Billions of people celebrate Christmas, and there are almost as many ways to celebrate, with many beloved traditions around the world enduring for decades or even centuries. Here are some fun facts about how they came to be.
Made from a fir and decorated with ribbons and other adornments, wreaths are like very small, round Christmas trees. That’s no coincidence, as the modern Christmas tree also originated in Germany (Tanenbaum, often used to mean Christmas tree, is German for “fir tree.”) Laurel wreaths were hung on doors during times of celebration in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and the practice stuck around until the 16th century, when Lutherans in Germany placed a ring of greenery on their doors at the beginning of the lead-up to Christmas. Used in a religious, and traditional way, candles are added each day until Christmas Day, making the wreath also one of the original examples of another Christmas tradition: the advent calendar.
Love it or hate it, eggnog is undeniably the definitive Christmas drink, a thick, heavily sweetened, and spiced concoction made mostly out of dairy products. Around the 13th century, monks in Great Britain subsisted in the winter with posset, a punch made from ale, eggs, and figs. By the 17th century, posset had merged and become conflated with other western European party drinks and punches, with sherry replacing the ale. It was used to toast and wish for health and wellness around the new year, which comes just after Christmas. When the British colonized North America, residents brought the punch with them, replacing sherry with cheaper rum, with a recipe finalized around dairy products, which were more plentiful and less expensive in the New World than they had been in Europe. It used to include eggs, giving rise to the name, with the “nog” coming from a similar Old English slang term for a strong alcoholic drink.
Cookies for Santa
Amidst the many very old practices associated with Christmas, leaving out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa Claus only dates back to the 1930s. During the Great Depression, when food and other resources were scarce, parents tried to teach their children the concepts of gratitude and generosity by leaving out a cheap, simple snack for the man who might bring them presents. The execution was new, but the idea was old. Norse mythology holds that during the winter celebration period of Yule, children would leave food for Sleipnir, eight-legged horse of Odin, so that this head god would leave them presents.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Another modern, well-known Christmas tradition has its roots in Norse mythology. It was said that Frigg, the mother of the god Baldur, cast a spell to ensure that no plant could ever grow that could harm her son. But the magic skips the mistletoe on a technicality — it doesn’t grow directly out of the ground, but out and off of a tree’s branches. Impish Loki then makes a spear out of the stuff and kills Baldur with it. After the tragedy, Frigg declares mistletoe a symbol of love, explaining why people feel the urge to kiss underneath the plant. Fast forward to 1719, when English doctor John Colbatch wrote the first of two books about mistletoe. The books were widely read, and the Frigg story well disseminated, and by the end of the 1700s, people all over England were hanging up mistletoe (prominent in the winter) around Christmastime, giving themselves and others a place to sneak a quick smooch.
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