Have you ever wondered how some of our most popular Christmas traditions started? Why we decorate our homes with a Christmas tree, kiss under the mistletoe or why different countries have different names for Father Christmas? Many of our Christmas traditions have interesting origins, and some even vary between countries. We have plenty of festive trivia to go around and get you in the Christmas spirit!
Who can we thank for our Christmas Tree?
The origin of Christmas trees is thought to date back thousands of years to a time when they were used to celebrate winter festivals. In the UK, the first Christmas tree may have been set up by Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) for a children’s birthday party. In 1848, a drawing of the Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was published in the Illustrated London News. It showed Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert with their young children around a tree and the idea went viral.
Every year since 1947, the people of Norway have gifted the people of London a Christmas tree that stands in Trafalgar Square. The tree is in gratitude for Britain’s support of Norway during World War II. And the tallest Christmas tree ever cut? According to the Guinness World Records, the tallest Christmas tree ever cut was a 221-foot Douglas fir that was displayed in 1950 at the Northgate Shopping Centre in Seattle, Washington.
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas?
Many of us hang a bunch of mistletoe in our homes at Christmas, the idea being that if you meet someone underneath it, you have to give them a kiss. There is not really one simple reason why the tradition started but it is thought to have begun in the 1700’s. One common theory is that mistletoe is seen as a symbol of fertility and life – and that this could be why we kiss underneath it. An associated custom was for a berry to be picked from the sprig of mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries were gone, there could be no more kissing!
A Christmas carol or one for Thanksgiving?
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas carols as we now know them. They were pagan songs sung at Winter festivals. Early Christians took over pagan celebrations and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones. Composers from across Europe started to write Christmas carols, but often these were written and sung in Latin until St. Francis of Assisi started his nativity plays in which the songs were normally sung in a language that was better understood and people could join in.
Jingle Bells was actually a song written for a Thanksgiving concert by James Lord Pierpont. The song called “One Horse Open Sleigh” was performed at his church’s concert to commemorate sleigh races, but re-published in 1857 under the title “Jingle Bells” and since then has become one of the most popular carols sung during the festive period.
Different names around the world
Father Christmas has different names around the world. In Germany he is affectionately known as Kriss Kringle, Pere Noel in France (literally translated as Father Christmas), Deushka Moroz in Russia, translated as Grandfather Frost and Sinter Klaas in Holland. It’s not only Father Christmas that visits children; in Iceland, instead of one Santa, the children are visited by 13 Yule Lads that either reward children for good behaviour or punish them if they are naughty. The holiday period begins 13 days before Christmas and each day one of the 13 Yule Lads comes to houses and fills the shoes that children leave under the Christmas tree either with sweets and small gifts or rotting potatoes. The mother of Yule Lads, half-troll, half-beast – Grýla is said to kidnap naughty children and boil them in her cauldron. In Italy it’s a witch – La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5th with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones.
Santa wasn’t always dressed in red
There were many different variations of Santa and some claim the modern day image of Santa Claus was created by Coca-Cola but the original red-suited Santa became popular in the US and Canada in the 19th century due to the influence of caricaturist and cartoonist Thomas Nast.
And his helpers aren’t always elves
In the Netherlands, Sinter Klaas has helpers, but they are not elves. Instead they have black-painted faces and can steal your children if they misbehave, and take them to back Spain from where Sinter Klaas arrives, according to the Dutch, a severe punishment.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
For a Christmas to be officially classified as “white” a single snowflake needs to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25th December on the rooftop of the Met Office headquarters in London. The Met Office also analyses the data from its observing stations across the UK to provide a clearer picture of where snow has fallen on Christmas day. The last widespread white Christmas in the UK was in 2010, according to the Met Office. Technically, 2015 was also a white Christmas in the UK with 10 per cent of weather stations recording snow falling, however none reported any snow lying on the ground.