The history of Christmas traditions

From medieval 'office' parties to Druidic tree decorating, discover the origins of our favourite festive frolics...

The history of Christmas traditions © Boston Public Library
1

Christmas trees

Queen Victoria and Albert may be famed for decorating their Christmas trees in the 19th century, but it was far from their idea. In ancient times, a Pagan mid-winter celebration saw druids decorating oaks, while the Romans adorned trees with candles and depictions of their god Saturn, for their Saturnalia festival. The tradition developed over the centuries, proving especially popular in Germanic countries.

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Gift-giving

We also have the Romans to thank for the annual bundle of socks from Auntie June. The Romans exchanged presents during a January festival, and the tradition transferred to the Christian festival in the fourth century AD. While we don’t know much about the types of gifts given in that first millennia, in 1067, it’s known that William the Conqueror gifted the Pope much of the booty he seized from England. By the 16th century, many in France were giving gifts for each of the 12 days of Christmas…

Osteria della Via di Mercurio, Pompeii © Wikimedia Commons
Osteria della Via di Mercurio, Pompeii © Wikimedia Commons
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12 days of Christmas

Until the 20th century (and still to this day in many parts of the world), this was the period when festivities really kicked off. It marked the days between 25th December and the Epiphany on 6th January, and it was first decided that these dozen days would become celebrated as one spectacular event at the second Council of Tours, in 567 AD.

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Office parties

If you think your Christmas party is a rowdy occasion, then imagine the scenes when, in 1252, when Henry III invited 1,000 of his knights and peers round for a Christmas do. And, not to be outdone by his ancestor, some 125 years later, Richard II would throw seasonal parties for up to 10,000 guests.

Seattle Engineering Department Christmas Party © Alamy
Having fun? The Seattle Engineering Department Christmas Party © Alamy
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Nativity plays

The nativity play has come a long way since its inception in 1223. That first tableau was the creation of future saint, Francis of Assisi, who, having obtained the appropriate permission from the Pope, arranged the re-enactment of Jesus’s birth, so that the poor and illiterate people of Grecio, Italy, might become more familiar with the holy story. Francis even cast live animals in the production, for authenticity.

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The Queen’s Speech

For millions of Brits and members of the Commonwealth, tuning in to the Queen’s Speech is a key part of Christmas day. It all started with Elizabeth II’s grandfather, George V, who first made an international festive broadcast in 1932, over the radio. Later, his son George VI would cement the tradition with his reassuring wartime speeches before the current Queen would make the messages even more engaging, with the first televised message in 1957.

Royal Christmas Broadcast, 1934
Royal Christmas Broadcast, 1934
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Christmas stockings

Hanging stockings by the fireplace was a well-established tradition by 1823, when the act was mentioned in the famous poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas (which starts ‘‘Twas the night before Christmas’). The story goes that charitable Old St Nick, on hearing the plight of a poor family, popped some gold coins into some socks that happened to be drying by their fire – a Christmas miracle that others hoped would be repeated!

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Turning on the lights

In recent years, the switching on of the public Christmas lights has become a big deal for D-list celebs, panto stars and local politicians, who all flock to the stage for the chance to light up the festive season. But the oldest-known such ceremony dates back to 1920, when the firs that line Christmas Tree Lane, off Santa Rosa Avenue in California, were illuminated for the season. By 1927, the quarter-mile long display attracted some 50,000 vehicles.

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Good children

He’s the man who knows who’s been naughty and nice, but just how long has St Nick had this behavioral knowledge? Well, in the 12th century, St Nicholas had become one of the Church’s most popular characters. While children at this time were likely to receive gifts in the saint’s honour for behaving well, they may also be beaten with a ‘correcting rod’ in his name if they had been up to no good.

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Letters to Santa

As little girls and boys pick up their pencils to declare how good they’ve been all year and request which toys they’d like to find under their tree, they are continuing a tradition which dates back to the late 19th century. Reports survive from the 1890s that suggest that post offices were overrun with letters for Old St Nick.