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Christmas Customs, Unwrapped: A Look at How Our Favorite Holiday Traditions Came to Be

We're unwrapping the hodgepodge of Christian, secular and pagan practices that we associate with Christmas, like why candy canes are shaped like, well, canes, and how Santa found residence at the North Pole.

Mistletoe

The ancient Celtic and Teutonic tribes of central Europe thought mistletoe to have magical powers, the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility, namely. The Celts would hang it in their homes to bring them luck and ward off evil spirits. During the Victorian era, during the holidays, the English would dangle sprigs of the stuff from ceilings and in doorways, and if someone was caught standing under it, they'd get kissed by someone in the room.

Santa Claus

Legends of St. Nicholas date back hundreds of years to a monk born around 280 A.D., said to be the protector of children and sailors. But it was Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, written for his daughters, that's responsible for many of the traits we attribute to Santa. Stores started featuring the newly popular Santa Claus in their newspaper advertisements as early as 1840, and "shopping mall" Santas weren't far behind. In 1881, Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the first image of Santa Claus that matches our modern-day idea. He gave St. Nick his white fur-trimmed red suit, North Pole workshop, elves and Mrs. Claus.

Poinsettias

Named after Joel R. Poinsett, an American minister who brought them from Mexico to America in 1828, they started popping up in greenhouses as early as 1830. They started being sold in New York stores in 1870, and by 1900, the red-and-green plant had become all but synonymous with the holiday.

Christmas Trees

The Germans are credited with starting the tradition in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. German settlers in Pennsylvania brought the custom to America, but outside of this sect, as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not adopted by most Americans. By the 1890s, ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas trees were becoming a thing around the U.S., and with the invention of electricity which made way for twinkling lights, it become the thing in the early 20th century.

Greeting Cards

A Brit named John Calcott Horsley helped popularize Christmas cards when he started making small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written greeting in the late 1830s. Newly adept post offices in England and the U.S. helped them go 19th-century viral. Around the same time, the first American card maker, R.H. Pease was producing similar designs in the States, along with German immigrant Louis Prang.

Caroling

Before the 12th century, caroling wasn't about religion at all. Instead, it was a mark of birthdays and general celebration. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, written in 1843, coupled with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert being sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree, spurred the writing of the modern carols that we associate with Christmas, today. Jingle Bells was composed by James Pierpont in Massachusetts around 1850 and copyrighted in 1857 when he was the choir director of Jingle Bells Church in Savannah, Georgia.

Gift Giving

This one is kind of multi-pronged. Gift-giving in December is a relic of the pagan holiday Saturnalia, celebrated in ancient Rome. When Dec. 25 was designated as the day Christians would celebrate Jesus' birth, the giving of gifts was reinterpreted as a tie to the story of the Three Wise Men giving gifts to baby Jesus. The focus on gifting children with goodies for Christmas is thought to have popularized in the first half of the 19th century as a broad effort to rebrand Christmas from a public party to a more home- and child-centered holiday. And, then, of course, there's Santa Claus.

Eggnog

"Nog" comes from the word grog, which refers to any drink made with rum. According to Captain John Smith's reports, the first eggnog made in the U.S. was enjoyed in his 1607 Jamestown settlement – littered with farms plentiful in cows, chickens and cheap rum – before soon being tied to Christmas. What colonists enjoyed back then would taste a lot different from what's on grocery store shelves today. The FDA allows creamy concoctions made with as little as 1 percent egg yolk to pass as eggnog.

Candy Canes

In 1670, a choir master at Cologne Cathedral in Germany, to keep fussy kids quiet during service, handed out white sugar candies and bent the ends to resemble a shepherd's crook. In America, in the early 20th century, confectioners started adding the peppermint flavor and the iconic red swirly stripes.

December 25th

Most historians and Biblical scholars agree that Jesus was born sometime in spring, not in December. Looking for a new holiday to compete with Saturnalia, the Roman, pagan holiday that celebrated the winter solstice, early Christian leaders adopted Dec. 25 as the date of Christ's birth for a more seamless integration. Saturnalia festivities could continue, so long as Jesus' birth was honored as well. In 345 A.D., Pope Julius I officially designated Dec. 25 as the Nativity.

Sources: History.com, The Atlantic, Time Magazine, fda.gov.

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