Our 'weird' Christmas traditions: From kissing under mistletoe trees to Father Christmas himself

Alice Howarth, Tom Herbert
Evalyn/Unsplash

Christmas is a time of year when our annual traditions are strictly adhered to and something most of us look forward to.

After all, why else would you force your loved ones to eat dry turkey and boiled sprouts if it weren't for the fact that it's Christmas?

While we are sticklers for festive tradition, most of us don't actually know why we mark them in the way we do, and who started them and why?

So we took it upon ourselves to find out the origins of each to provide a little meaning behind the festivities.

Hopefully this will give you something to talk about with your family members this Christmas...

Advent

(Shutterstock)

The word ‘advent’ is actually derived from the Latin word, adventus, which means ‘coming’. Scholars have said that the tradition of counting down advent stems from the 5th century but traditionally it was a period before Christmas where Christians would fast. Monks are said to have fasted in preparation for the coming of Christ as early as 597 AD.

Advent as we know it today - marked with calendars and chocolate - reportedly originated in Germany in the mid-1900s. German Protestants made chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas.

German-born Gerhard Lang is widely considered as the first man to progress the tradition and make a printed advent calendar. When he was a boy his mother had made him a cardboard calendar with 24 stuck-on sweets which led him to create the product as a man.

Decorating the tree

Fir trees at Christmas time have been used by both Christians and Pagans for thousands of years. Many believed evergreen trees kept away witches and evil spirits.

Germany is credited with the decorated Christmas tree as we know it. Dating back to the 16th century, the protestant theologian, Martin-Luther, is said to have been the first man who used lit candles on a tree.

Despite many people across Germany rejecting the idea due to its association with Protestant customs, by 1815 it had become a widespread tradition across the country and, by the 1900s, the world.

Wreaths

The wreath's origin dates back to both the ancient Pagans, when they stored the evergreen branches throughout the frozen winters, and the Romans, who gave branches as gifts at New Year to wish people lasting health and happiness.

Eventually the branches were moulded into circles and the wreath became associated with Christianity due to its circular shape representing the suffering and triumph of Christ. If people made wreaths from holly however, it was said to represent the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear on the cross.

Nowadays, wreaths have become decorative objects for many. Typically hung on doors, they’re used to mark the Christmas spirit and welcome visitors.

Mistletoe

(Corbis)

Why do we insist on people kissing underneath the mistletoe (asides from embarrassing our friends)? Well, for centuries the plant has been associated with life and fertility due to a Norse myth. According to legend, Balder, son of the goddess Frigga, was killed by an evil spirit with an arrow made of mistletoe.

Devastated by her son's death, Frigga cried tears of white berries, which brought Balder back to life. Frigga was so happy that she blessed the plant and promised to kiss anyone who passed beneath it from that day onwards.

Later, people hung mistletoe in the house and they’d kiss the hands of visitors as a way to mark the Norse tradition. Since then though, it’s developed into the custom we all know - kissing bang on the lips.

Carols

Carols were technically invented by the Pagans but were traditionally folk songs and dances (‘carol’ meant: ‘a dance in a ring’). In the 9th and 10th centuries, the first Christmas prose is said to have been written in Northern Eastern monasteries. It was later made to rhyme and then put to music which resembled the beginnings of today's Christmas carols.

The first English Christmas carol on record was written by a chaplain in 1426 who listed twenty five "caroles of Cristemas". Traditionally these communal songs were sung outside the church, at social gatherings, but later became an integral part of a Christmas service.

Father Christmas and Stockings

(Reuters)

The figure of Father Christmas also dates back to the Pagans when a man in a green hooded cloak and a crown of holly, who wasn’t actually known as Father Christmas then, would bring joy to those at British mid-winter festivals. He actually represented the coming of spring.

This male figure then evolved through Saxon and Viking rule but the person we’ve come to know as the proper Father Christmas is Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas, born 300 years after Christ, was thought to have been a Greek holy man who was a staunch defender of Christianity. It’s believed that he spent time in prison for refusing to abandon his faith during religious persecutions. His death was celebrated on the 6th of December with a large feast by those who admired his unwavering belief and in some countries, it still is. This date remains the Dutch day of Christmas.

He was thought to have been a protector of the poor and some believe, saved three young girls from a life of prostitution by providing dowries. He threw three pouches of gold coins through a window and apparently one of them landed in a stocking. It was then that children started hanging stockings in the hope they’d receive gifts too.

So why do some people refer to him as Santa Claus? This actually happened when the Dutch passed on the belief of Saint Nicholas to Americans during the 18th century. In the Netherlands he’s called Sinter Klaas and traditionally drops presents in wooden shoes but Americans eventually reinvented him as the Santa we known today. It was the publication of the 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, by American writer, Clement Clarke Moore, that really cemented his reputation as a jolly, bearded man wearing a red suit and riding on his reindeer-drawn sleigh.

'X-mas'

(AFP/Getty Images)

X-mas may just seem like a handy abbreviation - much less characters to text - but it does actually have a religious meaning. The X comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of Χρήστος. Χρήστος in Greek means Christ.

Flaming Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding (Publicity Picture)

Christmas pudding recipes - or plum pudding to some - date back to the 17th century and it’s reported it derived from “plum porridge” which was a popular meal in the Middle Ages. The brandy poured over and set alight is supposed to represent the passions of Christ and the recipe - with traditionally consisted of 13 ingredients - is supposed to represent his 13 disciples. As for the holly sprigs, that’s to represent the crown of thorns Jesus wore during his crucifixion.

Turkey

(Rex)

Turkeys have not always been the Christmas dinner of choice. Before they were introduced by a trader 500 years ago, people tended to dine on pheasant, swan or goose.

Henry VIII was the first English king to eat turkey in the 16th century, however it was actually Edward VII who created the tradition of eating it at Christmas. In modern times, the turkey has only really become popular in the last 60 years though. Before that, people simply didn't have the money or the room to refrigerate a large bird.

Presents

The idea of gift giving at Christmas dates back to the three kings when they gifted baby Jesus with Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. Today, Christmas has become a mega industry and the peak selling time for retailers. According to stats, in 2016 the UK spend 77.56BN on the holiday.

Boxing Day

Many people think Boxing Day is to get rid of all the boxes and packages that their presents were wrapped in the day before, but, historically, this was a day off for servants when they would receive a Christmas box from their masters with small gifts.

Now? Most people head out to the Boxing Day Sales. More, more, more...