11 Christmas traditions from around the world – we explore the meaning behind Christmas rituals

Crackers, mince pies, a kiss under the mistletoe, Father Christmas, how and where did they all begin?

Christmas traditions
(Image credit: Future / Dan Duchars)

It’s the heart-warming rituals that we cherish and repeat year after year that makes the festive period so special, but did you know that putting up your Christmas tree, the giving and receiving of Christmas cards – along with our other favorite customs stems back many years…

1. Christmas tree

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Emma Lee)

The fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. 

Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to  come. 

The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia, which in time became Christmas. 

The Christmas tree became popular in the UK when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert brought one over from Germany in 1841 and placed it in Windsor Castle. They posed in front of it with their children for a newspaper article and it soon became  fashionable all over the country. 

2. Wreath

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future)

Even before the birth of Christ, and Christmas as we know it the wreath has been used as a symbol of honour and victory. 

In the Middle Ages it was  adopted by those of the Christian faith as a representation of the start of Christmas.

3. Evergreen foliage

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Jan Baldwin)

The tradition of using evergreen foliage around the time of the winter solstice dates back to pagan and Roman festivals. It symbolises the victory of life over darkness. 

Bringing greenery into the home was also thought to protect it from evil spirits that tried to gain entry during the winter months. 

4. Christmas cards

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Ben Anders)

Victorian Entrepreneur Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first Christmas card in the UK in 1843, as he was too busy to write individual greetings to friends.  

A thousand cards were printed and Cole sold those left over for 6d (about  2.5p). When the Royal family started sending Christmas cards, their popularity grew enormously. 

5. Stockings

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Adrian Briscoe)

St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was actually a 4th-Century Christian bishop in what is now a modern-day Turkey. 

Legend has it that he wanted to help a poor family who had three daughters, all in need of a dowry before they could marry. 

To give charity without injuring their pride, he threw gold coins down their chimney on Christmas Eve – and the coins fell in to a stocking that was hanging in the fireplace to dry.  

Today, many people put an orange in Christmas stockings to represent the gold coin.

6. Mistletoe

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / David Brittain)

This hardy plant was revered by the Druids for its ability to survive and remain green throughout the winter without roots. They harvested it during the winter solstice and used it for medical purposes. 

The Scandinavians associated the mistletoe  with their goddess of love, and the Romans saw it as a symbol of peace – both possibly leading to our belief that a kiss  underneath will lead to a year of good luck and for young  maidens the possibility of marriage. 

Mistletoe berries are poisonous if eaten and should be kept away from children.

7. Advent calendars

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Paul Raeside)

Advent is the start of the Christmas season and begins four Sundays before Christmas. However, advent calendars as we know them today begin on December 1 and count down 24 days to Christmas Eve. 

The countdown is said to originate in Germany in the early 19th-Century, with the Lutherans marking down the days until Christmas with chalk on their front doors. 

The first hand-made advent calendar was created in 1851.

8. Crackers

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Simon Brown)

Christmas crackers where invented by Thomas Smith, a London sweet maker, in 1846. 

He was inspired by French bonbons, which came in twists of colored paper, but Smith also popped in a love motto to his wrapped sweets. Then to add an extra  surprise, he included a strip of paper laced with chemicals that would crack when the twist was opened. Over time, the size of crackers increased and he replaced the sweets with a small gift.  

The fist Christmas crackers went on sale in London in 1847, and the rest, as they say, is history…. 

9. Father Christmas

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / David Brittain)

The patron saint of sailors and children, St Nicholas lived in Myrna (now modern day Turkey) in the 4th-Century. 

His generosity was legendary, and he was made a saint when he died and given his own feast day, originally on December 6th. 

Later, this led to him becoming associated with the Christian celebrations around the birth of Jesus. 

In Holland, his name evolved to Sinterklaas and then to Santa Clause when Dutch  settlers in America brought with them the tradition of leaving out clogs to be filled with presents. 

In 19th-Century England, the poem A Visit from St Nicholas, eventually published as T’Was the Night Before Christmas described the jolly, red-face, white bearded Father Christmas that we now know so well. 

10. Christmas baubles

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Emma Lee)

By the 1880s the German town of Lauscha, was renowned for its glass industry –producing hand-cast lead and hand-blown glass balls which were sold at the Christmas markets. 

Germany remained the main producer of glass baubles up until mass production was developed in the USA, following the two world wars.

11. Mince pies

Christmas traditions

(Image credit: Future / Polly Wreford)

Mince Pies were originally filled with meat as well as dried fruit and spices. It’s  thought they were brought to Britain in the 13th-Century by returning Crusaders  who’d enjoyed Middle Eastern dishes combining meat, fruit and spices.  

Often called Christmas pies, they were first oval shaped to represent Jesus’ manger. 

Later the Victorians left out the meat but retained the three spices, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to represent the three wise men. 

Tradition says we should eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas to ensure twelve months of good luck. Refuse a mince pie and bad luck could follow. Ah, so now we have an excuse to indulge.