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Christmas traditions – where do they come from?

Ever wondered where Santa Claus came from and why we give presents to one another?

Christmas Traditions

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

The origins of Christmas are from the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is the son of God born in Bethlehem (which today, is located in Palestine) over 2000 years ago.

For many others, religion has nothing to with Christmas, using the day to spend time with family, friends and exchange presents. 

Who is Santa Claus? 

He’s the jolly, larger than life, generous, bearded man from the North Pole. He brings us presents the night before Christmas and dresses in a red suit. He travels around in a sleigh led by reindeer and can fit down our chimney. 

Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, a bishop who lived in south-west Turkey in the 4th Century. It has been said that St. Nicholas gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled around the countryside helping the poor and sick!

Over time Nicholas became the most popular saint in Europe and started to be represented in different ways; from an elf to a generous jolly granddad!

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moor, an American Episcopal Minister, wrote a poem for his three daughters called ‘An account of a visit from St. Nicholas’. The poem featured Santa’s sleigh and eight reindeer! The poem starts –

T'was the night before Christmas,when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there...

When Santa Claus was drawn in a Coca Cola advert in 1931 by American illustrator Haddon Sundblom, it was the above poem that was used as inspiration!

From 1931 Santa was presented in adverts for Coca Cola delivering toys, reading letters and pausing to enjoy a Coke! Contrary to popular myth, it was not Coca Cola who made Santa’s suit red. He had been drawn several times in this colour before!

Where are Christmas trees from? 

Christmas is almost unthinkable without the tradition of putting a Christmas tree up, but did you know that people only started to put up Christmas trees in Britain in the mid 19th Century? The tradition was transported from Germany.

In Germany, like Britain, December is a time of dark days with little sunlight. The evergreen Christmas trees gave people hope that summer wasn’t so far away!

Dreaming of a white Christmas? 

Unfortunately there is only a slim chance that there will ever be snow on Christmas Day! This idea of a white Christmas in the UK is said to be popularised by the work of English author Charles Dickens.

Dickens, who wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843, had a great effect on how people would later perceive Christmas. Between 1550 and 1850 Britain experienced a ‘Little Ice Age’ where snow was very common in December. 

In fact there was snow in the first eight Christmas Days’ of Dickens life, and this is said to have an influence on his opinion of Christmas! Unfortunately, today, white Christmas’ are few and far between, so you may have to dream about it instead!

Why do we give presents? 

Present giving at Christmas has its origins in the Nativity Story. Christians believe that when Jesus was born, three wise men brought him presents of frankincense, gold and myrrh. 

This tradition has been carried on to today, though not everyone follows it for religious reasons.

Why do we eat Turkey? 

People didn’t actually start eating Turkey in Britain until the 16th Century and it is said that English King Henry VIII began the tradition. Before Turkey was eaten on Christmas, goose and peacocks were the preferred choice of many.

A turkey is big enough to feed the extended family and there are always lots of leftovers for you to get stuck into!

Where do advent calendars come from? 

The tradition of advent calendars is only a recent one beginning roughly 100 years ago. The first advent calendar was made in 19th century Germany.

In 1908, German artist Gerhard Lang designed an advent calendar for sale in Munich. 

Over time the advent calendar become mass produced. The word ‘advent’ means ‘the coming’ in Latin, and is used to get children (and chocolate lovers) excited for Christmas from the beginning of December.