Brief Histories of Common Christmas Traditions

Decorating with Evergreen—

Placing boughs of evergreens into the house is a practice dating to ancient times and present in numerous cultures for various reasons signifying life, prosperity, good luck, and so on. Church records dating to the 7th century tie evergreen boughs and trees to religious symbolism.

Martin Luther is commonly attributed with the tree as a specific part of Christmas. Legends say that on Christmas Eve about the year 1500 Luther was struck by the beauty of a grove of evergreen trees dusted with snow that sparkled in the moonlight. Immediately he set up a fir in his house and decorated with lit candles in honor of Christ’s birth, sharing the forest vision with his children.

Germans and Austrians spread the tradition, adding other decorations, and Queen Charlotte introduced the concept to George III shortly after her marriage to Britain’s king.

Christmas Cards—

Sending specially decorated cards or letters to friends and family for the holiday is a practice older than the postal service. However, these cards were hand made by the sender.

In 1843, John Calcott Horsley, a London illustrator, was commissioned by a wealthy businessman, Sir Henry Cole, to produce ready-made cards for the holiday since Sir Cole was too busy to do it himself. 1000 cards were printed on a single page of cardboard and sold in London shops for a shilling. 12 copies of Horsley’s card are in existence today, an image of one to the right.

Candy Canes—

1922 Christmas card image of candy canes

Candy canes began as straight white sticks of sugar candy used to decorate the Christmas trees. According to a folklore, in 1670 a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral asked a local candy maker for some “sugar sticks” to give to the children during the Living Crèche worship services on Christmas Eve in order to keep them quiet. Mindful of the season, he requested the sticks be white to teach children about the Christian belief in the sinless life of Jesus, and also asked for a curved end to depict a shepherd’s crook. To so-named “candy canes” grew in popularity throughout Europe, remaining tied to the Christmas season.

It is unclear exactly when candy makers began adding a red stripe to the candy cane. The first recipe for straight peppermint candy sticks of white with colored stripes, was published in an 1844 confectioner’s cookbook. Throughout the late 1800s there were several literary references to “candy canes” associated with Christmas, including notations of them hung onto trees as a decoration, but none describe them in depth or mention stripes.

Wherever the addition of the red stripe originated, cooking and creating a twined candy cane was a laborious, hand-done process until advances in machinery by the mid-1900s made the process easy enough for twisted red and white candy canes to become the standard.


Tinsel made its first appearance in Germany in and around 1610. The early tinsels were made of real silver and machines were invented to pull the silver into very thins strips for the tinsels. The Christmas tree was lighted with the shiny tinsels both on the Christmas Day and Christmas Eve. Though silver is a durable metal, it tarnished quickly with candlelight so could not be left on for long. Efforts were soon on to find a substitute and experiments were made with a mixture of lead and tin. The resultant mixture was heavy and tended to break down the branches under its own weight, therefore not reasonable to use in decorations.

Silver tinsels continued to be used as recently as the mid-twentieth century when synthetics and plastics took the place of costly metals. To the right is a Victorian Era case of silver tinsel.

Father Christmas/St. Nicholas—

During the first centuries AD England was largely Saxon and Viking up until the Norman invasion in 1066. Effects to Romanize and Christianize only went so far, the native peoples holding on to their gods. Odin was the Viking father of the gods and he had 12 characters. In December he was Jul and the month was Jultid (Yuletide) with Odin (Jul) disguised in a long blue hooded cloak, carrying a satchel of bread, and walking with a staff. Legends say he would join his people at the campfire listening to hear if they were content and giving gifts to the poor.

When the Normans brought their St. Nicholas customs – the saintly priest giving gifts to children at Christmas – the images mingled over time with a Christian element added. During the Reformation most records were lost so little is known of the customs and beliefs that evolved, but there is great evidence that Father Christmas grew rowdier with a spirit of Christmas cheer more than Christmas piety! We do know that when Parliament under Cromwell banned Christmas in 1647 secret publishers of Broadsheets used “Old Father Christmas” as the imaginary spokesperson of Christmas traditions.

“In comes I, Old Father Christmas. Be I welcome or be I not – I hope that old Christmas will never be forgot!”

He became heavily disguised and secret, a jovial creation synonymous with the goodwill and entertaining aspects of Christmas that were forbidden rather than the saintly attributes of the past. This idea remained even after Cromwell’s edict was overthrown.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—

In 1939, Montgomery Ward tapped one of their own employees to create a children’s book for them rather than spend the money to purchase books or gifts to give out to customers as had been their practice for years. 34-year old copywriter Robert L. May wrote the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and 2.4 million copies were handed out that year! (original cover to left)

Rollo and Reginald were considered as names, but May’s 4-year-old daughter served as tester of the story and Rudolph was preferred. May obtained the copyright in 1947 and in 1948 his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote lyrics and melody to turn the story into a song. The song was turned down numerous times until 1949 when Gene Autry, at the urging of his wife, agreed to record it.

The popular Christmas ditty Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a story and then a song written long after Clement Clarke Moore gave us A Visit From Saint Nicholas where the idea of Santa Claus having eight reindeer originated. May would give us the origination and name of Santa’s ninth reindeer, but the original eight were already established. Or were they? Read on . . .

Dunder and Blixem—


In Moore’s poem, written in 1823, he names the reindeer as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem.

What? Dunder and Blixem? Well, apparently in the original poem Moore chose Dutch names but then in an 1844 revision he changed the names to the German interpretations Donder and Blitzen (which means Lightning). He reasoned that Blitzen rhymed better with Vixen, but why Dunder was changed to Donder is unclear.

Even later still, and for reasons that no one knows for certain, the songwriter of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Johnny Marks, turned Donder into Donner. There is speculation that Marks knew that the German word for ‘Thunder’ is Donner, and that perhaps he thought it went well with Blitzen (Lightning). But no one knows for sure!

Whatever the case, Donner and Blitzen have become firmly established and since the 1950’s have appeared in publications of Moore’s story. The only people who seem to desire keeping the original alive are these makers of ale!

Brown’s Dunder & Blixem Strong Ale is a wonderfully full and festive winter warmer brewed just for the holiday season. Pouring mahogany-red, Dunder & Blixem is rich and subtly roasty with notes of toffee, raisin and holiday spice with a delightful piney and herbal hop balance. Brewed in honor of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” which was first published in the Troy, NY Sentinel on December 23, 1823. More popularly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” the tale originally featured reindeer “Dunder” and “Blixem” (Dutch for Thunder and Lightning) before later tellings of the fable spoke of Donner and Blitzen.

Christmas Carol—

Arguably the first carols were the songs the shepherds sang on the night Jesus was born. Credit, however, generally goes to St. Francis of Assisi in the early 1200s for replicating the nativity scene at Christmas and having children dance and sing songs written about the special birth. The word “carol” original referred to a type of dance, and then later a joyful hymn associated with the Nativity or other holy holiday.

In 1487 a description of festivities on Twelfth Night included, “after the Kings furst course sange a caralle.” In 1521 Wynkyn de Worde published the oldest collection of Christmas carols, many of which are still sung today.

Watchman of the city started the custom of serenading the public at Christmas time as they patrolled, using carol refrains to mark the passing hours rather than blowing horns as typical. The oldest songs we are most familiar with include Silent Night (1816), O Come All Ye Faithful (1744), While Shepherds Watched Their Flock (1652), O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868), The Twelve Days of Christmas (1780 published in Mirth and Mischief as a memory-and-forfeits game), Good King Wenceslas (1853), and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739 by Charles Wesley) – among others.

Presents/Gift Wrap—

Gifts have been a part of Christmas since the Wise Men began the tradition. St. Nicolas, the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor did exist and had a reputation for generously giving, especially to children, at all times of the year but Christmas was special to him by all accounts, whether one believes the gold thrown down the chimney that ended up inside the stockings hung to dry story or not. By the 10th century gift giving customs in nearly every country were well established, although usually sweet treats and other handcrafted items.

The Industrial Revolution led to a shift to manufactured gifts and the boon in advertising begun in earnest in the 1840s led to the commercialization of Christmas giving. Wrapping gifts or hiding them in some way as to be a surprise is probably far older than Christmas! Until the 1890s when printing technology existed to manufacture colored prints in large quantities, gift givers used plain brown paper, colored tissue paper, cloth, or decorated baskets and the like. The gift would be highly decorated with drawings, flowers, greenery, and so on.

In 1917 the Hall Brother’s of Kansas City ran out of the red, green, and white tissue paper in their store prior to Christmas so the next year the brothers shipped large sheets of decorated envelope liner. It sold like hot cakes so they began printing their own Christmas wrapping paper for the holidays, surprised to have the paper quickly rival the nice holiday cards they sold. Needless to say they did very well with their business and if you haven’t guessed it as yet, Hallmark was born! Lucky for them, and us, scotch tape was invented in 1930 making the use of string, ribbons, and sealing wax unnecessary.



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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Elin Eriksen

I am surprised, some traditions was much older than I thought, like tinsel.
Thank you for sharing!


As children in the fifties we used to decorate the room with holly and paper chains but alas our budgie objected to the holly and assumed the paper chains were extra perches (which alas snapped). So we had to restrict the decorations.
I love Christmas carols but even now I still sing Silent Night as Stille Nacht from being in the German choir at school in the sixties!
I love tinsel and remember finishing the decorations on the tree with the ultra thin strips of silver tinsel which glittered in the light.
Thank you for this lovely post.

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