Whether it's tucking into a delicious mince pie or puckering up under the mistletoe, at some point this Christmas season many of us will embrace the numerous traditions related to this time of the year. But where do these age-old customs and familiar images come from and which is your favourite?
1. Christmas day isn't Christ's birthday
There is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible, in fact there is no mention of when Jesus was born at all. There was much debate amongst early Christians and it wasn't until the fourth century AD in the Roman Empire that Jesus' birthday was celebrated on December 25th. The most popular theory as to why this date was settled on is that it was borrowed from pagan traditions that already occurred on that day.
2. Boxing Day is actually about boxes
Multiple theories abound as to how this bank holiday received its name, the most popular theory suggests it was traditionally a day when servants had the day off to visit their families. Their employees would send them home with "Christmas boxes" containing money, gifts or food to thank them for their reliable service throughout the past year.
3. Xmas doesn't take Christ out of Christmas
In fact "X" comes from the Greek letter "chi" which happens to be the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός), and Greek was the original language of the New Testament. The word was simply created as an abbreviation and was first used in the mid 1500s.
4. Santa doesn’t wear red because of Coca-Cola
Contrary to popular belief, Father Christmas’s red coat was not the creation of a clever Coca-Cola advertising campaign. Before the company had even been invented, St Nick was being depicted in multiple books and illustrations wearing a scarlet coat. From the 1930’s onwards Coca-Cola did, however, help shape the image of Santa as a jolly old man.
5. Christmas trees have pagan roots
During the time of the winter solstice, pagan homes would be decorated with evergreen branches in the hope of scaring away evil spirits and to remind the occupants that spring was just around the corner. This tradition survived the conversion to Christianity and during the 16th Century in Germany devout Christians began bringing Christmas trees into their homes. The practice was made fashionable in the UK during the mid 19th Century, when popular Queen Victoria, German Prince Albert and their children were drawn in The Illustrated London News standing around the main Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.
6. Mince pies did originally contain meat
Medieval people during the 16th century believed that if you ate a mince pie every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night (5th January), you'd have happiness for the next 12 months. These pies were known as Christmas Pyes, and contained anything from rabbit to mutton, pigeon to pheasant! They were larger than their modern creations and made into an oval shape, which was said to represent Jesus' crib.
7. Turkeys replaced peacocks on the Christmas table
Before turkeys were brought into this country over 500 years ago people used to eat geese, boars' head and even peacocks during the festive season! Henry VIII was the first English king to enjoy a turkey on Christmas Day and the bird was still regarded as a luxury up until the 1950s, with many choosing goose instead. Thanks to the invention of the fridge and the ability of the large turkey to feed a whole family, it soon took top spot on many Christmas tables.
8. Rudolph was created by an advertising copywriter
The red-nosed reindeer was created in 1939 by Robert L.May, an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward department store based in Chicago. Every year the store would give away free colouring books as holiday gifts to the children who visited the store Father Christmas. Rudolph's story sold 2.4 million copies in its first year of publication. The famous song was released in 1949 becoming one of the best-selling songs of all time.
9. A crackling log fire is the reason we pull Christmas crackers
During the late 1840s, a London sweet maker named Tom Smith sat by a crackling log fire and imagined how fun it would be if his wrapped sweets made the same sound when opened. A short time later, 'Cosaques', a log shaped sweet package with a surprise crackle element inside, were put on the market. The public came to know them as crackers and by the early 20th century, hats, jokes and various trinkets had replaced the sweets inside them. Soon they were adopted as a traditional festive custom and the rest they say is history.
10. Mistletoe has been revered for thousands of years
From the Ancient Greeks to Norse mythology, mistletoe has been a symbolic herb for centuries. Many customs have linked it to love, fertility and new life. In some way these beliefs eventually led to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas period. This tradition became increasingly popular in Victorian England, when men would look to steal a kiss from any woman seen lingering beneath a sprig of mistletoe. A refusal was seen as bad luck.
11. Christmas was banned in Britain
Back in the mid-17th century, the Puritans who’d come to power after the fall of Charles I regarded Christmas as too decadent, too hedonistic, and too Catholic. So, they banned it – much to the annoyance of many Brits who promptly rioted. As one pamphleteer put it, ‘Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.’ The ban lasted until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
12. Santa Claus and Father Christmas aren’t the same
The names ‘Santa Claus’ and ‘Father Christmas’ may be interchangeable these days, but they originally stemmed from two completely separate traditions. Santa evolved in the United States and was directly inspired by the historical figure of St Nicholas, while Father Christmas was originally an allegorical symbol of festive feasting and merry-making (think the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol). The two characters gradually merged in people’s minds in the 19th and 20th centuries.
13. Jingle Bells wasn’t a Christmas song…
The song Jingle Bells was first published in 1857 by American composer James Lord Pierpont under its original title, The One Horse Open Sleigh. It was possibly written with Thanksgiving in mind or was simply a jovial drinking song. But, whatever Pierpont’s intention, we do know it certainly wasn’t a Christmas song.
14. …and it has some pretty risqué lyrics
Jingle Bells is a far longer song than most people realise, and the later lyrics are rather more risqué than might be appropriate for family singalongs. As well as encouraging the listener to deliberately find the fastest possible horse to ride a sleigh at reckless speeds, the lyrics also implore listeners to pick up women and show them a good time on the slopes. As the song says, ‘Go it while you’re young, take the girls tonight.’
15. Christmas cards are older than you think
It’s well known that many modern Christmas traditions, including the sending of Christmas cards, evolved in the Victorian era. However, the first known instance of a card dates right back to 1611.
Consisting of a large sheet, folded up for ease of transport, it was sent to James I of England by a German doctor and alchemist named Michael Maier. It bore the words, ‘A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord.’
16. The phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ also goes back a very long way
The phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ also far predates Dickens and the Victorians. Until recently, the earliest known usage was thought to have been a letter sent in 1534 from a bishop, John Fisher, who was languishing in the Tower of London for siding with the Catholic Church against Henry VIII.
However, in 2022, an archivist uncovered a letter from another bishop, Charles Booth, sent 14 years before Fisher’s missive, in which Booth writes, ‘I pray God you may be in all good charity and merry this Christmas.’ Not quite the same phrase, but close enough.
17. The Nativity scene was popularised by St Francis of Assisi
Depicting the birth of Jesus in a Nativity scene may be associated with schools and shopping centres, but it actually has a rather lofty tradition going back to none other than St Francis of Assisi. The founder of the Franciscan religious order created the first known Nativity scene in Greccio, Italy in 1223, gathering hay and live animals to simulate a manger for locals to enjoy.
18. Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space
History was made on 16th December 1965 when a song was broadcast from space for the first time. It happened on board NASA’s Gemini 6A spacecraft when astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford told Mission Control that they could see an unidentified object ‘probably in polar orbit’ piloted by someone ‘wearing a red suit’. They then started playing Jingle Bells on a harmonica and a set of tiny sleigh bells which they’d smuggled on board without NASA’s knowledge.
19. White Christmas is the biggest-selling single of all time
Speaking of festive ditties, the Bing Crosby version of White Christmas remains the biggest-selling single ever released, shifting around 50 million physical copies worldwide. That’s considerably more than the runner-up, Elton John’s 1997 version of Candle in the Wind (33 million copies).
Irving Berlin wrote the song in a surge of inspiration that took him by such surprise that he burst into his office the next day and told his secretary, ‘I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.’
20. Scrooge was partly based on a super-rich MP
It’s believed that one of Charles Dickens’ main inspirations for Ebenezer Scrooge was a member of parliament named John Elwes. Despite being an incredibly wealthy landowner, Elwes was a notorious miser. It’s said he would eat rotting food rather than buy fresh supplies, would go to bed early to avoid using candles, and even wear cast-off clothes, including a wig he found in a hedge. When he died, his sons inherited the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds in today’s money.