. This was because it grew from the trees and not from the earth.
He made a spear out of it that would eventually kill Balder. In her devastation, Frigg promised to kiss anyone who walked beneath it in memory of her son.
10 festive facts you might not know
Here are some Christmas facts from the QI team, featured in their books 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted and The Third QI Book of General Ignorance:
1) In the 17th century, Christmas turkeys walked from East Anglia to London in three months.
2) Murderous frogs featured on Victorian Christmas cards, along with children being boiled in teapots and mice riding lobsters.
3) After noticing that she washed up bare-handed, Margaret Thatcher sent the Queen rubber gloves for Christmas.
4) The fake snow in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and White Christmas (1954) was made of asbestos.
5) Orthodox Jewish couples abstain from sex on Christmas Eve. Rabbis used to advise them to pass the time tearing toilet paper instead.
6) Christmas presents in Greece aren’t delivered by Father Christmas, but by Saint Basil.
7) Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas 1956 so she could take time off to finish To Kill a Mockingbird.
8) Cary Grant and Clark Gable met once a year to exchange unwanted monogrammed Christmas gifts.
9) ‘Jingle Bells’ wasn’t originally written as a Christmas song, but to celebrate Thanksgiving.
10) Taking down decorations on Twelfth Night (5 or 6 January) is a modern superstition. For many centuries they were kept up until Candlemas Eve, 1 February. Candlemas celebrates Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem and presenting him to the Lord.
Enjoyed our festive facts? Why not discover the history of Christmas food with Annie Gray in our four-part series – from the raucous world of Tudor feasting to the elegance of Georgian fine dining.