Let's face it, Christmas is all about traditions. But, why do we have a Christmas tree and decorate it with baubles and other ornaments? We answer this and other questions.
We love the little things we do every year that help us get into the Christmas spirit – such as popping down to the local Christmas tree farm to pick up our tree (though you can get a rented Christmas tree if you want, or visiting our favourite Christmas market – but do you actually know where all of your favourite traditions come from?
Whether it’s the tree, tinsel or the turkey, here are the reasons why we celebrate Christmas the way we do. Some of them will surprise you!
Why do we have a Christmas tree?
Each year we put up a Christmas tree, and this is because evergreen fir trees have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years. They were first used by pagans, who used branches to decorate their homes during the winter to celebrate the coming of Spring.
The traditional Christmas tree as we know it became popular thanks to a man named Martin Luther. According to the story, the 16th century preacher was walking through a forest and saw the stars shining through the branches – and he was so inspired he took a tree home.
The tradition became particularly popular in England during Victorian times, when Prince Albert brought a Christmas tree into the home and decorated it each year. But the royal tradition originated in Germany, where the prince was born, and was introduced in England for the first time when King George III was on the throne.
King George III had a German wife named Charlotte, and it is believed she used to decorate a tree for her family in the 1790s. This tradition was continued by the Royal Family, and made popular by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.
Ever since then, the fir tree has been an iconic Christmas symbol and can be found in public places, town centres and homes during the festive period.
Why do we put baubles and tinsel on the Christmas tree?
Martin Luther also started the tradition for decorating trees after he put candles on the tree he took, to make it look like stars were shining through. In 1895, Ralph Morris developed electric lights as easier (and safer!) alternative.
Christmas baubles first originated in Germany after ‘trees of paradise’ were decorated with red apples for the miracle plays which took place outside the church on Christmas Eve. These soon became the baubles we know and use today.
Christmas tree decorations became fashionable in the UK during Queen Victoria’s reign, after a photograph was published in 1848 which saw the Royal Family posing next to a large tree decorated with elaborate ornaments.
As for tinsel, that was invented in Germany in the early 1600s and was originally made of strips of sliver and other metals. It used to be used to decorate sculptures before becoming associated with Christmas trees, so it’s always been used to add a bit of sparkle to our festive decorations.
Why do we eat mince pies?
This festive treat was originally filled with meat rather than dried fruit and made in the shape of an oval to represent Jesus’ manger in the nativity story.
In Stuart and Georgian times mince pies became a symbol of wealth and rich people liked to show them off at Christmas parties. According to a tradition from the middle ages, if you eat mince pies every day from Christmas Day until the 12th night, you’ll be happy for the next year. Now that’s something we’re up for trying!
Why are we meant to kiss under the mistletoe?
Mistletoe was thought to be used by druids to ward off evil spirits and so was brought into the house. According to Norse mythology, mistletoe was a sign of love and friendship, which led to the custom of kissing underneath it. The original tradition stated that you had to pick a sprig of mistletoe before someone could be kissed. When all the berries had gone, that marked the end of the kissing!
We’ve kept up this tradition to this day, with many people choosing to hang mistletoe in their homes over the festive season. As well as being a sweet tradition, it’s also a lovely decoration!
Why do we eat turkey?
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without eating an enormous amount of turkey, but it wasn’t always the festive food favourite. The bird first came to the UK over 500 years ago but before that, the meat of choice was often goose, boar or even peacock. However, farmers found that the animals they were killing for Christmas could be used for other foods instead, and so started making the Christmas bird of choice a turkey.
In fact, Henry VIII was the first person to eat turkey on Christmas Day, but it was only made popular after Edward VIII adopted the tradition. And we’ve been filling our faces with it ever since!
Where did Father Christmas come from?
Jolly old St Nick is actually inspired by real-life St Nicholas. According to the legend, St Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of a poor man’s house to help pay a dowry for his three daughters. But the bag of gold didn’t land in the fireplace and instead fell into some stockings, which had been hung by the fire to dry. (This is also where we get the tradition for hanging up stockings!)
St Nicholas repeated this and sent more money down the chimney for the second daughter. The third time, the father waited by the chimney to see who was helping his family, but St Nicholas did not want anyone to find out and bring attention to himself. However, the rumour spread and soon people thought that when anyone received a secret gift it was from St Nick!
Why do give each other presents?
As well as the story of St Nicholas inspiring gift giving at Christmas, the tradition goes all the way back to the very first Christmas! In the nativity story, the three wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and the tradition stuck.
While most children believe in a magical person who delivers Christmas toys and presents, this varies depending on the country. Children in the UK believe in Father Christmas, while in Germany it’s the Christkind. In Spain it’s the Wise Men and in Italy it’s an old lady called Befana.
Why do we have Christmas pudding?
One of our favourite Christmas desserts actually originated way back in the 14th century. It was originally a porridge called ‘frumenty’, which was a mixture of beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wine and different spices. It was eaten just before Christmas as a fasting meal in preparation for the big day.
The treat eventually turned into a plum pudding and by 1650 it became a customary Christmas dessert, while the Victorians would eat something very similar to the Christmas pudding we have today!