The Origins of Classic Christmas Traditions

Peyton Waymeyer

Christmas is a holiday season that is full of historical traditions.

For example, the white elephant gift exchange has been said to originate from when a king of Siam would gift rare albino elephants to the people that displeased him because the upkeep costs would ruin them.

But there are so many more origin stories that make this traditional Christmas that people know so well.

The Christmas that Americans know so well has such a historic significance. These origin stories are often overlooked, but what follows are a handful of origins for classic traditions.


Wreaths are often used to decorate homes during Christmas time, which is a tradition that may originate from ancient times.

Peyton Waymeyer

Dating back to ancient Persia, wreaths were said to have symbolized importance and success.

They were also smaller than the ones that are typically used today, were called “diadems,” and were only worn by members of the upper class and royalty.

Many believe that several cultures admired this tradition of wearing wreaths and began practicing it too.

At around 776 B.C. Greeks would place wreaths that were created using laurel, and put them on the heads of athletes who placed first in the Olympic Games.

The tradition of using evergreen in wreaths is credited to the Egyptian, Chinese, and Hebrew cultures, who thought that branches of evergreen symbolizes eternal life because they stayed green year-round.

Christmas Trees

A well known Christmas tradition is putting up a Christmas tree, which can be dated back to hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The story of the Christmas tree may be traced way back to ancient Egypt and Rome where people would put up symbolic evergreens. These plants or trees that stay green during all seasons had a deeper meaning to people in winter, and ancient people would hang evergreen boughs over doors and windows to keep ghosts, witches, evil spirits, and illness away.

For example, the Romans would mark the winter solstice by holding a feast called “Saturnalia,” honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans believed that soon after the solstice, farms and orchards would again be colorful, and they would celebrate this occasion by decorating their houses and temples with boughs of evergreen.

It is also believed that in northern Europe, ancient druids would decorate their temples with evergreen boughs to symbolize everlasting life.

But it is a different European country that often gets credited for creating the more traditional Christmas tree: Germany.

It is believed that German monk Martin Luther was the first to put lighted candles on these trees. Luther was astonished by the stars shimmering amongst the evergreens he saw as he walked home one winter night, and he decided to put up a tree and wire candles onto it.

Mistletoe Kiss

Kissing under the mistletoe has many possible origin stories.

Peyton Waymeyer

In ancient Greece, people would kiss under the mistletoe in events like marriage ceremonies since the plant is said to be associated with fertility.

In the era of ancient Rome, mistletoe represented peace, and so enemies would go under the mistletoe to resolve their problems during conflict. Also, Romans would decorate their homes and temples with mistletoe in the middle of winter to please their gods.

There was a Nordic myth that said that the mistletoe plant was a sacred plant to Frigga, the goddess of love, but Loki, the god of mischief, shot Frigga’s son. In the myth, Frigga healed her son underneath the mistletoe tree and said that those who stand underneath the mistletoe tree deserve love and protection from death.

The most recent possible origin story dates back to Victorian England, when it was a serious tradition to kiss under mistletoe.

It has been said that if a girl dismissed a kiss, she wouldn’t expect any marriage proposals for at least the upcoming year, plus a greater number of people would disrespect her and say that she will end up as an old maid.

Cookies for Santa

Peyton Waymeyer

Kids that celebrate Christmas are seen leaving out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve so that they can thank him for the presents, but this tradition’s origin has many different stories.

Perhaps the oldest documented origin story for cookies for Santa is from Norse mythology. The Norse god Odin would travel with his eight-legged horse, Seipner, and they would stop on their travels to leave presents for the children that left out treats for the horse.

The cookies for Santa tradition could have also originated from Germany in a biblical play about Adam and Eve where a “paradise tree” is an important prop.

Germans would put paradise trees in their homes on Christmas Eve to represent the Garden of Eden. The trees were made of fir, and decorated with hanging apples which were later replaced with wafers as a Christian sign of redemption before finally being supplanted by cookies and apples.

Another origin story to the cookies for Santa tradition is well known by Catholics.

One year on Dec. 6, Dutch immigrants held a feast to honor St. Nicholas and his attendants who had to travel a long way to arrive. The immigrants woke up the next morning and saw that their kindness was returned with presents from St. Nicholas.

This later led to the tradition of leaving treats for travelers and eventually the tradition that we all know as leaving cookies for Santa Claus.

The most recent possible origin story actually originates from America during the Great Depression.

Parents would attempt to teach their children to help others and give them gratitude for the Christmas gifts that they received due to the economic troubles.

Women were encouraged to bake chocolate chip cookies to send to their husbands who were in the military, and later the tradition became one related to Christmas time.