A Little Yuletide History: How Old is That Tradition?


The holiday season is about doing the same things as the year before – that’s tradition. But how old are today’s Christmas practices? Explore a little Yuletide history.

There are some Christmas traditions which seem as American as apple pie, long-standing practices that make the holiday what it is. But some of the oldest Christmas traditions in the U.S. didn’t start out in America. How old is that holiday tradition?

Hanging Mistletoe

See a sprig, exchange a kiss. That’s the tradition of mistletoe, though it didn’t come widely into practice as part of holiday celebration until the Victorian Era. Though the Victorian Era was very strict in both manner and dress, 19th-century citizens embraced the idea of sharing kisses under a plant. Most experts agree this tradition stems from rituals performed by ancient Druids. Mistletoe was powerful because it grew from the oak tree, considered to have special powers by the ancient Celts. Mistletoe was often used during Solstice celebrations, and in parts of Europe was hung over doorways to prevent witches from entering the home.

Europe took the kissing tradition of mistletoe to new levels, enhancing the practice with superstition. It was believed any lady who did not receive a kiss while standing under the mistletoe was doomed not to marry before next Christmas, and to this day some people in England burn the mistletoe on Twelfth Night. If they don’t, those who have kissed under the mistletoe will never marry.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees first became widely popular in England, again during the Victorian Era. Christmas trees were a part of court life during Victoria’s time at Windsor Castle, but it was an 1848 picture of the royal family standing around their Christmas tree that catapulted the custom into regular household use. The idea of Christmas trees quickly took root in England and spread across the pond to the States, where it was adopted by the upper-class.

The American south embraced Christmas celebration more readily than those in the north, and Christmas trees soon appeared in the more affluent households. Most historians agree that the original practice of decorating trees at Christmas can be traced to Germany in the 16th century, though it didn’t widely take hold until a few centuries passed. Throughout the 19th century, Christmas trees were decorated with handmade ornaments, usually baked and decorated cookies and other small edibles.

Gifts and Santa Claus

Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Pere Noel – the man’s had a lot of names. His tradition, which is believed to begin with St. Nicholas, spans many areas of the globe and has become a staple of Christmas custom. But gift-giving, which is associated with Santa, was not a part of Christmas tradition in the U.S. for many years. In the early 19th century when Christmas as a celebration began to emerge in the States, it was not custom to give gifts to friends and family members. Southern landowners of the day often doled out yearly rations to their slaves during Christmas, sometimes including small tokens, but offering gifts was not common even at Christmastime. The gift-giving tradition did not take root in the U.S. until the late 19th and 20th centuries, making it one of the newest holiday traditions in the entire history of Christmas.