11 holiday traditions and their surprising origins (2023)

When it comes to modern American Christmas traditions, it may seem obvious that we have Victorian Era holiday rituals to thank. However, many traditions came from ancient cultures and were later adopted by Christians who adapted the traditions to celebrate Christ’s birth. Below is a list of common holiday traditions and their surprising origins.

Information for the article was found at History, whychristmas.com, Smithsonian Magazine, Mental Floss, thehistoryofchristmas.com, Claus Net, The New York Times, among other sites.

Christmas tree

11 holiday traditions and their surprising origins (1)

Stock photo

The origin of the first Christmas tree is widely contested. Several events throughout history led to the Christmas tree as we know it today.

Both the ancient Egyptians and Romans used greenery in their homes to celebrate winter festivals and the triumph of “life over death,” according to Illinois.edu. People appreciated plants that stayed green throughout the cold, dreary winter months.

However, residents of the Baltic cities of Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia, both claim they were home to the first official Christmas tree. Medievalists.net claims that records from 1441 from Tallinn reported that a tree was brought into the town square for a dance, though the word for tree could have had other meanings such as mast. In 1510, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of bachelor merchants, set up a decorated tree in Riga’s town center to celebrate the winter solstice.

According to Times of Malta, the two countries still playfully argue this point. In 2010, Tallinn’s mayor sent a Christmas tree to the mayor of Riga, congratulating him on the 500th anniversary of its Christmas tree and reminding them that Tallinn was celebrating the 569th anniversary of its Christmas tree.

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According to History, Martin Luther may have been the first to add lights to a Christmas tree. He came up with the idea after admiring the stars glittering through the pine trees. He decided to bring home a tree and added candles to create a similar effect to share with his family.

The Christmas tree was popular in Germany in the 1800s, and German immigrants to America brought the tradition with them. However, it didn’t become a set holiday tradition in the United States until the London Illustrated News published an illustration of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children surrounding a Christmas tree, according to History. Wanting to keep up with their British neighbors, Americans quickly adopted the tradition.


In the 1800s, the United States' ambassador to Mexico, Joseph Poinsett, was intrigued by a vibrant, red flower blooming in the southern part of the country. Missionaries called it the Nativity plant because it bloomed during the Advent season. Poinsett, who was also a botanist, introduced the flower to the United States, according to the University of Illinois.

According to whychristmas.com, a popular Mexican Christmas legend tells the story of Pepita, a poor girl who wanted a gift to give to the Christ child at Christmas Eve mass. All she had to offer was a small bouquet of weeds. However, her cousin assured her that what she gave would be enough. As she presented the bouquet, a Christmas miracle occurred. The weeds magically transformed into beautiful, red poinsettias.


Wreaths are a tradition steeped in symbolism. Thehistoryofchristmas.com says that early Germanic peoples made evergreen wreaths during the winter months to remind them that warm weather would return. Christians later adopted this tradition and used the circular wreath as a symbol of everlasting life through Christ. According to The New York Times, wreaths made of holly, known for its sharp, pointy leaves, reminded early Christians of the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Later, people would light wreaths during the Advent season to celebrate Christ as the light of the world, according to Slate.


Johnny Carson may have said it best when he called it “the worst Christmas gift.”

“There is only one fruitcake in the entire world,” he said. “And people keep sending it to each other.”

Despite widespread hatred of it, the fruitcake was not always as despised as it is today. In fact, in the 1800s, before the age of refrigeration, fruitcake was popular for its long shelf life. It could be brought overseas and still remain edible.

How Stuff Works says fruitcake’s origins date back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who placed a version of fruitcake in tombs when a relative died. The Romans also ate a version of the cake that they often took with them to the battlefield. It continued into medieval times and was even outlawed for a short time in 18th century Europe for being “sinfully rich," according to What's Cooking America. In the Victorian Era, fruitcake was a staple for tea parties. Smithsonian said it wasn’t until it began being mass-produced to be gifted that fruitcake began to fall out of favor.

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According to Mental Floss, the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, has hosted fruitcake tosses in the past. Participants built catapults and cannons for the event and even destroyed a computer by chucking fruitcake at it.


Caroling has medieval origins dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries when minstrels would go door to door performing for people. However, the songs didn’t necessarily have to do with Christmas and were performed year-round. According to whychristmas.com, the earliest Christmas carols evolved out of Nativity plays that started in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi. The carols were religious in nature but often told of made-up events.

In Victorian England, the traditions of singing holiday carols and traveling door to door finally combined and caroling as we know it today was born. In the 19th century, Christmas became more a more widely commercialized holiday and caroling became more popular as more sheet music was printed, according to Time.


According to legend, the original St. Nicholas, while traveling from village to village, heard about a merchant who had fallen on hard times and couldn’t afford dowries for his three daughters. St. Nicholas knew the man would never accept money, so he threw three sacks of gold down the family’s chimney. The sacks landed in the daughters' stockings that were drying by the fireplace, according to altogetherchristmas.com. Since then, children began leaving stockings by the fireplace in hopes that St. Nicholas would leave them presents too.


Historians believe eggnog descended from the medieval drink, posset, and continued to evolve throughout the years. Posset was made out of a mixture of ale, hot milk, spices and other liquors, according to PBS.org. Later, eggs were added to the mix. Experts believe that “nog” comes from the word noggin, a wooden cup used in pubs, according to indepthinfo.com. It was quite popular in colonial America and George Washington even had his alcohol-heavy recipe for the drink. According to Time, eggnog was used for toasts to good health and good fortune since all of the ingredients were expensive at the time. Eggnog retains its popularity today and pops up in recipes from eggnog ice cream to eggnog cheesecake.

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Mistletoe’s history is rooted deeply in mythology. According to History, the plant was known throughout history for its healing properties even though today we know it to be moderately poisonous (don’t leave it anywhere your pets can get to it).

The tradition of hanging mistletoe in homes could have come from several places. The ancient Druids believed the plant restored fertility, possibly due to the fact that it bloomed even during the winter. Furthermore, according to legend, the Norse God, Baldur, was killed when he was pierced with a sprig of mistletoe. Smithsonian says that Baludur woke up that morning afraid that every plant and animal species was set on killing him. His mother and wife went to every plant and animal and got them to promise not to harm Baldur.

However, according to legend, they forgot to ask mistletoe. The gods managed to resurrect Baldur from the dead. Out of joy, his mother, Frigg, the goddess of love, made mistletoe the plant of love and promised to kiss anyone who stood beneath it. It's no surprise that Americans associate mistletoe with kissing.

Christmas cards

According to mentalfloss.com, nearly 2 billion Christmas cards are sent every year. The very first official Christmas card was invented by Englishman Sir Henry Cole in 1843. Cole, who was too busy to write individualized Christmas greetings to each of his relatives one year, commissioned his artist friend, John Callcott Horsley, to illustrate a scene with a short message on the back. Horsley printed 1,000 of these cards. The scene on the card showed a holiday celebration and read "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you." The scene caused a bit of an uproar when people realized that it shows a child being given wine. This went against the temperance movement in England at the time, which discouraged underage drinking, according to Smithsonian.

Later in 1874, American Louis Prang opened a shop in Boston that sold a line of Christmas cards, according to Lifeway. His business took off and ended up producing 5 million cards every year, making it so Americans didn't have to order Christmas cards from overseas.

Rudolph story

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According to americacomesalive.com, in 1939, The Montgomery Ward, a Chicago department store, asked its copywriter, Robert May, to create a coloring book for children. May, who had been teased as a boy, wrote about a reindeer who was teased for his unusual red nose but ultimately found acceptance when Santa discovered he could lead the sleigh through the fog on Christmas Eve. The book received almost instant popularity.

Unfortunately, not long after, May’s wife got cancer and passed away, leaving him with medical debts and a young daughter to care for. Montgomery Ward eventually gave May the rights to Rudolph so that he could publish it and make some money. May’s brother-in-law, a musician, set the words to music. Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has since become one of the most beloved Christmas songs.

The Christmas pickle

It is unknown exactly how this holiday tradition came to be. According to popular belief, it started out as a German tradition. Parents would hide a pickle Christmas ornament in their Christmas tree and the first child to find it received an extra present. However, further research revealed that many Germans had never even heard of a Christmas pickle before. So this “tradition” may have simply been born of an American marketing ploy, according to bnd.com.

However, additional origin stories about the Christmas pickle are a bit darker. County Fair Pickles tells the Civil War story of a German immigrant who was captured by Confederate soldiers. Starving to death, he begged the soldiers for a pickle as his last request. A soldier took pity on him and granted his last wish. However, the pickle gave the man the strength to survive. When he returned home, the man put a pickle ornament on his Christmas tree to remember his good fortune.

Another account comes from medieval Spain. According to Claus Net, two boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays stayed at an inn for the night. The inn keeper, an evil man, trapped the boys in a pickle jar and left them to die. According to legend, St. Nicholas discovered the boys and magically freed them by tapping the barrel with his staff.

Santa Claus

11 holiday traditions and their surprising origins (4)


Experts and historians don’t know too much about the original St. Nicholas, though there are many stories and myths about his life. Biography.com says he was born in Turkey somewhere between 200 A.D. and 300 A.D. and was orphaned at a young age. However, he inherited a fortune from his wealthy parents and purportedly traveled giving much of it away to those in need. According to Christianity Today, St. Nicholas was chosen by the people of Myra to be their bishop. He was jailed for a time due to the persecution of Christians but was released with many other religious people when a new emperor came into power. He is remembered today for his generous spirit.

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In the 1800s, cartoonist Thomas Nast illustrated Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. He popularized the image of the portly man in red who many children recognize as Santa Claus today, according to The New York Times.


What is the origin of all holidays? ›

The concept of holidays often originated in connection with religious observances or associated with traditions. The intention of a holiday was typically to allow individuals to tend to religious duties associated with important dates on the calendar.

What country has the most interesting Christmas traditions? ›

Norway. Perhaps one of the most unorthodox Christmas Eve traditions can be found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. It's a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on.

What are the true origins of Christmas? ›

The origins of Christmas stem from both the pagan and Roman cultures. The Romans actually celebrated two holidays in the month of December. The first was Saturnalia, which was a two-week festival honoring their god of agriculture Saturn. On December 25th, they celebrated the birth of Mithra, their sun god.

What is the oldest holiday in the world? ›

What is the oldest holiday in the world? New Years is said to be the oldest holiday in the world, and it is the most universally celebrated. It has been observed for nearly 4,000 years. The first documented celebrations of New Years occurred on March 23rd by the Babylonians over 4,000 years ago.

What was the first holiday? ›

The first four congressionally designated federal holidays were created in 1870, when Congress granted paid time off to federal workers in the District of Columbia for New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

What are the 2 most important holidays? ›

Most popular national and religious holidays in the United States 2021. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the most popular holidays in the United States. According to a survey conducted in the third quarter of 2021, Thanksgiving had a popularity rating of 81 percent, followed by Christmas with 77 percent.

What is the oldest Christmas tradition? ›

For the Christian celebration of Christmas, the viewing of the Nativity play is one of the oldest Christmastime traditions, with the first reenactment of the Nativity of Jesus taking place in A.D. 1223.

What are 3 countries that don't celebrate Christmas? ›

Afghanistan, Algeria, Bhutan, North Korea, Libya, Mauritania, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen do not recognize Christmas as a public holiday.

What culture has the longest Christmas? ›

Philippines: The longest Christmas celebrations in the world. The Philippines is said to celebrate Christmas for the longest duration in the world, a result of the country's history, religion and proclivity to party.

What pagan holiday did Christmas replace? ›

Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Because of when the holiday occurred—near the winter solstice—Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift-giving.

What is the dark origin of Christmas? ›

From ancient times, the season that we now know as Christmas was a midwinter celebration called The Winter Solstice, or Yule. A pagan festival, The Winter Solstice was a time to celebrate the fact that the worst of winter was over, and the people could look forward to longer days with more sunlight in the near future.

What is the least popular holiday? ›

We make a big thing out of Valentine's Day every year, but apparently most Americans wish we didn't. A new poll found Valentine's Day might actually be the LEAST popular major holiday in America.

What was the first holiday in the Bible? ›

The first holiday we know Jesus celebrated was very easy to recognize, because it is… named. We read in the Gospels that Jesus celebrated Passover already as a child, since His earthly parents were observant Jews (Luke 2:40-43). As an adult, not only did He observe the holiday.

What country did Christmas first? ›

The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25, AD 336. In the 3rd century, the date of the nativity was the subject of great interest.

How many holidays are there? ›

The Federal Government recognizes 10 holidays. However, several things can affect when you observe your holidays such as your alternative work schedule (if you work one) and if you work full time or part-time.

Which country invented holiday? ›

Our tech would bewilder them, as would the diversity of countries and ways of life. But, they may take comfort in knowing that the holiday – an idea they first pioneered – is still going strong. The Romans were the first civilization to indulge in what we'd now consider travelling for pleasure.

Who started holiday? ›

At the point of time, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande was the leader of the mill workers, he presented a proposal of a weekly holiday in front of the Britishers. He said, “After working hard for six days, the workers should get a day to serve their country and society.

What are the 11 major holidays in the US? ›

Federal holidays are designated by the United States Congress in Title V of the United States Code (5 U.S.C. § 6103).
  • New Year's Day.
  • Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Washington's Birthday.
  • Memorial Day.
  • Juneteenth National Independence Day.
  • Independence Day.
  • Labor Day.
  • Columbus Day.

What are the top 20 most celebrated holidays? ›

With Christmas around the corner, let's break down some of the most celebrated occasions in America.
  • Memorial Day. ...
  • Father's Day. ...
  • Independence Day. ...
  • Halloween. ...
  • Thanksgiving. ...
  • Christmas Day. ...
  • Labor Day. ...
  • Veterans Day. Veterans Day celebrated on November 11, was established in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson.
2 Jan 2021

What are the 9 main holidays? ›

Typical paid holidays include New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Veterans Day, and Christmas Day.

What are the top 10 weirdest holidays? ›

The 20 strangest holidays in the world
  • World Mosquito Day.
  • International Talk Like A Pirate Day.
  • Global Handwashing Day.
  • Count Your Buttons Day.
  • National Forget-Me-Not Day.
  • National Eat a Red Apple Day.
  • Pretend to Be a Time Traveler Day.
  • A'phabet Day or No "L" Day.
3 Jan 2021

What 10 holidays are there? ›

There are 10 federal holidays that government agencies and banks close their doors for each year:
  • New Year's Day.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
  • Presidents Day (Washington's Birthday)
  • Memorial Day.
  • Independence Day (Fourth of July)
  • Labor Day.
  • Columbus Day.
  • Thanksgiving.

What are the 5 biggest holidays? ›

Virtually all large companies observe and close on the major holidays (New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas).

What are China's Christmas traditions? ›

One of the most common Chinese Christmas traditions among young people is to send cellophane-wrapped apples as gifts to their friends. The apples are also often sold with printed messages like 'love', 'peace' and 'Merry Christmas'.

What is Africa's Christmas traditions? ›

In Africa, Christmas is all about festive concerts, sunny outdoor feasts and Christmas street parades. For almost everyone in Africa, Christmas is a time to gather with friends and family, go to church and enjoy a big feast – but every country also has its own unique festive traditions.

Why does Santa wear red? ›

Some have suggested there was a link with the iconography of the original St Nicholas, who is often depicted in red robes, but more likely is that it just felt aesthetically right, chiming with the rosy-cheeked, red-nosed Santa of the poem, and with the red outfit playing off the whiteness of the fur, beard and snow – ...

What are the 12 symbols of Christmas? ›

Decorating: The 12 Symbols of Christmas and What they Mean
  • The Star. A popular symbol for the top of the tree, a star represents the star that appeared on the night of Jesus's birth.
  • Christmas Trees. Christmas trees are often central to decorating schemes. ...
  • Wreath. ...
  • Candy Canes. ...
  • Poinsettias. ...
  • Doves. ...
  • Lights. ...
  • Angels.
10 Jun 2022

Who invented Santa Claus and why? ›

Much earlier, the American cartoonist Thomas Nast fashioned Santa Claus's image on the pages of the American magazine Harper's Weekly. The character of Santa Claus is believed to descend from Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the 4th century.

Which country bans Christmas? ›

Brunei. The public celebration of Christmas has been banned in the tiny oil-rich Islamic state of Brunei since 2015, with anyone found violating the law facing up to five years in jail or a fine of US $20,000, or both.

Where is Christmas forbidden? ›

The Soviet Union, and certain other Communist regimes, banned Christmas observances in accordance with the Marxist–Leninist doctrine of state atheism.

What religion does not recognize Christmas? ›

Among them are Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ. Some of the half-dozen Christian faiths that do no celebrate Dec. 25 contend there is nothing in the Bible that says Christ was born on that day.

What is the weirdest Christmas tradition? ›

On Christmas Eve, unmarried Czech women stand with their back to the door and toss one of their shoes over their shoulder. If it lands with the toe facing the door, it means that they'll be married within the year.

What race does not celebrate Christmas? ›

These include Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bhutan, Cambodia, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Laos, Libya, Maldives, Mauritania, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen.

What religion Cannot celebrate holidays? ›

Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate most holidays or events that honour people who aren't Jesus. That includes birthdays, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and Hallowe'en. They also don't celebrate religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter in the belief that these customs have pagan origins.

Is Santa Claus pagan? ›

The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England's Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter, Hutton said.

What is the oldest pagan holiday? ›

Hauling a Yule log in 1832
Also calledYuletide, Yulefest
Observed byVarious Northern Europeans, Germanic peoples, Modern Pagans, Spiritual Satanists
TypeCultural, Germanic Pagan then Christian, secular, Modern Paganism
Date21 December – 1 January
2 more rows

Why did England ban Christmas? ›

University of Warwick historian Professor Bernard Capp said the ban was put in place by the Puritan government in 1647 as they believed Christmas was used as an excuse for drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling and other forms of excess.

Where does it say in the Bible that Jesus was born on Christmas? ›

Dec. 25 is not the date mentioned in the Bible as the day of Jesus's birth; the Bible is actually silent on the day or the time of year when Mary was said to have given birth to him in Bethlehem.

Why Christmas is not pagan? ›

Now, as Christmas applies to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas is decidedly not pagan. However, there are some differences of opinion when it comes to the selection of day of celebration. On the Roman calendar, December 25 was the date of the winter solstice (December 21 on the modern calendar).

What Colour was Christmas originally? ›

For hundreds of years, red and green have been the traditional colors of Christmas.

What's Black Christmas called? ›

Black Christmas (originally titled Silent Night, Evil Night in the United States) is a 1974 Canadian slasher film produced and directed by Bob Clark, and written by A. Roy Moore.

What Christmas traditions are pagan? ›

Things like kissing under a mistletoe, carolling, wreaths, and even gift-giving were all aspects of pagan holidays that were adapted into Christmas celebrations in the early years.

Who created all the holidays? ›

Federal holidays are designated by the United States Congress in Title V of the United States Code (5 U.S.C. § 6103). Congress only has authority to create holidays for federal institutions (including federally-owned properties), employees, and the District of Columbia.

What religion dont believe in holidays? ›

Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate most holidays or events that honour people who aren't Jesus. That includes birthdays, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and Hallowe'en. They also don't celebrate religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter in the belief that these customs have pagan origins.

Who made the first holiday? ›

In 1789, President George Washington became the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday, when, at the request of Congress, he proclaimed November 26, a Thursday, as a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution.

What holidays have dark history? ›

9 holidays around the world with surprisingly dark origins
  • Thanksgiving Turkey.
  • Child labour LOC.
  • Purim.
  • Good friday cross.
  • Landing of columbus.
  • St patricks day.
  • First thanksgiving.
  • Passover.
10 Oct 2018

What pagan holiday was replaced by Christmas? ›

Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Because of when the holiday occurred—near the winter solstice—Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift-giving.

Is Christmas a pagan holiday according to the Bible? ›

Though December 25 is the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the date itself and several of the customs we've come to associate with Christmas actually evolved from pagan traditions celebrating the winter solstice.

What pagan holiday was turned into Christmas? ›

Christmas owes its roots to the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was a pagan festival which was celebrated from December 17-25 each year. This custom was altered and absorbed into Christmas, and this allowed early Christians to gradually erase these old pagan holidays.

What is forbidden in Jehovah Witness? ›

The denomination requires adherence to a strict moral code, which forbids premarital sex, homosexuality, gender transitioning, adultery, smoking, drunkenness and drug abuse, and blood transfusions.

Why can't Muslims do Christmas? ›

Since Muslims don't believe that Jesus was God's son, there is nothing for them to celebrate and the festival plays no part in the Muslim calendar. It also means that in Muslim countries there is no official holiday. It's why Muslims don't decorate their homes, schools or offices with Christmas trees and fairy lights.

What religion is against Halloween? ›

Jehovah's Witnesses: They don't celebrate any holidays or even birthdays. Some Christians: Some believe the holiday is associated with Satanism or Paganism, so are against celebrating it. Orthodox Jews: They don't celebrate Halloween due to its origins as a Christian holiday.


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