Learn about Christmas traditions and customs

Christmas Traditions & Customs

Although Christmas traditions begin in many different ways, they all have a few things in common: They bring people together, they mark the holiday as a special time and they’re fun. Whether you take part in the usual traditions of the holidays, or you make up your own, we hope you and the ones you love truly enjoy the season.

Here’s the history behind a few of our favorite Christmas customs.

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 Leaving milk and cookies out for Santa

It makes sense to do this, of course. The guy travels all around the whole world on Christmas Eve, and that can really work up an appetite. But who first came up with the idea?

Long ago in western Germany, people decorated Christmas trees with apples, other fruits and cookies. Sometimes, after Santa visited, children would notice that he had eaten a cookie or two off the tree! Families realized that St. Nick got hungry on his journeys. They began leaving cookies out on a plate, along with milk to wash it down.

Not everyone leaves out milk and cookies. The English often treat him to a glass of sherry and a slice of mince pie. In Ireland, they often replace the sherry with a pint of Guinness. When Santa visits homes in Denmark, he sometimes finds a bowl of a special rice pudding waiting for him, and in Chile, he might get a slice of Pan de Pascua, a fruitcake made with nuts, spices and rum. It all sounds pretty delicious to us! Many families also leave carrots for the reindeer.

 Hanging wreaths and garlands

Evergreen trees symbolized immortality and victory in many ancient cultures—Egyptian, Chinese, European, Greek and Roman. As part of Saturnalia, a festival that occurred at the winter solstice, Romans hung evergreen boughs and garlands to remind themselves that spring always triumphs over the cold. Many Christians adopted the practice for their celebrations of Christmas, decking their halls with boughs of holly, laurel and pine.

 Christmas caroling

This is a less popular holiday activity than it used to be, but we hope it never goes away completely. After all, it has a long history.

The first carols were written and sung in Europe during the Renaissance era, but they had their roots in much older Christian hymns sung in Latin. Singing at people’s doors began as the English tradition of wassailing, when the wealthy would give money or treats to bands of visiting singers who wished them good fortune. Sometimes the singers could be demanding. You may have noticed this in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” in which the singers refuse to go away until they get some figgy pudding.

Wassailing wasn’t limited to the holiday season at first. However, in the 19th century, Christmas songs and the practice of door-to-door singing came together to create the tradition of caroling we know today.

 Sending holiday cards

No matter what you may have heard, Hallmark didn’t invent this tradition! In the 1840s, England had a new post office system. Previously, only the rich could afford to send mail, but now, it was in everyone’s price range. A man named Sir Henry Cole thought this was pretty great and wanted to get the middle class to take advantage of it.

He got his artist friend to make a Christmas card that people could buy and send to their friends. The tradition caught on, and by the turn of the century, the practice had spread all over Europe and into the United States.

(While we didn’t invent the holiday card-sending custom, we offer a great selection of Christmas cards plus helpful tips to help you write a truly meaningful Christmas wish.)

 Making gingerbread houses

In the 1600s and 1700s, professional gingerbread bakers in Europe were already making very fancy treats from wooden molds, decorating them with icing or even gold leaf. When German bakers started making gingerbread houses in the early 1800s, they were actually inspired by the evil witch’s tempting house in the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.”

As Grimm as that sounds, the creations became especially popular at the holiday season. Gingerbread-house making was too fun to leave to the professionals, and it soon became a popular family activity at the holidays.

Want to make your own? Check out our gingerbread house recipe, patterns and instructions.

Stacey Donovan has been a writer and editor at Hallmark for more than 20 years. She also writes romance novels (under a pseudonym), and has collected a wealth of obscure knowledge in the process.