The strange origins of Christmas traditions

Aubrey Shanahan

Comedian Jim Gaffigan pokes fun at Christmas traditions in his stand-up recording, “Beyond the Pale,” saying that decorating for Christmas sounds like the behavior of a drunk person. While this is funny at first, if you think about it, it is very odd that we bring trees into our house and, as Gaffigan says, “decorate them for Jesus.”

We’re all familiar with some of the interesting Christmas traditions: Santa brings presents at night, we hang our stockings over the fire and if you find yourself under mistletoe, prepare to get kissed. These traditions have been ingrained in anyone who celebrates the holiday since childhood, but have you ever paused to ask why we do these things?


The website seeks to answer the questions about the seemingly odd behavior we partake in for Christmas, and we’ve picked some of their most interesting explanations for popular traditions:

Santa Claus

St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas — whatever you call him — he is based off of a real Saint who used his wealth to help the poor through money or gifts. Over time, he was given some of the name variations we know today, and became a symbol of gift giving and generosity for young children.


Stockings over the fire come from a tale about three sisters who would not be able to marry because their father had no dowry to give. St. Nicholas heard of their trouble and dropped some gold down the chimney. The bag landed in a stocking that had been left to dry over the fire, and ever since, people have placed gifts in stockings over the fireplace.

Christmas Tree

Originally, Pagans celebrated the winter solstice by placing branches from evergreen fir trees around their homes. Actually placing a full and decorated tree in the home, however, did not come about in the United States until the mid-1800s, when Prince Albert had a drawing printed of the royal tree in England that made its way across the pond.


While it was a symbol of love and friendship in mythology for a long time, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe apparently originated in England, where you would pick a berry from the plant before kissing someone, and once they were all gone, “there could be no more kissing.”



The bold, colorful poinsettias are popular gifts in some circles, but it’s not particularly clear why, other than their red and green colors, which often signify Christmas. In fact, they are very religiously symbolic. According to the site, “the shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought of as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent His purity.”

Candy Canes

These decorative staples actually looked much different two hundred years ago, when they were simply “straight white sugar sticks.” They found the traditional shape after a choirmaster disguised them to look like a shepherd’s crook, and they became striped once the wintergreen and peppermint flavoring was added around 1900.

For more information on Christmas traditions and their origins, you can visit, or the website, which also has some fun facts about this time of year.

Happy holidays, Rams.

Collegian A&E Writer Aubrey Shanahan can be reached at or on Twitter @aubs926.