Featured, Society & People

The Origins of Christmas Traditions

This year, The Rock at Boston College is doing the season of joy in a big way by generating new content every day in our second annual “25 Days of Christmas”. The Rock is proud to present this installment in our holiday special.


Happy holidays, everyone! I had an article last year about the history of good ol’ Saint Nick, and this year I’m back to explain why we do some of the weird stuff Christmas is usually associated with. You know, like cutting down a tree and moving in inside your house for a month, and designating a plant for people to kiss under when you hang it above your doorway. What about going to a stranger’s house and singing to them, then immediately going to another’s? These are my findings.

The Christmas tree we have all come to know and love has drastically different origins than one might expect. Originally decorated with assorted fruits and nuts, it once stood as a symbol of fortitude and immortality during the winter celebrations. It also had divine ties for the Egyptians, Greeks, and downloadRomans–the Greeks and Romans believed that the mother of Adonis was turned into a fir tree and the Egyptians associating the god Baal-Tamar with a palm tree. So, it’s not necessarily the evergreen everyone thinks of, but many societies throughout history have placed a meaning to a tree, and the same goes for the Christmas tree.

The modern Christmas tree was brought about through the efforts of St. Boniface who, while converting Germanic tribes, cut down an enormous oak tree to be worshipped by the tribes. A fir tree grew in the oak tree’s place, and was viewed as a symbol of Christianity. The tribes then began decorating the fir tree for Christmas.

imagesMistletoe arises from Druid legend that mistletoe fell from heaven and grew on a tree that sprang from earth: the meeting of heaven and earth. In reality, however, mistletoe is just a parasitic plant that attaches to a tree and saps the nutrients from the trunk. Ahhhh love. It isn’t clear why kissing beneath mistletoe is a tradition. [Editor’s note: According to whychristmas.com, kissing under mistletoe may originate from the Norse belief that the plant represented love and friendship, but the tradition originated in England–those cheeky Brits!]

carolers-stockCaroling came about after the first Christmas hymns were composed in 4th century Rome. These Latin hymns were sung in churches for centuries, but the carols most similar to those we know today were developed in France, Germany, and Italy around the 13th century. These carols were written in the vernacular and were sung at festivals and celebrations. It was during the Protestant movement that these carols became numerous, and people were encouraged to sing them. It’s believed that our current tradition of going door-to-door arises from the public ceremonies that occurred during the Protestant movement.

There you are, a bunch of awesome Christmas traditions that bring to mind memories, family, and friends. Now, hopefully, when you decorate your tree or sing to strangers a carol, you’ll think of the tradition behind it. Not only are you taking part in something far bigger than yourself, but you’re also continuing the traditions for the future so that all of our great-great-great grandchildren can experience the holiday season in a similar way.

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