Decorating the home is a Christmas tradition, but have you ever wondered where these holiday rituals come from? We’ll take a look at the origins behind some of the most popular holiday decorations.
It’s not Christmas without the smell of fresh pine needles filling the home. The Christmas tree is one of the most cherished holiday traditions, and the first versions of an indoor tree started to appear in Germany more than 500 years ago, slowly spreading across Europe from there. However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the tradition really took off when it got a boost from a British monarch. Queen Victoria was particularly fond of the tradition and in 1848 a newspaper report of her tree in Windsor Castle caused the practice to spread to the British upper class. By the early 20th century, a Christmas tree could be found in most Christian homes in the U.S. and Britain, decorated with a string of lights, baubles and tinsel.
A Kiss Beneath the Mistletoe
In the forest, mistletoe is a bit of a scourge, a parasitic plant that latches on to trees and feeds off of them. But at Christmas, it becomes a symbol of romance. So where did the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe come from? The plant’s association with romance dates back to ancient Norse mythology. By the 18th century, stealing a kiss beneath the mistletoe became a common practice among British servants and the tradition spread from there. According to the tradition, it’s bad luck to refuse a kiss beneath the mistletoe. After the kiss, the couple is to pluck one of the berries from the plant. Once all the berries are gone, the bough no longer has the power to command kisses. So if you hang a bough of mistletoe this year, make sure it has plenty of berries on it.
Baking up a batch of gingerbread cookies is a surefire way to fill a house with the smells of Christmas. But when did this potent mix of spices take on its Christmas connection?
Ginger isn’t native to Europe, and it wasn’t until the era of the Crusades that traders began to bring the spice back from the Middle East. As the spice trade picked up in Europe, gingerbread cookies became much more common. In the 16th century, we see the first appearance of gingerbread men — a practice credited to Queen Elizabeth I who wanted to impress some visiting dignitaries, so she created a cookie in the image of each person. The Brothers Grimm can probably take credit for the invention of the gingerbread house. The tale of Hansel and Gretel, first published in the early 1800s, is likely the first reference to these edible structures, and German bakers soon followed with their own versions. German immigrants to the U.S. brought the tradition with them, and many Americans have been practicing increasingly complex and record breaking feats of confectionary engineering ever since.
In stockings across the country, beneath the trinkets and the candy canes, you’ll usually find a single Mandarin orange nestled in the toe. But why give the gift of an orange on Christmas morning? According to legend, it all goes back to the real life St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop with a heart for the poor. Upon learning of an impoverished father with no money for his daughters’ dowry, St. Nick is said to have dropped sacks of gold into their stockings, which were set by the fire to dry. Over time, oranges have come to symbolize the sacks of gold and remind people of this first act of holiday gift giving.