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Origins of Modern Christmas Traditions

Dec 11th, 2023

Ever wondered where our Christmas traditions come from? Like, who sent the first Christmas card, shaped the first candy cane or hid an elf on a shelf?

We’ve already delved into the origins of Santa Claus and some of the ancient Yule festivities that inspired many modern traditions, but here are a few less-ancient holiday traditions that you might see today!

7 popular holiday symbols and where they came from

Candy canes

The iconic red-and-white-striped candy canes are one of the top-selling candies around the holidays, with around 1.76 billion of the sugary sweets sold each year!

But while they’re a common sight in holiday decorations today, we aren’t one-hundred percent sure where they came from. Most candy scholars (yes, that’s a real job!) believe that they most probably emerged in the 17th century when confectioners were just learning how to pull sugar into sugar sticks — then, the hooked versions started emerging in Germany around the same time.

Why the hook? Well, there’s a theory that a choirmaster got fed up with how much his choirboys were chatting during practice, so he gave them the sweets as a way to get them to sit still and stay quiet. Apparently, he added a hook to the sweet to convince the rest of the church that they were religious icons meant to represent the shepherds’ hooks, though we aren’t really sure if any of it is true. It’s a good story, though!

Holiday cards

Though they’re fun ways to stay in touch with friends and family today, holiday cards started out being very, very odd. 

As in, dead-birds-and-giant-mosquitos-chasing-children kind of weird.

The mid 1800s saw the emergence of cheaper postage rates in England and the rise in mass-produced greeting cards, so sending cards was a pretty commonplace thing. And while the Victorians certainly celebrated Christmas, they didn’t really have any of the classic iconography that we have today. So, naturally, they looked to make their holiday greetings a little more, well, memorable.

This led to a rise in bizarre images that incorporated floral symbolism, odd curiosities, the occult and more. Victorians, you know?

Christmas pickle

On a tree full of cute, cozy ornaments, a dill pickle in a Santa hat certainly seems a little out of place.

The origin behind the tradition of incorporating a pickle into holiday décor is, like a jar of dill brine, a little murky. Though it’s touted as a German tradition, it’s not really very popular there and there are very few who practice the tradition of hiding the Weihnachtsgurke (“Christmas pickle”). 

There are two prevailing theories. The first is that a Bavarian soldier was close to death and asked for a pickle on his deathbed — he was cured entirely and, as a token of thanks, hung a pickle on his Tannenbaum every year afterward. The second theory is that the German town of Spreewald hung pickles on their trees as decoration since the region was so well known for making pickles.

Whatever really happened, we can’t be sure. All we know for sure is that the German store Woolworths started selling glass ornaments in the late 1800s and successfully marketed a decorative pickle to the masses. Since then, hiding the Weihnachtsgurke in the tree has become a tradition, and the first one to find it is either allowed to open their gifts first or receive a special gift!

Elf on the shelf

This tradition isn’t as old as you think it is, since it’s based on a book that only came out in the past twenty years!

The fun tradition originated from a children's book titled "Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition" written by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. The book, which explains that elves are sent from Santa Claus to watch over children and report back to him about their behavior throughout the year, was published in 2005 and came with a Scout Elf, a small plush elf that families would hide in their homes each night during the Christmas season.

Gingerbread houses

Gingerbread houses were popular in medieval Europe, particularly in Germany where bakers crafted elaborate gingerbread structures depicting castles, churches or other notable buildings. The publication of the Grimm's fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" in 1812 further popularized the gingerbread house concept, sparking imaginations and fueling the tradition of creating gingerbread houses for festivities and decoration.


In Germany during the 19th century, it was customary to decorate Tenenbaums with candles on Christmas Eve, creating a warm and festive atmosphere. After Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879, his associate Edward Johnson, wrapped red and white electric lights around a Christmas tree in his New York City apartment — which was the first recorded instance of using electric lights on a Christmas tree!

The first recorded instance of using colored lights outdoors came in 1914 when a Denver electrician created some colored lights to hang outside his sick son’s window to cheer him up, as he was too ill to go into the city to see the holiday decorations. Neighbors caught on, and outdoor lights as we know then today were born!


Joel Roberts Poinsett was an American diplomat who served as the first U.S. Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1832. During his time in Mexico, he was captivated by the vibrant red flowering plant known as Flor de Nochebuena (“Flower of the Holy Night”), which bloomed around the holidays. Poinsett was so taken with the plant that he brought several cuttings back to the United States in 1828.

Over a century later in the 1930s, Californian horticulturist Paul Ecke Sr. began mass-producing poinsettias, making them more affordable and accessible to the general public. Ecke's efforts played a significant role in solidifying the poinsettia's status as a Christmas symbol, and by 1986 it was the most popular potted plant in the country!


The tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill with gifts is thought to have originated from a legend about Saint Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop known for his generosity — the very guy who inspired the creation of Santa Claus!

According to one version of the story, Saint Nicholas, while walking through the town of Myra, overheard a father lamenting his poverty and inability to provide dowries for his three daughters, who would otherwise be forced into prostitution. That night, Saint Nicholas secretly tossed three bags of gold through the father's open window, landing them in the stockings that were hanging by the fireplace to dry.

As traditions around Saint Nicholas Day and Christmas evolved, the stockings legend lived on and is what inspired the tradition we have today!

All of these traditions have evolved over time and have the influence of many different peoples, beliefs and cultures. And who knows? Maybe Christmas in a hundred years will look totally different to how it looks today!


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Featured photo courtesy  Pixabay/pasja1000

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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